When the End Equals the Beginning

When you finish a racing game, does the last race feel any more important than the first race?

This is something I’ve been pondering over the last hour or so after finishing Forza Horizon. It’s a great game, period — let’s not let that distract from the point at hand. However, the ending, like many racing games, felt extremely flat for me. Not to spoil it for anyone, but you beat the arrogant defending champion and become the new champion, then get challenged to a street race (which you win, of course). There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that, really. Just about every racing game ends with a championship-awarding final race, which is longer than most races and typically involves the fastest cars (in games with multiple cars). What felt weird was the atmosphere, or lack thereof. This is the final race of a gigantic music and cars festival, and the crowd’s paltry and no more vocal than usual?

You can tell me in a somewhat more excited voice that I’m champion and give me a small cutscene of celebration, but there’s barely a crowd. There’s barely noise. I went from becoming a wildcard entrant thanks to a radio station promotion to unseating the three-time champion, and only a race organizer seems to care. The championship feels empty. In fact, the race itself felt no more important than my first two-minute sprint race with clunkers.

Granted, racing in the real world doesn’t have a crowd that builds up as a championship progresses. The attendance on a race-by-race basis is usually based on interest in the series and the track (or its location). Plus, given that drivers spend hours practicing for one race, finding that overarching progression is likely much more difficult from a racer’s perspective, much less for the sport in general.

Still, we’re talking video games here. In just about every shooter, adventure, and platformer, there’s almost always the build-up to a showdown with an extremely powerful adversary who tends to have a different bag of tricks than the usual fodder. Not always, but  in so many great games, there’s a definite sense of progression where the final act feels utterly critical compared to the first thirty minutes. Why can’t more racing games try for this sort of progression, where the growing importance isn’t just in my mind or a voice clip?

In fairness, a few racers have accomplished this feeling of increased importance to some extent over the years. Split/Second’s finale was somewhat more explosive, and the music was mildly ramped up. Gran Turismo 2’s world championship events had roaring crowds compared to Sunday club events, which made the ensuing race feel all that more important. Need for Speed: The Run, despite being a terrible game, has an amazingly Hollywood-style finish in its final leg, even if the cinematic ending itself is completely bland.

Despite these exceptions, it seems more often than not the only difference between the first and last race in a game is its distance and the cars used. That might be typical of racing, but it shouldn’t be typical of racing games.