Early Access: Like it or not, it’s a significant part of the modern gaming landscape, and with AAA development getting increasingly expensive and resource-intensive it’s going nowhere fast, with development greenhorns and legends alike turning to the model to fund projects that would otherwise likely get lost forever amongst the big publishers’ red tape.

As we here at MCP strive to cover the length and breadth of gaming culture, it’s gradually become clear that Early Access is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed, so we’ve come up with MCP U/C, a regular column highlighting the good, the great and the grotesque of in-development games for sale. Since you can’t do a proper review of a product that’s unfinished, we will be posting general impressions and helping you the reader out with the ultimate question: Is this thing worth laying down funds for?

To kick proceedings off, we’re going to be looking at some of the driving games currently available on Early Access.

While much of the hype about Early Access has been pointed at adventure games such as Double Fine’s Broken Age and sim/survival games like DayZ, Rust and ¬†the granddaddy of Early Access Minecraft, fans of driving games can find a surprisingly strong lineup of titles currently in development.

Assetto-Corsa-logoThe first and most well-known of these is surely Italian developer Kunos Simulazioni’s racing sim Assetto Corsa ($39.99 on Steam), which is attempting to meld the ridiculously complex simulation engine of the more hardcore PC sims with the accessibility of console games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. Sporting advanced physics and dynamics models and officially licensed, laser scanned versions of many famous cars and tracks, Kunos are certainly not screwing around and the level of attention to detail is obvious as soon as you fire up the game.

While very pretty graphically, the thing that really grabs your attention is the incredible sound design which, frankly, makes most other racing games sound positively weak in comparison. Especially good is the sound while in cockpit mode, capturing the feel of sitting inside a car in an incredibly lifelike fashion. What’s more, the engine sounds are all distinct, and all loud: some of the high-end cars sound like you have a cruise missile wedged in your arse, doing just as much as the handling and physics to sell the power of these vehicles.

Assetto3That said, the handling is equally as strong. It’s far more hardcore sim-oriented, with the cars having a heavier and more grounded feel than you tend to see in your Gran Turismos and Forzas, but Kunos ensure to keep things accessible with the plethora of Forza-esque assists made available to the player. The heavier feel works much better than the more squirrelly handling of mainstream sims, and makes the sheer act of driving in the game an utter joy. Until recently driving on your own was all you could do, though a recent update has introduced AI that is clearly a work in progress, but still quite solid nonetheless. Kunos are continuing to add cars and tracks, and in September will be releasing as paid DLC the full Nurburgring – the first time this legendary track has been laser-scanned for a racing game.

Before then, however, Kunos will be implementing multiplayer and Career Mode in time for the full release, and it is these modes that will be the deciding factor in whether Assetto Corsa will be the GT/Forza killer Kunos clearly want it to be. That said, the quality of production value and driving feel already make this well worth a purchase if you’re wanting something different to the console drive experience.

victorylogoApparently Early Access racing games are all the rage in Italy at the moment, because we also have developer Vae Victis recently releasing the MMO-style Victory: The Age of Racing on Steam ($14.99). Of the three games covered today, this one takes the middle ground between sim handling and arcade accessibility, featuring fast-paced lapping action reminiscent of the Trackmania games.

The game’s fairly bonkers backstory paints a picture of a future age where driving has become fully automated, destroying the car industry and robbing the populace of the spirit to ‘drive’ (Representing both the joy of driving and a more nebulous sense of spiritual autonomy, from what I can gather) . To combat this, a rebel organization begins building real cars again modelled from different eras of Formula One and holding illegal racing tourneys which reawakens the populace’s love of speed and skill.

victory2Apart from the intro video and a summary on the official website, this backstory doesn’t really impact the actual game that much, which puts you in a multiplayer environment in which you undertake a variety of races and hotlap sessions in three classes – Legend, Classic and Formula. Though you’re given a starter version of each car when you first join and can win better cars as you rise through the various single and multiplayer leagues, the real meat of the game is in customizing your own unique cars to your preferred specifications and pitting them against other players’ motors. As such, Victory shines best when you have a bunch of friends you can engage in competition with, though the easy-to-grasp events system makes it simple for lone players to jump in and start earning points.

When it comes to the on-track action, the main focus of the game appears to be precision more than anything else, with most online events seeming to have collisions set off. This gives the game a Trackmania-esque time-chasing feel, only with less wackily designed tracks. It’s good fun, and in a nice touch each event earns you credits you can use for boosters that give you one-race-only buffs to various areas of your car’s handling – a nice way for the player to feel some progress before they reach the stage where the real customization begins. This is backed up by a decent driving engine that can veer towards the ‘slidey’ style, but feels great once adjusted to.

While the game’s grab-bag of stylistic and gameplay elements may not be to everyone’s taste, it makes for a superb ‘drop-in’ game you can jump into every day or two for a quick session and a great option for those times when you get a craving for something meatier than an arcade racer but pacier than a full-blown sim. With online teams also featured, it also lends itself very well to groups of friends looking to establish regular competitions, especially if you enjoy the purity of pure lapping with as few distractions/obstructions as possible.

NextlogoLast up we have Next Car Game ($29.99 on Steam). Strictly the ‘arcade option’ of this list, it is the brainchild of Bugbear Entertainment, best known for the much-loved FlatOut series and 2012’s not-quite-as-loved Ridge Racer Unbounded. Next Car Game is blatantly a modern-day FlatOut, featuring hilariously chaotic racing with the most impressive damage model to come to a racing game in ages – and if you’re not convinced, the Steam download comes with ‘Sneak Peek 2.0’, a tech demo released before the main game that lets you drive around a playpen of destruction and marvel at all the beautifully OTT ways you can wreck your motor. It’s an oddly mesmerizing feature, if only to see how much you can annihilate your car and keep it running.

Thankfully, the main game is just as fun, if a little threadbare at the moment. You get three types of races (Tarmac, gravel and figure-eight) and a destruction derby arena for single races only. In terms of content it’s easily the sparsest of the games covered here, but what is there is an absolute blast to play. The cars feel good and weighty, the sound effects deliver satisfying amounts of crunch and charging down a straight with cars literally flying left and right, spewing shards of twisted metal (boom boom) as they go, never gets old. For now it’s a perfect game to fire up between sessions with heavier fare, and a guaranteed good time for fans of automotive mayhem even in this but nascent state. If Bugbear can follow through with more structured single player content and good multiplayer¬†Next Car Game will make for a superb rekindling of the FlatOut magic.