Shifting Gears

Racing games have been around for a long time, and several top-quality franchises immediately spring to mind for anyone with an affinity for tearing up the asphalt. But when you narrow it down to free-to-play racing games for the PC, that list shrinks significantly. So, Slightly Mad Studios—best known for the pair of Need for Speed: Shift games they’ve worked on—decided to act a bit like their namesake in order to try to mix things up. Not only do they hope to succeed in an environment that hasn’t been great for racing games, but they also want to provide something different than what’s offered by the few competitors already in the space.

Enter World of Speed, a racing MMO that hopes to deliver the look and feel of a triple-A racer while simultaneously connecting players via a social experience they usually don’t get from other games of this ilk. Sure, the game has brilliant HD graphics like Forza and all the tracks and real-world locales you’d expect from Gran Turismo, but the hook here lies in trying to win races and contests in teams and as part of larger clubs. Not to mention that, of course, since the game is free-to-play and on PC, new tracks and cars can be added at any time.

Team-based racing in and of itself isn’t necessarily a new thing, though—and this is where Slightly Mad mixes things up. Besides trying to win the race, each team member is also attempting to complete objectives to earn points. Whether it’s drafting a certain number of feet beyond an opponent, drifting through specific turns, or trading paint with so many cars, the objective points are worth more than your placement points. So, a squad that finishes third and fourth, could still beat a team that places first and second across the finish line. This adds an interesting bit of strategy to each race, since you’ll sometimes have to “throw” the actual crossing-the-finish-line part in order to hit your objectives. Yes, this actually happened during one of my races while playing the game.

I was in second place steadily for much of the race and was desperately trying to catch my opponent to hit the drafting objective. When I realized I had no chance of catching him, though, with about a half a lap to go, I slammed on the brakes and let his teammate, who was in third, pass me. I then earned the drafting points on him. In the end, my team still lost, because the partner I was randomly paired with seemed to not know what the gas pedal was, but I closed the points gap significantly with that move, even if I finished one place lower than I would’ve originally.

All this flies in the face of the basic instincts of a racing game, but the nuances added by the objectives are a fun touch and help the game straddle a line between pure simulation and arcade racer. Another element that straddles that border? The handling of the cars. The way vehicles take turns or accelerate makes them feel heavy, like there’s weight to them—just like in a simulation experience. But to make the game a little more fun, and to expand the possible objectives list, you don’t lose speed when drifting through turns, similar to an arcade-style experience like Ridge Racer. This strikes a balance you don’t often see in racing games, since they usually go one way or the other. I admit that, much like the objectives, it took some getting used to, but it only made the game feel that much more refreshing as I tried to master a new control scheme.

World of Speed left me wanting more. It fine-tunes a classic formula and makes it feel fresh again, and I was impressed even after just a couple of races with how everything handled—and how badly I wanted to form a team with some close friends. Some big questions still surround the game, such as release date and monetization, but as of right now, World of Speed seems to be set on a path straight for the winner’s circle.