Adventures in simulation racing: Part 1
Learning more about the real and the virtual
This is a post that I've been dwelling on for quite a while. And as it concerns somewhat of a niche activity and one which can prove to be quite technically complex at first I wasn't sure how to address it or even where to begin... Before I continue its probably fair to point out that this niche activity that I wish to discuss, or at least my own experiences of it is becoming more and more commonplace each year as the available technology improves and the cost of investing in equipment comes down.
Where it all began, sort of...
My first personal computer (PC) was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 and my first driving simulation related video game, or at least the title I can remember was Chequered Flag released in 1983 pictured below. It's kind of basic as you can see but the game was presented in colour however at the time I wasn't aware of this as mine was connected to a small portable black & white TV set and I used the keyboard for controls. Below on the right a mock-up of how the setup would have appeared as I don't have the computer anymore nor any photos of it the setup I had at the time.
At the time of course I didn't question it, it was my first proper computer and as there were no video arcades available locally as we lived in a rural area I had nothing to compare it to. We did have a cartridge-based video game console at one point when I was younger but there was nothing available for it like this. That's not to say that this newer machine was technically a lot more powerful, although it certainly looked the part. And it all looked (albeit in black and white) and sounded cool!
On the right a YouTube video of the game I found, and in colour of course. As you can see Chequered Flag wasn't very realistic and course it couldn't have been as the complete game was less that fifty kilobytes (kb) in size. I do recall at the time wondering why the games when played never looked like they appeared on the box art illustrations, some examples below. And you had to load a game from a standard cassette tape each time you wanted to play it...
Many years & technological advances later
Video games and in particular driving simulation games have come a long way since the days of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. On video game consoles and home computers there have been several long running franchises such as Gran Turismo on PlayStation or Forza Motorsport on Xbox and cross-platform series such as Colin McRae Rally and Need for Speed. I never really played any of those, to tell the truth I never owned a later generation console which I guess was part of it. I do recall trying out some driving games in video arcades over the years though, something like Sega Rally or Namco's Outrun. What I do remember is being excited and most of all was the feeling of having to insert several coins when I never had too many and then it was all over far too soon.
More recently most of my gaming has been on a Windows PC and it was the advent of the Steam digital games store that sort of kick-started my interest in driving simulation games. I also own some driving games that are not on Steam but it's there that most of the driving simulation focused titles I own are available. On the left a screenshot of my library of driving simulation titles on Steam. By now I have so many and never enough time to play them all as is the case for most of us these days no matter what the game genre. I've heard it referred to as Steam Library paralysis, you have so many games to play you don't know which one to choose.
The first more recent title that got me started with simulation or sim racing as it's more commonly referred to was DiRT 3 by Codemasters in the UK. This isn't strictly a simulation focused title, rather referred to as arcade or simcade where the reference to arcade is literally that, a pick up and play title that's relatively simple to play that you might find in a local video arcade.
Actually on a trip with the family last year I came across an arcade machine version of the original GRID also by Codemasters, a game which is now in my Steam library. And like many years ago I put in several coins although this time the session lasted a bit longer as I'd sort of had a lot more practice. Although the included driving wheel and pedals are were nowhere near what I now have at home, but more on that later.
DiRT 3 is indeed a more arcade focused title, designed primarily for video game consoles and to be played using a game controller such as the Xbox 360 controller which is what I started with. And at the time and just like many years ago on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum I sort of didn't question it. I played the games I had with the low-end PC and input method I had and I enjoyed it which is the primary point of any video game.
DiRT 3 has been criticized for the dudebro attitude of the presentation, and what I mean by that is the Ken Block style car tricks (Ken is a rally and X-Games style driver) with jumps, drifting and gymkhana style events. And with the in-game voice-over using words like awesome!, you get the point. But behind all of that were actual real world rally cars which is the core of what the Colin McRae Rally and DiRT series is about. And it was the aesthetic of the onscreen presentation and car selection that intrigued me the most. As well as the soundtrack used in the menu screens and when starting events. Full versions of the music tracks as playlists can now be found on YouTube and Spotify.
I'm adding a quick slideshow of screenshots of the DiRT 3 menu screens below. These include images of Colin McRae's R4 the rally car Colin had been developing from 2005 before his tragic death in 2007. And the classic Group B all-wheel-drive Audi Quattro which dominated the World Rally Championship (WRC) in the 1980s.
Below on the left Colin McRae's R4 as it appears in in DiRT 3 and on the right from the Goodwood Festival Of Speed in the UK in 2007 which sadly is listed as Colin's final public appearance.
Below on the left the signature vehicle as featured on the box art of DiRT3, Ken Block's Fiesta RS WRC. And below on the right two toy versions of that car by Hot Wheels that I picked up for my son around the time I began playing DiRT 3. I guess it was all part of liking the design aesthetic of both the cars and the game.
