Thomas Rowson investigates whether video games are starting to be a match for reality
My dad got an Xbox One for his birthday, and now it’s all we hear about. The thing is always referred to in full as well, as the Xbox One; it’s like living in a Microsoft advert. He’s become quite addicted to F1 2015, and is working his way through the season. We were sat in the living room watching the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and the coverage cut to an onboard camera. ‘It looks just like the game on my Xbox One!’
To be fair, it did. And it’s not just on TV that it looks that realistic, but in the flesh too. I’ve been to Silverstone a couple of times and to Austin, Texas; they look the same as they do virtually. Last year the old man had to go to Singapore for work, and he was pointing out landmarks on the game as he went round the track, basically showing me where he had been. It’s almost a replacement for slideshows of pictures from your hollibobs.
I’ve done this with the Grand Theft Auto games. GTA IV is set in the fictional Liberty City, which is based on real-world New York City. Likewise, in GTA V, Los Angeles and the surrounding area is the model for Los Santos and San Andreas and the rest of the world. I’ve been to both places and used the games when I’ve got home to show people where I went. You may think that it’s just the major landmarks that are replicated, like the Empire State building, the Statue of Liberty, or the Hollywood sign, but there’s actually a lot more. Okay, a fair bit of artistic license is used, but that’s to be expected; as big as the maps are for games, they’re much, much smaller than the actual locales. Yet it’s surprising how much you can find that is from the real world. Casually driving around San Andreas, I’ll spot places that I recognise: ‘I’ve been there!’ When I was in New York a few years ago, the knowledge of the Liberty City map that I accrued from playing the game far too much (instead of writing essays) genuinely helped me navigate my way around when I started to get a little lost. These games don’t just look fantastic; they look right.
The advance in video game graphics over the last few years has been incredible, and there’s no let-up in sight. But this is just how it looks; the question is, is the gameplay getting any closer to reality?
The question is, is the gameplay getting any closer to reality?
Sadly, I’ve never driven a Formula One car to compare it. I’m a little over 6’4”, which is a tad too tall to get in the car. Getting out would be interesting too. Similarly, when I went to LA and NYC, I was a very law-abiding citizen. I didn’t shoot anyone, and didn’t rob a single bank. As such, I know that these games are pretty good at looking like the real world, but no idea if they feel like it. Fortunately, my holiday last year might help answer that question…
It’s July 2016, a couple of days after my 25th birthday, and I’m in California. It’s hot. The sun is beating down, and the heat haze coming off the tarmac distorts the yellow lines running down the middle of the road. I’ve got 450 miles to cover. Thankfully, my hire car is well ventilated. It’s a sixth generation Ford Mustang, convertible, powered by a 3.7 litre V6. The roof is down; Don Henley is playing on my iPod. I’ve got my hair slicked back and my sunglasses on, baby. The road is the Pacific Coastal Highway. I am in heaven.
Why is this relevant? Well, I can use this to see how video games compare to an experience, not just visuals. You see, the Mustang is available to drive on Forza 6, and one of the tracks on Project Cars is California Highway One, better known as the PCH. Let’s see how close I can get to having the same buzz in Colchester that I got in The Golden State.
Forza is up first, as I’m desperate to drive the car again. Admittedly, it’s the 5.0 litre V8 GT version on the game, which is technically a better car. It’s the hardtop too, so the aerodynamic performance should be superior, as should the stability. I’ve gone for Long Beach, a street track, so that I’m in the right part of the world on the right kind of tarmac. Ignoring the fact that there is a Ferrari badge on my console’s steering wheel, I get ready to relive my Mustang experience. I charge down to the first corner and, about 400 metres from the apex, throw on the anchors.
Over in California, I was expecting the car to be a typical American muscle car: good on the straights, but a nightmare in the corners. Not a bit of it. I’m surprised to find it corners really well. It’s consistent, well weighted, and if you treat it right it will hit every single apex. Sure, an Audi R8 will be a little better on the nose, but for what it is, it’s exceptional. On Forza, it’s completely the opposite. The thing understeers like a pig. I turn it into the corner, and it washes wide. I’m waiting for it to turn. Still waiting. Still waiting. I decide now might be a good time to start writing my memoirs. I’ve got to the point where I’m starting sixth form, and finally the car realises we’re in a corner. We’ve missed the apex by a long way; it’s like we were avoiding a Routemaster parked right on the corner.
To try and fix that, I make some rather drastic changes to my driving style; something I didn’t have to do at all in the actual car. Normally, I use a little bit of trailbraking to keep the car stable in the corners, but that’s really not suiting the GT. I try braking earlier, turning in earlier, and try to unsettle the rear to help the car pivot. None of it works, and the barrier is getting closer. I end up having to use a slight dab of handbrake to force the backend out. This isn’t how you drive a car, let alone drive a car fast. The brakes are woeful too, and I’m having to start slowing down the car so far away from the corner. At least here it’s reasonably similar to the real world. The brakes on the Mustang didn’t give me a huge amount of confidence, and there was a worrying amount of fade from them. Admittedly, I was driving the car quite hard, but all within the limit of the law; it shouldn’t struggle so much.
I decide now might be a good time to start writing my memoirs. I’ve got to the point where I’m starting sixth form, and finally the car realises we’re in a corner
It’s a shame that the ‘stang isn’t in the garage on Project Cars, so in its place I go for the Focus RS. The power is about the same, around the 300hp mark, but has four wheel drive whereas the Mustang sends all of its horses to the back. It’s not the same car, but it’s about as close as I can get. I load up the 12.83 mile course of California Highway Full, select first gear, and pull away.
Immediately, I’m into a series of switchbacks within spitting distance of the coast. The first thing I notice about the Focus is how, under braking, the rear end is very lively, and the whole car squirrels. It’s got quite a heavy-feeling front end, so I try to exploit this skittishness to counter the slight understeer and force the nose into the corner. The result is a series of four-wheel drifts, yet it works. The barriers on the outside of the corners approach fast when you drive like this, but the car grips up just in time and I push on to the next corner. Some sections of the track are very similar to the real world, if not copies of; there’s one hairpin in particular that looks exactly like one where I was caught behind some very slow traffic. The camber of the road matches my memory too. It feels like the PCH. The layout, the flow, the scenery; this is California.
I’m about halfway through the course, and I fly across a bridge. Sadly, it’s not the beautiful, iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, that oh-so-famous bridge that was genuinely amazing to drive across, but instead is a big grey thing. It also marks the end of the fun. From this point on, it’s largely straight line Interstate-style roads, which is as boring on the game as it is in the real world. The only plus point is that it’s much easier on the tyres, and the Focus has used over ¾ of the fronts by this point. Coming off the bridge at about 140mph, there’s a reasonably tight right hander immediately after a long left kink. Braking down with just a small bit of steering lock, the backend snaps and I have a rather massive shunt. Thankfully, games have a reset button, unlike reality. I can hear and feel that the RS is quite badly damaged, but it’s still together enough to get to the end. It’s hard work keeping it in a straight line, although that does at least make the tedious straights a little more interesting.
So, to answer the question ‘do games give us a realistic feel to the real world’, the answer has got to be: not yet. They look incredible, to the extent that it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart, but there’s still a way to go until we get the experience that goes with it. The first half of the Project Cars track got pretty close, in a way that Forza really didn’t, and it is far cheaper: £20 versus £2,000. I’m fairly certain that we will get there, but for now there really is no substitute for getting your Wayfarers, a Don Henley CD, and cruising the Pacific Coastal Highway with the top pulled down and that radio on, baby. California, here I come!