A tablet app?
The first curious choice I saw was that the game has its own tablet app on the side that we used to set our destinations and customize our cars. It's sort of a genius idea for a booth at PAX because you can get twice as many people interacting -- one group playing, the next group preparing to play on the tablets. I couldn't get a solid answer on how the app's interaction will play out for people without tablets; I was told that the app will "probably be available for PC," but there were no developers to field questions about the game when I did my hands-on (we'll see what we can scrounge up this weekend!). I assume, though, that all the menus will be available in the base game client if an outside device isn't available.
The amount of customization on the cars was pretty impressive. We didn't get to do much under-the-hood upgrading, but I was assured that was only for the demo version on the floor. I did get to customize a lot of my sexy Nissan Skyline GT-R (R34), including the bumpers, skirts, spoiler, rims, and pretty much everything else. Even without being able to customize the guts of my car, I was able to mess with its performance by adjusting values like aerodynamics, durability, and so on.
I am a bad driver
When I got on the road with my sweet ride, one of the first things I noticed (after hitting a nearby tree that jumped in the way of my car) was that my car could take damage. If you've ever played a licensed car game, you know that cars are never really treated like real
cars. And yet, there I was, driving around in a Skyline GT-R, taking battle damage from concrete road dividers and trees. I'm not sure how damaged my car could actually become; it seemed as though my best efforts to stay on the road only scraped my paint and dented my bumpers. Accordingly, my green "health bar" on the screen was still pretty green and mostly full throughout the drive. Perhaps I am becoming a better driver after all!
Another thing I learned is that in the finished version, you'll be able to drive through the US from coast to coast without a loading bar. The helpful Ubisoft reps at the booth told me that the maps were created from an idealized version of the US based loosely on real roadmaps, such that driving from California to New York would take around four hours in real time. I really wish I could drive cross-country that quickly!
While I was touring the streets of Las Vegas, I noticed that there is a lot of stuff to do just driving around. There are little bonus challenges scattered everywhere along your path, ranging from engaging in little high speed chases to doing the next leg of road quickly to driving through checkpoints. If you deviate from those, the challenges immediately get out of your way to let you explore the streets on your own; gameplay seamlessly integrates these challenges without interrupting your drive around town. My town drive was populated by NPCs (I screen-watched some of the other players to see if they were driving in my city), but I was told that in the release game, the world will be persistent and you'll be able to see other players and challenge them as well.
Putting my skills to the test
During my town drive, I was interrupted to race against CPU opponents. It wasn't clear whether the interrupts were exclusively a demo thing or you'd be interrupted from exploring in real gameplay (it seemed like the former, though). I raced my heart out, and with judicious use of my new secret weapon (the brake button), I managed a second-place finish. It was a pretty normal street race event, typical in any modern racing title, but it was fun. In fact, I found the cars surprisingly easy to drive, even at high speeds; the brakes felt really responsive and the game made good use of analog steering to make minor turning adjustments.
After the CPU race, my fellow drivers and I were dumped back into the open city zones for another couple of minutes before the game dragged us into a "special mission." I say "us" because I saw the exact same cutscene for the mission play out on everyone else's screen playing at the same time, except with different cars. Upon loading the mission, our crew was tasked with running a target vehicle off the road and destroying it. Unfortunately, only one other driver in the crew really knew how to drive -- of course, I myself was a master with my new secret move -- and most of us spent our drive careening off the road and into trees or buildings.
Ultimately, the combined efforts of our crew caused the target to crash into a few environment objects of his own, winning us the mission. I'll be honest: I don't think the mission even needed our crew to win because we were pretty bad. I ended up scoring first place on individual performance, hilariously. Somehow I doubt the release game will be so kind to awful drivers.
I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed because I know there's quite a bit more to the game, with a larger mission variety and a huge world (literally the entire US) to explore. I'd definitely have to see more to give a solid verdict, but the driving was well-done and the off-rails gameplay clearly let me do a lot of stuff whenever I wanted without interfering with the key element of grand exploration.
I mean, if you had a whole virtual United States to cruise around in, wouldn't you want to just drive around for hours too?
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