Written by Ben Griffin
For Slightly Mad Studios, the clue's in the name. They've started this new driving sim in the middle of producing the massively ambitious Project CARS. This, their other racer, bills itself as a globe-trotting free-to-play MMO where gamers the world over form clans, pimp cars and tear up tracks from Moscow to Monaco. Think World of Tanks with plush leather interiors.
However, the confirmation of that precisely zero-pound pricetag could prompt eyerolls. There's no denying that – whisper it – microtransactions have a certain stigma; how will Slightly Mad keep fans from having their tires spiked by such a business model? Creative director Andy Tudor bristles at the term. “Stop saying free-to-play. I never said that. I said you could download the game for free. You can play the game for free, and you can compete at the highest tier. You can get all the best stuff in the game and you'll never have to pay a penny, yeah?” Tellingly about three minutes later he slips: “But as I said, the game is completely free-to-play.” Um.
Clearly there's confusion here, a kneejerk defensiveness that doubles back on itself. “It is very obvious and very annoying when you feel disadvantaged when someone spends money in the game and therefore wins,” says Tudor. “That's payto- win... We think it's terrible. Where microtransactions do come in, that's because we all have very busy schedules and devices to play on and our time is so limited. As a player, it's a godsend if I'm given an opportunity to accelerate my time through the game.”
Isn't this the same point masquerading as two different answers? So it's annoying when people spend money to win, but it's OK if they're in a rush? You hate it when other people 'accelerate' through the game, but it's somehow fine when you inject your experience with a little go-faster cash? It's worth noting that the second Shift game had paid-for shortcuts, yet it was still a full-price release. The free-to-play model can work, but in dodging simple questions such as 'what are you charging for?' (Tudor mentions gold rims before clamming up), it's hard to figure out Slightly Mad's business model here.
Pricing confusion aside, World of Speed is a grab bag of good ideas. Mid-race objectives, for example, are very Project Gotham. You might be asked to trade paint with an opponent, draft for ten seconds, drift around a chicane or avoid taking damage for a period of time. Objectives are randomly picked from a pool, but in cases where they contradict each other (wasn't it Plato who once pondered how it is one can both drift and draft?) they are specifically assigned. Interestingly, objectives are achievable regardless of what position you're in – World of Speed is not a game in which the fastest driver wins.
Four is the lucky number here. Four versus four is the maximum player count. The average length of a race is four minutes. There are four different objectives for each player. This number wasn't an accident. Slightly Mad learned from Need for Speed: Shift's team-based DLC, in particular about making sure everyone on the team contributes. Mandatory objectives, for example, provide a framework for strategies that don't all tend towards 'get to the finish first'. It's hoped players will adopt roles, whether blocker, wingman, drifter or drafter, and tune their cars accordingly.
If the objectives are Project Gotham, the Territory Wars game mode is Driveclub. Here, if you post the fastest time on a track, your team's logo gets plastered across it for all to view. Then there's the Test Drive Unlimited clubhouse where you can paint cars, tinker with engines and invite friends over to walk around awkwardly. And there's the Airfield, a small hub resembling Dirt 3's Battersea Power Station and similarly stuffed with minigames.
As for the handling, it tends towards Midnight Club. You'll burn blue nitro down Moscow straights, smash benches by the Thames and take ramp-filled shortcuts in Monaco. “When it comes to competitors for World of Speed, we don't really think there are any,” Tudor says. “We look at games like Grid, Project Gotham and Burnout Paradise, but we really want to forge our own path.”
The drip-feed of fresh cars, tracks and modes will, I'm told, continue for years. When I asked about the ability to customise drivers, the answer was not “no,” but “we're not discussing that yet.” Provided Slightly Mad don't just drop the game and run, there's potential here for a something unique: a platform. A constantly evolving racers' paradise.
World of Speed looks set to plug a gap in the market – that of the massively multiplayer online racer. For Tudor, the format makes perfect sense. “What do you do in an MMO? You race through the game, you earn stuff, you craft new items, you play as a team to beat quests, you go on raids. It's like, 'yeah, that fits a racing game spot-on.'” Whether that divisive free-toplay model will intrude on what is otherwise a fresh and exciting racing game remains to be seen.