A driving game on mobile hardware, with triple-A polish, that’s entirely free to play? But how much can you really get out of Real Racing 3 without opening up your wallet?
Whew! I feel like a penitent drunk standing up in front of an angry crowd of AA members. “Hi, internet! Uh… my name’s Matthew?” (Dead silence.) “I have a… a problem. I, uh… I’ve been playing Real Racing 3.” (Gasps, dirty looks, shouts of ‘Dear God, no!’ from the back of the room.) “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! Electronic Arts, they, they seemed so nice, they were telling me how much fun their game was going to be, how it wouldn’t cost me anything to get started, how I’d only have to pay real money if I wanted to unlock the content faster –” (Cries of ‘Yeah, right’.) “And I believed them! And now I’m – I’m – really enjoying myself.”
(Sudden record scratch noise.)
Wait, what? That’s not how this tune was supposed to go. The Real Racing series built itself a devoted following on iOS devices over the past few years, and when everyone’s favourite giant publisher Electronic Arts suddenly gobbled up Firemint, the studio who’d created the franchise, longtime fans started muttering angrily on the internet. When EA merged Firemint with developers Iron Monkey and announced the new studio, Firemonkeys, would be taking over Real Racing, the muttering only grew louder. When it was revealed the next game in the series would be free-to-play, you could practically hear the screams from the other side of the planet.
Real Racing 3 was to feature 46 cars, ten world-famous racing circuits, more than 900 events, a level of polish almost unheard of for a mobile game, and all of this for free. It seemed too good to be true, and when people learned what the catch was they were practically foaming at the mouth. Want to patch up wear and tear on your car? You have to wait, in real time, for repairs to finish. Want to buy another car? Wait for the timer before it’s “delivered”. Oh, but you can run the clock down instantly if you’d like to purchase some premium in-game currency. For real money. Boo! Hiss!
All this bears mentioning in the context of a review because despite what the internet would like you to think, Electronic Arts’ current love affair with microtransactions does not signal the end of videogaming as we know it. (Not yet, anyway.) Real Racing 3 is a solid, very playable driving game, not great but certainly very good: easy enough to pick up it shouldn’t scare off the casual crowd, but with just enough of the simulation about it more dedicated players can put in hours upon hours. Seriously, the freemium pricing model is the least of its problems.
It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part…sort of
The game divides those 900+ events into a series of races featuring a themed group of four cars or so (all V8s, all supercars, that sort of thing), where every car gets to compete in at least two series. You start off at the bottom, with enough money to pick one of the most basic models. Finish any event (even dead last) and you collect some cash and experience – place in the top three and you start to open up more events. Level up and you earn premium cash, plus the game starts to throw harder opponents at you. Like the previous games, the driving model leans towards arcade action rather than realism, though turn all the assists off and it starts to get fairly challenging. Handling is noticeably different from car to car, too, and there are options for tilt or touch controls, plus manual acceleration if you feel so inclined.
The freemium model starts to come into play once you’ve driven a few races. You can take damage slamming into other cars, or the side of the track, and that needs to be paid for. Every vehicle also has five basic stats (the engine, the oil, the brakes and so on) that deteriorate over time. You can leave these in the red, but it’ll hurt your performance. When you want to fix them up, though, this takes time – and more time for better cars – which can only be sped up with premium cash. (Legitimately, anyway. Cough!) If you want to order another car as a standby, that’ll take time to arrive, too.
The thing is, this really isn’t the hassle you might expect. Real Racing 3 is more geared around a reverse paywall, if anything: if you’ve got the patience to wait out the first few timers then once you’ve earned enough cash to have, say, three or more cars, you find you’re waiting around less and less. Yes, it is worrying that the game has to keep nudging you about paying premium cash, or that you can’t always drive the car you want. But I swear to you, past a certain point both kinds of cash come in reasonably fast, and every car is fun enough to try out it just doesn’t really feel like much of a restriction.
More padding than Deal or No Deal
Far more problematic is the sheer amount of padding – yes, you won’t get your hands on the supercars for some time without paying out real money, but whichever end of the roster you start at I’m guessing most players won’t see more than half the game, if that. Did we need 900 events? The production values are weirdly inconsistent, too, with gorgeous car models but terrible audio in places (nearly every crash sounds like a bar fight kicking off), some very low-resolution backdrops and the odd persistent visual glitch. The much-touted “Time-Shifted Multiplayer” is a nice touch, where your opponents use the social network tags and performance data of other people (your actual friends, if they’re playing). But it still frequently matches you up with woefully dumb or unbeatable AI.
Nonetheless, much as it pains me, I have to side with Electronic Arts on this one. Real Racing 3 simply doesn’t deserve the hate it’s been attracting from some quarters. It’s not going to convert the hardcore simulation fans, or those people who simply don’t like smartphones and tablets, and it’s not quite polished enough to warrant praising to the skies. But whether or not it’s the future of the medium, Real Racing 3 is still a slick, hugely entertaining racing game despite its flaws – with an unbelievable amount of content easily available for absolutely no cost, whether you’re a Facebook fanatic or a devoted old-school player.
Real Racing 3, by Electronic Arts and Firemonkeys, is available now for newer iOS devices and selected Android phones and tablets (reviewed).