During the hustle and bustle of the 2014 Game Developers Conference, My.com and Slightly Mad Studios let Hardcore Gamer jump behind the wheel in World of Speed, the company’s new free-to-play, team-based, racing MMO. While that mouthful of sloppily conjoined tidbits may seem counteractive to one another — as racing and massive multiplayer gaming have yet to establish any solid foundation — there’s a lot to appreciate about Slightly Mad Studios’ zealous approach to both respective genres. The focus isn’t always on winning in World of Speed, at least not in the traditional sense. You can just as easily earn your keep by way of smart driving and objective completion. Trust us, plenty of eyebrows were raised, and the team spewing these words were subjected to a lady’s-night-at-the-bar-full of oddball stares.
It’s understandable, too. Chasing first place has long been the singular goal in racing games. There hasn’t been much variation to that tried-and-true formula, and most integrated feature sets have merely enhanced previously existing systems. World of Speed, however, isn’t all about meeting players’ expectations. The company wants to exceed them — at increasingly higher speeds, through frequent updates and a game service that doesn’t penalize those without bundles to invest. Unfortunately, no meaty explanation was provided, but we were assured that play-to-win wasn’t on the menu.
World of Speed is still a racing game at its core, and with that knowledge it’s clear that winning is very much the purpose. Trailing in last across every lap will greatly slow your overall progress in most scenarios, though, Slightly Mad is attempting to fix the restrictive format employed by most racing titles, allowing players of lesser skill to contribute within a group dynamic. In addition to the clever track design, which is littered with shortcuts to discover, the dangerous sharp turns, and a slew of easily avoided but oh-so-magnetic obstacles, there’s a bundle of objectives to chip through for each event. Even as your mates race ahead toward the finish line, your contribution in filling the progress bar at the top of the screen may be the vital push required to win any given match.
Crashing, for instance, is an end-all in most racing games. The split second it takes to shift into position and continue driving can have massively negative implications, and in an online environment such a system will encourage players to quit before completing an event. And while there’s rarely a situation where recovering in last place leads to a glorious comeback in World of Speed, a momentary lapse in judgment or slight slip of the finger doesn’t necessarily spell defeat. It changes the nature of play, sure, but the race is still yours to conquer. Rather than focus on trading paint with an opponent, you’ll drift alongside teammates, protecting them from oncoming rival-drivers. Can’t manage to reach the pack? Perform perfect turns, avoid damage or reach outrageous speeds for those sweet, sweet points.
Badges, too, are distributed throughout races, rewarding everything from damaging other players to reaching certain in-game landmarks. Some will require teamwork, further emphasizing the concept of cooperation, while others will suit more solo-minded drivers. Discovering and completing these little goals can shift the playing field entirely, encouraging players to constantly reconsider their strategy as the race develops. Those uninterested in teamwork will still find plenty to love, but a huge chunk of the fun comes from experimenting on the track with teammates. While there’s a lovely balance of “get the hell out of my way” and “help me get this chap the hell out of my way” through the streets, teamwork actually goes further than expected.
For example, in my first run, I handled World of Speed like any other racing game. I rushed for the finish line, blindly swerving like a drunken lunatic that had just heard some unfortunate news about his hospitalized puppy. I ended up finishing second, leaving behind buckets-full of my car’s paint on the walls of San Francisco. The second race was a different ball game, however. I followed my teammate, rather than the opponent, and used his less-than-stellar driving to my advantage. As he crashed into walls, cars, and pummeled through anything that wasn’t bolted to the sidewalk, I drove alongside his chaos, brushing sides with the opposing team and put some serious dents in the objectives list. Essentially, he was the shield to my sword, and I was able to amass quadruple the points by focusing on a strategy that better suited my play style — which, in racing games, is awful.
Another great incentive to group play is forming or participating in race clubs. While we didn’t get to tinker with this aspect of the game ourselves, we were told that it would serve as World of Speed’s take on MMO raids. Teams will be able to duke it out in various ultra-competitive tournaments for total dominance, resulting in bragging rights pasted across the track for the world to see. Social clubhouses, boastful logo placements and improvements all pepper the incentives list, as well. According to Slightly Mad, “It’ll be a struggle to maintain your position, but it’s worth it.” There’s an area where players can relax, share experiences, and showcase their vehicles as well, but we weren’t able to peer beyond the description provided.
The locations you’ll be fighting for, which are part of the game’s roster of tracks, are all based on real world places. While we were limited to San Francisco in our hands-on demo, the level of detail was quite astounding. The recognizable landmarks that litter the surroundings are all accurately depicted, and the cars, too, are a treat for the peepers. Both inside and out, beautiful touches paint every surface, making World of Speed easily mistaken for a realistic simulator, rather than a competitive online racer. That illusion, of course, is shattered once the controller meets your hands.
Most shocking, perhaps, are the controls — which aren’t quite what you’d expect. Jumping into World of Speed with a Need for Speed attitude will result in a bumper full of wall, despite the arcade-like similarities. There’s a rhythm to learn, turning mechanics that need to be mastered over time, and brakes that dance with the speed of your vehicle, rather than halter your momentum. Indeed, handling demands improvement, but it’s foundation — the very core of the gameplay — is sound, and Slightly Mad explained that issues with vehicle maneuverability are well known and currently being addressed. Most importantly, perhaps, is that driving is fun.
Our demo wasn’t a long one, but it did make one thing abundantly clear: World of Speed isn’t a traditional racing game, nor does it try to be. The licensed circuits, track designs, visuals and car selection may confuse those taking their firsts steps into its realm, as they can easily paint a misguided picture of the experience, but Slightly Mad has something unique up their sleeve. World of Speed isn’t exclusive to the hardcore racing fans, but an open invitation to those without the chops to cut through the Gran Turismo leaderboards. There’s room for different play styles to mesh, and players are rewarded for their strengths, not penalized for their weaknesses. Sure, there are kinks to work out, and errors to correct, but World of Speed may very well be the future of racing games. And that’s something of an attractive prospect.