Gunning for the leaders in Auto Club Revolution [Preview]

21 Dec 2011  by   Paul Younger
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A free-to-play, browser-based title is about the last place I’d expect to find an option to upgrade a ‘high lift racing camshaft’, but that’s exactly the kind of crossover appeal that Auto Club Revolution (ACR) is aiming for.
Developed by Eutechnyx (a team that has a fair bit of experience in the racing field), ACR is hoping to occupy that difficult stretch of roadway between ease of use and specialised knowledge. It’s a title where you can set a Facebook-esque ‘status update’ in your profile, but still be laughed at for not knowing what ‘compression ratio’ is.

In this beta version, I was able to take a look at a few ‘E class’ cars (class divisions eh, no wonder these autos want a revolution), race on four different tracks and dabble with the upgrade system. I also had to use Google Chrome to access the site properly, because it currently seems to hate Firefox with a passion (I wasn’t even able to check my in-game mail, let alone start an actual race).

Anyway, once that was sorted out I did what any red-blooded racer would do and visited the workshop section to play around with painting my freebie starter car in pretty, pretty colours. Well, to be more precise, I painted my 2008 Opel Astra OPC Nurburgring in a shade of purple Prince would be proud of, made the wheel spokes yellow and shoved an image of a vinyl record on the side (it was either that or a giant Uncle Sam hat).
While it’s not inexhaustible, the decorative aspect of the workshop provides enough colour and image options to keep the dedicated car-painting fetishist engaged for a fair amount of time.
Once you’re satisfied that the colour-scheme you’ve chosen is so horrific that opposing drivers will literally swerve off the track in shock when they see you, it’s time to find a race. This is where ACR smartly takes a cue from more casual games, because both the big ‘ol ‘Race Now’ button and the simple lobby system make it quick and easy to get on the track.
I only really saw a couple of problems here; it was difficult to figure out how experienced the other drivers were (making it tough to avoid races I stood no chance in), and on one occasion the track loaded up with all of the other cars sat eerie and unmoving on the starting grid. That was a bit creepy.

The racing is powered by the increasingly-versatile Unity Engine, which does a respectable job in the graphics department while leaving plenty of room for scaling to slower systems (mine is six years old and ran it happily on medium-to-high settings). But you won’t spend much time looking at the scenery, because you’ll be trying to keep your wheels on the road.

Car handling is where ACR moves away from the stereotypical image of a social, free-to-play game and back towards the hardcore. It’s not quite pure simulation, but judicious use of the breaks and a fixation on following the ‘racing line’ is mandatory. If you go flying around a corner at 150 mph you’ll … well, not die, because as I said this isn’t a pure simulation … but you will bounce off a crash barrier or two and blow any chance of finishing on the podium.
The mighty 2008 Opel Astra OPC Nurburgring seemed to handle like a brick with other, smaller bricks weighing the sides of the first brick down, but since its ‘cornering’ stat was about as low as could be that made relative sense.
I found myself playing with the keyboard for the majority of the time, but I was also driving cars with automatic transmission. For a manual drive, I’d probably prefer to use the control pad option. It’s also possible (though I couldn’t test this, as I don’t have one) to hook up a racing wheel and drive with one of those, once again confirming that ACR has its sights on a slice of the serious racing crowd.

After each race, experience points and credits are doled out according to your performance on the track (as well as for general feats like the distance travelled), the latter of which can be used to buy other cars and fancy upgrades. Naturally, since this a free(ish) to play game there has to be a paid aspect too.
The real money portions weren’t implemented in this beta, but it seems you’ll be able to use cold, hard cash to shortcut your way to new vehicles and upgrades. While this will undeniably give people a head start over others (if they want it), as far as I can tell anything you can buy with real money will also be available through earned credits. Not quite ‘pay to win’ then, more ‘pay for an advantage, until you plateau and other people catch up’.

ACR also seems as if it may suffer from the usual problem associated with multiplayer games that have a ‘levelling up’ feature. This could turn out to be less of an issue in the final launch (when a larger player base will be present), but it was a bit demoralising to always be chasing around after cars that were more souped up than mine (thereby benefiting from greater acceleration, improved braking and better all-round performance). You get some consolation credits just for taking part and finishing the race, but coming towards the rear of the pack every time isn’t great, even with the promise of eventual rewards.
Still, there’s an impressive balance being achieved by ACR, providing enough to satisfy the more car-literate demographic (like real car manufacturers, baffling engine upgrades and tricky handling), decoration freaks who want to spend hours painting up their vehicles to look super pretty, and those who just want to hop into a race as soon as possible.
There’s a bit of a grinding aspect to the gathering of credits, but even this managed to work a strange magic on me. After a few hours I caught myself lusting after some brand new tires; and any browser game that has me that engaged, let alone about virtual tires, has to be doing most things right.

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