While 'branding' of commercial products in entertainment media has only recently reached a high point of saturation, videogames have been recognized as a viable source for advertising for quite some time. One only needs to check the library for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to see games like Yo Noid and the 7-Up Dot game to see examples of games that have centered themselves on a corporate identity.
Given this, it is not surprising to see the concept of a game as an advertising venture resurrected. World Racing is a natural result of this kind of thinking. After all:
Well-established corporate entity (Mercedes Benz) + popular videogame genre (racing) = a license to print money and capture the minds of the videogaming generation.
…Or at least in theory.
The idea is that the player will engage in a series of worldwide races, with a twist: all of the cars in the game are Mercedes models. From modern commercial models to old-school racecars to wacky concept cars, Mercedes does their best to flesh out a full roster of machines. Unfortunately, the selection still winds up being sparse, as too many of the models are variations on previously-existing models, and the end result is a lineup that definitely lacks the variety of most other driving games.
The graphics of World Racing are fairly impressive, with the road and cars bearing excellent texturing, and each of the tracks boasts a good assortment of moving objects, such as planes, hang-gliders, UFOs, etc. The addition of a respectfully large draw-in distance means that the user can truly appreciate the massive size of each of the stages offered up by the game.
And the stages are very large, even for a racing game. At first, it seems that the game begins recycling the various stages far too early on, but it soon becomes apparent that there is almost no overlap between the different circuits, with each stage containing mile after mile of virtual blacktop and back roads. In fact, the size of the stages makes for the most compelling aspect of the game, as well as being indicative of the essentially frustrating nature of the game design.
Separated from the racing, it becomes a relaxing experience to drive aimlessly beyond the set boundaries of the racecourses, roaming aimlessly around the stages, taking in the graphical sights and exploring the detours. If the player wishes, the white button will transport the car right back onto the track. But the problem is that it's much more enjoyable to explore the stages randomly than it is to endure the tedium of the actual racing.
The racing aspect of the game fails on a multitude of levels. The most glaring is the lack of speed. It's not that the cars themselves are underpowered, as they perform as close as possible to their real-life specifications. What is wrong is that the game never conveys the sense of speed to the player. Even when the player is hurtling down the autobahn at 140 kms/hour in a top-of-the-line sedan, it still feels like going down to the market to pick up some milk.
And then there's the artificial intelligence (AI). When running the race, all the CPU-controlled cars stick to the 'perfect line,' taking every turn precisely and patiently sticking to their position. This means that the player must be absolutely perfect in using overtaking maneuvers and in their driving in general in order to have a chance to win the race. Miss one turn and it's likely that the player will be passed by at least CPU car, which can be incredibly frustrating in a situation where the CPU cars never miss a turn themselves.
Add onto this that each race can be up to 5 laps over a very long circuit, and the situation becomes one where the player isn't having any fun driving the car, can and will lose the race if they make a single mistake and has to spend a long period of time just to lose so that they can start over again. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the average player might have to spend half an hour or more in order to finish on top on a single track. It's no wonder that the player is quickly induced to ram through the barricades, whip through a deserted town, and turn the whole grind of an experience into a nice tour through the country.
Get off the road, and there's an initial rush from the experience of actually being able to tool around the landscape rather than being shunted right back onto the road. Along with the spacious stages, it makes the experience feel more like actually driving around than the usual claustrophobic spaces that we associate with videogames. This rush is quickly muted however, as the interactions with off-road objects leaves much to be desired. For instance, each course has quite a number of trees, people, buildings and other interesting objects scattered around. The trees, people and random objects are there in appearance only; the player can drive right through them with no repercussions. The buildings are surrounded with invisible walls, preventing the player from driving through them or interacting with them in any way. These behaviors quickly strip away the illusion of reality, harshly reminding the player that this is a simulation, and not a very compelling one at that.
The interesting aspect of where World Racing fails is in its adherence to simulation and when and where that applies. For instance, creating these massive stages with various circuits is definitely a piece of simulation that is enjoyable for the player, allowing for a greater sense of freedom and exploration than you usually get in videogames. On the other hand, the game is a bit too concerned with simulation in terms of the actual driving. Actual racing is quite a lot of maintaining concentration, being patient and not taking outrageous risks. But that's not what the audience has grown to expect in a racing game, and perhaps for good reasons. After all, lots of reality is not that exciting. Most of the exhilaration from racing comes from the visceral feelings of actually being in the car and exerting your body to perform at high levels. In the current state of videogames, this level of immersion is not possible, yet it seems like World Racing is relying on the player deriving exhilaration from something that's not really accessible.
Aside from the racing, there are also serious issues with the front-end and design of the game. The menu system is particularly obtuse, forcing the user to constantly switch menus and traverse directories in order to find out if things have been unlocked, or even to advance to the next race. The game also attempts to offer the user a more varied experience than simply winning through placing, as each driver is ranked on a number of skills, including fair play and discipline. Unfortunately, what this adds up to is being as exactly like the CPU racers as possible. Master overtaking maneuvers, keep on the road, don't hit other cars and place well. While this is interesting in theory, it makes for a particularly restrictive way to experience racing high-performance automobiles.
It's a pity that World Racing wound up like it did, because there's certainly some interesting concepts in this game that could make the current genre a little bit more varied. But for every target that it hits, it misses 5 more. A videogame has to walk a fine line between simulation and distancing itself from reality, and it is in this crucial area where World Racing makes its missteps. It's an intriguing and ultimately fatally flawed entry in an already clogged genre, and a warning to other companies who would use games as a commercial vehicle: please be sure you can make a decent game, or it's worse than no advertising at all.