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The inherent issue of overcentralizing optimization in arcade racing games and how Onrush avoid that.

Racing games are by far my favorite genre of gaming, to the point where I basically ignore 90% of gaming these days since the genre is so small compared to others. I spend most of my gaming time just playing older racing games I already own, and then buying the few that do come out, like Forza Horizon 5. One of these is the commercial failure that was Onrush, a game I absolutely adore and keep playing online with its small dedicated playerbase three years on because it does one thing better than any arcade racer I've ever played: it doesn't boil down to just being the fastest.

I like both racing sims and arcade racers. The thing about racing sims is that due to their inherent complexity, they provide a pretty dynamic experience when competing against other people. Things like fuel consumption and tire wear, dynamic tracks changing in grip as the race goes on, the inherent difficulty of driving in these games, and a host of other factors mean that I can never know what to expect when racing.

Arcade racers, on the other hand, almost never have this inherent complexity. They are, by design, incredibly simple and usually not super difficult to control. This means that in an arcade racer, the overwhelming best strategy at all times is "pick the fastest car and drive perfectly". Competing against other people for instance boils down to exactly that–those who have played Mario Kart Wii, for instance, will definitely remember the Funky Kong/Daisy epidemic, because those characters on inline drifting bikes were objectively the best because nothing mattered more than speed and being able to get around corners. On this very sub, a recent post about Trackmania had many people saying one thing they did not like about the series was that it was so laser-focused on just getting the best time with basically no player interaction. I love TM but that's undeniable–it's the absolute zenith of this gameplay design, where the ability to even touch other players is removed (most of the time) and the entire thing truly does boil down to "play more perfect than everyone else and grind out the best time you can". You do the best possible strategy known at the time for a track and perfect it until someone finds a better one, then you just do that one instead. It's great fun, but also inherently one-note. If you aren't as skilled as the best people in the lobby/match/whatever, then they just fly away from you and you're on your own putting around the track without actually interacting with them in the slightest. Even if you are as skilled, if there's some hidden exploit or shortcut, then they'll still just fly away from you (once again, as anyone who had to race tryhards in Mario Kart online on a course with an ultra shortcut can attest)! It can easily lead to feeling you aren't really competing against people so much as just time trialing with other people in the way.

This is the "issue of overcentralizing optimization" I mention in my title–nearly all arcade racers boil down to "get the fastest car and drive perfectly and ignore everyone else on the track" because their core design incentivizes nothing else. Some games have tried to avoid this: Mario Kart with its chaotic items; Split Second with its power plays that let you trigger environmental hazards to wreck rival racers in front of you; but these all still have this issue in some regard.

Onrush is the only arcade racer I have ever seen that actually avoids this issue, because it isn't even about racing.

Onrush's objective-based game modes–which boil down to "get the most points"/"drive through the gates to add time for your team, running out of time loses you the round"/"capture the moving zone"/"take out each member of the enemy team three times before they do that to yours" mean that ultimate strategy in the game does not–literally cannot–boil down to just "drive perfectly". Matches are a lot more fluid and dynamic because there are a variety of ways to get the objective, and, more importantly, players are forced to interact with each other. Simply just driving fast in front of everyone else is a terrible way to play Onrush, and when I am accidentally way ahead of everyone else, I willingly slow down and throw myself back into the fray. Unlike pretty much every single arcade racer ever, when you wreck or are taken down in Onrush you take very long to respawn–five seconds if you wreck yourself, about ten if you are taken down. I have seen a lot of people complain about how long this is on places like reddit (especially when the game came out) which is honestly silly and shows how people do not understand how Onrush works or what Evolution Studios was going for.

This is pretty much how any objective-based shooter works too–if you die, you are out of the game for a long while, allowing the enemy team to leverage that to win. Taking someone out in Overdrive deprives their team from their point gain for ten seconds; doing the same in Countdown means that they can't gain time from hitting gates, slowing their ability to stave off their ticking clock. Actively fighting and scrapping with the enemy team is paramount in Onrush–simply getting ahead and staying there and avoiding all interaction is worthless in every mode except Countdown, and even then scrapping with enemies is still incredibly useful. When I used to play Burnout online for instance, I felt almost zero reason to actually takedown people when I could just drive fast and get away from them, but Onrush is actively designed around fighting with other people, hunting them down, and in general doing something a lot more interesting than just driving the course perfectly. Slowing down and trying to hunt someone behind you is a completely viable strategy in Onrush and something I often use–Onrush is honestly the only arcade racer I've ever played where actively choosing to slow down is a thing you'd willingly do as opposed to just going max speed the entire time.

The other system enforcing this is the Stampede–basically, every player in an Onrush is effectively inside this invisible rolling convoy of vehicular chaos and can't get out of it. If you fall too far behind the game respawns you right inside of it. In many arcade racers, the best people in a race will just fly off into the distance and never show up again; this is literally impossible in Onrush, as the cars are all designed to go roughly the same speed and falling behind just throws you back into the thick of things. You are pretty much always nearby an enemy and have to fight with opponents, but the game is never claustrophobic about it and you can get breathing room. This system solves a different problem I'm not going to talk about much, but is one games like Twisted Metal and Destruction All Stars have, namely that driving cars in enclosed arenas is honestly not that fun because they don't have the same mobility as a, say, a character in a shooter or platformer/action game. Onrush fixes this problem by just making the arena a mobile bubble you are always moving forward through, and I'm actually staggered that it took till 2018 for someone to figure out that the TM style of things is pretty substandard. That the rumored TM reboot isn't going to use a stampede style system boggles me and it's going to have the same issue all of its predecessors ever had, but that's for another time…

It is these aspects of Onrush that keep me playing it to this day, three years on. The game is inherently far more dynamic than just about any other arcade racer, which is also why the game isn't dead despite how old it is, how little it sold, and how much its own publisher has abandoned it. There's nothing else like it–Evolution Studios figured out how to fix several key issues that inherently plague the game's own genre. Unfortunately, despite their masterful work, they will not get the recognition they deserve for these smart decisions, outside of the dedicated core of players the game still has.


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