Review: Red Bull Racing Challenge
I'm a big fan of car racing games. In fact, I'll be more specific - I'm a big fan of car racing simulations - anything with power ups, cartoon characters, missiles or trucks coming the other way, turns me off completely. I want realism, I want petrol fumes, I want adrenaline, I want to feel like I'm pulling 5G going round a fast corner. Which is a tall order on an electronic device - though Real Racing seems to have got most of the way there on iOS. The closest thing Windows Phone has so far is the Red Bull promotional F1 simulation here - does it compare, is it any fun, is it realistic, is it value for money? Let's find out.
One slight oddity about everything that follows is that at heart it's all a huge advert for the Red Bull F1 racing team - so you'd expect Red Bull Racing Challenge (hereafter referred to as RBRC!) to follow in a long line of promotional driving games on iOS and be available for free. Yet no, this is a commercial title, albeit at only £1.50 - my guess is that Red Bull were covering the basic development costs and the developers, Artificial Life, are picking up sales as actual profits.
Which is all fair enough, given that you'd normally expect a full texture mapped 3D racing simulation to come in at two or three times the price - so this is effectively a subsidised title. Red Bull Racing's gain is the abundance of promotional material on offer here:
- Splash screens and interstitial logos throughout
- In-game rendered trailers, hoardings and other game world ads
- A video centre, with officially sanctioned video clips and promos - some are available initially, you have to delve into Red Bull Racing's history and answer trivia questions perfectly in order to unlock extra videos
- A Red Bull Racing photo gallery, more shots of the cars in action than you could ever wish for - these can also be saved to your phone's gallery
Most of these promotional sections are somewhat self-evident, you'll be itching to get on with the actual game, of course. "Quick Race" lets you customise everything about an initial foray onto the track. The weather is either 'Sunny' or 'Rainy', so no inbetween agonising choices - it's one or the other. Difficulty is either 'Junior' or 'Professional', though the only difference between the two is the initial grid position and the speed of the competing cars - your own car control and the physics of driving are identical.
Tyres can be 'Option', 'Prime' or 'Wets', though this seems somewhat irrelevant since the car's gripping ability and speed seem unaffected - I tried a lap on 'Prime' tyres on a 'Rainy' track and, visibility apart, there was absolutely no difference - in the real world, I'd have been off the track at every corner. In similar vein, I tried 'Wets' on a 'Sunny' track and got to the end of the race without incident or loss in speed. The on-screen wear indicator showed that the wet tyres had worn badly, but in the real world they'd have disintegrated very quickly and would be massively slower. More modelling of all this needed by the developers.
Finally, there's a choice of six circuits:
- China - modelled on Shanghai
- England - very loosely modelled on Silverstone (with suitable touristy things added - like Tower Bridge!!!)
- Australia - loosely based on Melbourne
- Spain - modelled on Catalunya
- Germany - based on the Nurburgring
- Monaco - based on the famous street circuit, with some approximations
Up to five laps can be specified for the race, giving a maximum race time of around 8 or 9 minutes.
Setting off in China
Graphically, RBRC is almost perfect, in terms of the number of elements that are texture-mapped, modelled and generally represented from the real world. It's true that the tracks (Monaco-apart) are somewhat (ahem) embellished, but hey, at least you get to race past some impeccably modelled national landmarks that you wouldn't otherwise get to see!
When it rains (the weather is chosen somewhat randomly, seemingly set for each track at game time), you see spray coming off each wheel, you get spray hanging in the air from the car in front of you, and so on. The detail isn't down to raindrop level (apart from some drips at the start), but it's still enough to represent the conditions.
Again, we're not quite talking Real Racing levels of graphical realism all round, but hey, it's enough on a WVGA screen on a phone. Sometimes you'll see distant objects being 'drawn' by the graphics engine, but it's not that offputting.
Unfortunately, the graphics come at a slight price. Every now and then, either because the weight of detail being handled or because (more likely) something else on the phone is eating away at processor time (see the rant elsewhere in this review about lack of support for Mango 'multitasking' in general), RBRC freezes momentarily. The pause is less than a second and is often only once or so per lap of the track, but when it does happen, if you're in the middle of a tight racing line around a tricky corner then you're toast - the real time physics bit of the game carries on calculating your car's position and velocity, even though the action on the screen is frozen - not good.
When the action resumes, your car is a few tens of metres further on and probably about to hit a wall. Many people have reported similar glitches under earlier versions of Windows Phone, but running under Mango seems to have lessened them somewhat. We now need the developers to iron out the issue altogether - pretty please.
Note the moody skies, the bitmapped crowds, the super handling of protective, hollow fences and so on. A graphical feast. Note also the helpful (yellow) corner symbol, which fairly accurately indicates the degree of the current corner, a big help on unfamiliar tracks.
There are four different driving views in all: just behind the car, a long way behind the car, in the cockpit (complete with steering wheel and - sadly - non-functioning buttons) and front of car (i.e. no bodywork in the way) - each view has its merits, but the default 'just behind the car' is probably easiest to grasp and play. Go for the in-cockpit view once you've got really good at the game - it'll add an extra level of adrenaline because you're lower down and everything's faster and harder:
(Apparently) Sebastian Vettel's low down view, driving at speed around Monaco... Add rain for extra challenge?!