In late April 2015 Codemasters released DiRT Rally as part of the Steam Early Access platform on PC. There were no video trailers or media announcements prior to the launch, it just appeared one day taking everyone by surprise. I recall reading somewhere that the Community Manager for the game had published it without the prior consent of management at Codemasters but in the end the risk was worth it. The title was later officially released on Steam in December 2015 and all those who had purchased an Early Access copy received a copy of the release version. And in April 2016 the game also released for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Many like me purchased a copy the day it was released on Early Access and followed the development of the game as they released additional cars, tracks and game modes. Paul Coleman the game designer was the voice of the co-driver for all rally events and Paul and the team produced a monthly DiRT Show live stream to coincide with the release of updates. There appeared to be a concerted effort to incorporate community feedback into the final product which at the time felt like something special, I mean to feel like you were participating in the development of the product. And where the team appeared to be doing their utmost given the technology and car and track licences they had to work with. That's not to say that the game is perfect, no game is, and to this day many feel it lacks content in terms of rally locations and which indeed it does.
Similar to how DiRT 3 in a sense captures a moment in time with rallying icons such as Colin McRae's R4, DiRT Rally in a way does the same. Featured on the box art of DiRT Rally is the Volkswagen Polo R WRC as driven by Sébastien Ogier which dominated the World Rally Championship (WRC) for several years. And which is now also a piece of rally history as the Volkswagen team pulled out of the WRC. And Ogier for the 2017 championship was driving a Ford Fiesta, a later version of the model featured on the box art of DiRT 3.
It was time to invest in a wheel
In terms of the presentation and game play DiRT Rally was most definitely not DiRT 3 as the focus was more on the simulation side of things. In terms of how difficult the game can be some have referred to it as the Dark Souls of driving games, those who know about video games will know what that means. And I too quickly realised that driving with an Xbox 360 controller wasn't going to cut it. So to progress in the game and to overall try and experience all it had to offer it was time to invest in a driving wheel of some kind.
I found available locally a second-hand Logitech Driving Force GT (often referred to as DFGT) including a foldable Wheel Stand Pro. A bad image of the setup on the left as I later sold it, more on that later. The wheel was designed for use with Gran Turismo on the PlayStation 3 (hence the reference to GT) and PC and is a good wheel for beginners like me and to be honest I still am, as it includes force feedback and 900° of wheel rotation. And the overall setup proved useful as I wasn't in a position to have the wheel unit permanently mounted to a desk.
As the original gear shifters located on the back of the wheel were small and not so comfortable to use I later added a modification for gear shifting paddles which I purchased online from granturgismo.com.
And a side note related to that, in the age of the internet there's a guy in the US producing modifications for a popular PC driving wheel originally launched in 2007. According to Steam I've played DiRT Rally for over two hundred hours which I recall was greatly aided by the addition of the paddle shifters.
DiRT Rally was in a way a stripped down title, gone were the drifting and gymkhana style events as the focus was more on pure rally although they did add rallycross and hillclimb events later on. And it was while playing and following the development of DiRT Rally that I learned so much more about the sport of rallying.
I'm by no means a petrolhead and I don't mean to use the term in a derogatory manner, what I mean is I appreciate learning about cars more so from the design and technology point of view as I greatly admire those who can design and build the things. And titles like DiRT Rally, apart from being purely a video game are also a record of the level of design and technology available to the motor industry in the past and up to the present day. And while many of the car brands and models I was already familiar with there were so many that I had never heard of and rally variants of familiar models that were also new to me. And it was interesting to see a range of rally cars from the 1960's & 70's all the way up to the present day.
On the right is a quick slideshow of some of the rally cars presented in the game the number of which increased as development continued during the Steam Early Access period. And among the classic rally cars featured are the Subaru Impreza driven by the late great Richard Burns who also passed away in late 2005. And the Ford Focus RS Rally as driven by Colin McRae.
Richard won the WRC in 2001 following Colin's dramatic crash during the 2001 Rally GB event held in Wales. Images of of the real cars included below. If I recall correctly the Colin's Martini branded livery wasn't available officially in DiRT Rally but a modification was available online to add it if you wished.
A few years ago my son received a gift from my mother of an old radio controlled car that no longer functioned, pictured below on the right. At the time it was obvious that it was a Subaru Impreza but it was only when later playing DiRT Rally that I realised that it was Richard Burns' 2001 WRC version.
And more recently my kids received a gift of a Scalextric set for Christmas and the brochure included with the set featured several classic and contemporary rally cars. Again a minor point but it was more interesting to have a look at the available range of slot cars when I actually knew what they were.
I'll add a quick video of DiRT Rally that I uploaded to YouTube. There's no commentary included which is probably better since attempting to drive the stages shown and talk at the same time would prove to be even more of a challenge.