At which point the 'feel' of RBRC should be addressed here. I've driven many, many computer, tablet and phone racing games, plus I've been a Formula 1 fan since 1976 - so I know how an F1 car should behave on track. I'll gloss over the aforementioned brief pauses - these certainly don't help suspend disbelief that you're racing for real, but they're not the only culprits.
You see, one unfortunate side effect of most computer driving sims is that the controls for throttle and braking are binary, i.e. they're either on or off. In a real car, you'd gradually alter the throttle as you eased round a fast corner, you'd squeeze the brakes gently on certain corners, and so on. Here it's all a little brute force - tap the brakes and your speed dives dramatically, such that you can almost turn at right angles if you try hard enough, round a particularly tight corner.
There's also little sense of momentum, or weight - you can fling the car around fairly snappily - admittedly, F1 cars are themselves very sprightly, but even so.... when you hit a barrier you get a pulse of vibration, but there's no possibility for damage. Similarly ramming other cars - all F1 vehicles in RBRC are indestructible, which takes away some of the excitement about keeping it all on the road and away from trouble - if you know you can hit anything and simply carry on driving then that's a little more disbelief injected.
In fact, RBRC turns into a 'game' at this point. The perfect driving title would be an immersive experience in which you believe, just for a moment, that you're in charge of this 200mph racing beast and challenging for the championship - instead, here, we have what amounts to a good stab at a driving sim but one which ultimately has to be downgraded to a mere 'game'. At a budget price, this isn't necessarily bad, as I certainly had a huge amount of fun playing the title for a dozen hours or so in the course of preparing this review. As a 'game', RBRC stands up quite well.
It's just that, from a car feel point of view and from an F1 technical accuracy standpoint, there's the potential here for RBRC to have been so much better. You can see that the graphics engine is up to the job, slight pauses aside, by opting to view the 'Replay' of each race. In this mode, played back in real time, TV-style shots, from a dozen camera angles, show off your car and your competitors in glorious texture mapped 3D. In fact, it's really only in this mode that you get to see the whole of each circuit and all of each car - when racing, you have a very foreshortened and adrenaline-laced view.
Playing back this 'TV Replay' is also a great way to show off RBRC to others, as I've done below, the last 70% of this short video is from a replay of my last race. It will give you an idea of what the game is capable of, at least:
In addition to concerns raised above, there were more oddities in the current version (v184.108.40.206):
- Unbelievably, given that Mango's been out now for months and given the number of updates to the game, RBRC still doesn't work with Windows Phone's new 'multitasking'. So if you do so much as turn the screen off by accident, you've then got to wait while the whole game restarts from scratch. Quick races get lost completely, though there is, eventually, the chance to resume a race in a formal 'season'.
- Talking of seasons, i.e. the main event in RBRC, this is hidden away under 'Challenges' - do the developers really think most people will be happy with just 'Quick races'? A little more prominence to the main game mode would have been nice.
- Although a complete pit lane is modelled and you can dive in to meet your pit crew and choose new tyres, as mentioned earlier there's little benefit from actually getting new tyres - far greater modelling of tyre wear and reflection in lap times is needed. Along with forcing the computer-driven opponent cars to obey the same model/rules.
- Talking of opponents, they're simply not good enough. With a little practise, it's not that hard to win every race, even starting from the back of the grid in 'Professional' mode. Quite apart from not providing enough challenge, it also makes something of a mockery of having a 'Qualifying' system. This pops up as something you can enter before a race, in order to practise a circuit and to get a good grid slot - but, practice apart, there's simply not enough benefit in terms of starting position - likely as not you'll be leading the pack by the end of lap one anyway. Way back in 1997 I wrote an F1 simulation myself, concentrating more on realism from a stats perspective, so I do realise that it can be tricky to get the AI performance just right - but the developers need to pay this side of things more attention in RBRC.
- In theory, there's an online mode in RBRC, hidden inside Options. I tried it several times but only ever got an 'Unable to connect' error message - this despite every other function in my Windows phone working online perfectly. Very strange.
- The 'Video centre' is a nice idea, but some of the videos I tried tapping on came up as corrupt after a few seconds of playback. Others worked fine, albeit not at amazingly high resolution.
- While browsing through RBRC's menu system, where there should have been either silence or piped music, I got all sorts of incidental crackles and digital noise - almost like a Geiger counter. Maybe detecting radioactivity is a side function of the game?
Much of the complaint above has hopefully been constructive criticism - there's a great F1 simulation in here trying to get out. As it is, set the track to Monaco, set the weather to 'Rainy', set the difficulty to 'Professional', turn on the in-cockpit view and then prepare yourself for as tough ride as RBRC currently offers - can you live with the other cars as you all sling your sleek machines around the twists, turns and tunnels?
With the graphical and audio glitches sorted out, with work on improved race parameters and better AI, Red Bull Racing Challenge could well be in the very top flight of Windows Phone titles. As it is, it's a fun driving game at a budget price... But - I want more!
Steve Litchfield, All About Windows Phone, 3rd January 2012
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at