As stated in our interview, my plans to drive Ash McConnell’s Online Racing Championship (ORC) project were somewhat hampered by a controller glitch that had left me with perfectly functioning steering and brakes, but sadly no throttle. Some head scratching, tweaking, testing, head scratching, tweaking, testing, swearing, tweaking and more testing finally saw the problem resolved.
The version I have on my hard drive consists of a real world single seater in a formula that sits below F1 in performance terms (licensing not secured) and a very much work in progress fantasy track. Through the course of the controller difficulties, I had become quite accustomed to the cockpit and pit lane. It was both a relief and enjoyable to hear the engine note rise as I flexed my big toe, and finally see the pit lane start to pass me by as I engaged first gear.
At this point ORC gave me my first surprise, and put its first smile on my face. With proper clutch support not yet in place, and a little overeagerness on my part, my take off was more F1 pitstop than gentle getaway. With the rear tyres well lit up and a smidge of left lock on the wheel, the rear of the car started to push around as forward momentum increased. With a quick application of opposite lock, followed by some subtle corrections, I was heading down the pit lane grinning from ear to ear. Maybe not the most important element of a racing sim, but pulling away from a standstill at full beans (as I tried a few more times) is entertaining, challenging and manageable.
Come the end of the pit lane and the first right-turn out onto the track, and the second surprise came my way. With the input of a good chunk of steering lock, it became apparent that something wasn’t quite set up right as the car’s response was somewhat underwhelming. Focussing on the in-game wheel, it became apparent that the steering lock wasn’t correctly configured. Pressing escape brought up a selection of option tabs overlaid onto the in-game action, and I duly selected the control tab and moved my mouse to the “steering lock” slider. Without any numbers on the bar I wondered how I would know where to place it to obtain the correct ratio, but as I moved the slider I saw the in-game wheel slowly adjust its lock. By putting my wheel at 90 degrees and adjusting the slider, I could watch the in-game lock change in real time until they matched up. Whether this is intentional or just a coincidental by-product of how the game functions, the ease and intuitiveness with which settings can be tweaked without exiting to menu screens puts more convoluted UIs out there to shame.
With the virtual steering inputs now attuned to my physical ones, I once again laid some rubber down as I pulled away, this time fishtailing a little more as my enthusiasm got the better of me. The WIP track immediately began to cause a few difficulties; with a lack of trackside detail it is both difficult at times to judge pace, but also to learn exactly where you are/where you’re going. As I tried to push a little prematurely, the inevitable happened and I ran out of track and onto the grassy surrounds. The car promptly “sank” and there was little choice but to return to the pits and try again. I would be lying if I said this was the first and last time this happened, but it is the nature of software at such a level of development and one of those things you have to work around rather than against. Backing things off and tip-toeing around to familiarise myself with my surroundings, a few things quickly became apparent.
Firstly, whilst the content might not be finished by a long shot, the graphics are suitably pleasing on the eye. The in game models I am using are the handy work of Nick Ovey (now of Reiza studios), and Ash has clearly put some work in to get the Ogre graphics engine well incorporated into ORC. It was only after a number of laps that I noticed the realtime shadows dancing across the cockpit as my car changed orientation to the sun; not only does it look nice, but the graphics and effects are unobtrusive and only act to submerge you deeper rather than bling your mind to death. We’re not talking Project CARS levels of detail and polish, but we are talking attractive and convincing.
To turn to the driving model, before I had familiarised myself enough with the car/track combination to get anything close to the limits of possible pace, I had started to explore the limits of the car (and driver) under a number of different circumstances. In many respects there isn’t a huge amount to say about the driving experience. This is no bad thing, but rather it all seems really rather good, and consequently somewhat predictable. Too much throttle, brake or steering input and the car can be unsettled and the resulting behaviour is believable and as expected. A bit too fast into a corner and the front end will push out, refusing to go where you intend it to; try to rectify too aggressively with steering or brake inputs and the understeer can soon make way for oversteer. Similarly, too much brake or throttle will soon see a snatched brake or frantically spinning tyres behind you, respectively. Whenever such an occurrence takes place, the behaviour in that instant is always understandable, and likewise the instinctive responses always seem to have the correct effect. Locking a brake or losing the rear end can happen in a tiny fraction of a second, and yet there is that almost telepathic “connectedness” with the car, and you sometimes seem to react before it even happens. In this respect the car is hugely engaging, as you can push and explore the limits as well as really feel what is going on. It never feels like you’re learning where the limits lie before something funky or unexpected happens, it is very much pushing and feeling the limits of adhesion between the car and track.
Force feedback is, for the most part, very good, though this area is where my only real “Huh?” moment has arisen with ORC. Sometimes when the wheel is around the centre point (specifically on a straight as opposed to changing lock from one direction to the other), an odd repulsive force from the centre is noticeable. Holding the wheel at the centre point is like trying to keep two oppositely polarised magnets lined up as they move closer and closer together. Consequently, sometimes you find yourself struggling to push the wheel towards the centre, resulting in a somewhat nasty weaving line down the straight. This isn’t like in certain past titles though where the wheel would oscillate madly on a straight if released; it’s somewhat more subtle. Thankfully, it is also something Ash has confirmed he is fully aware of, and no doubt it will be rectified soon enough. Putting this issue to one side (I’ll stress again that this is far from a finished title), there are plenty of positives to take from the wheel input/output on the whole. There is absolutely no discernible input lag for one. Moving the wheel from side to side as fast as I could, I literally could not detect any latency between the wheel in my hands and its on-screen counterpart. When driving, this immediacy ties up with the (centre-point issue aside) fantastic FFB to provide a sublime feeling of being at one with the car. Often I find FFB tends to lean to either too exaggerated or too subtle. The FFB in ORC strikes a fine balance here, and provides a wonderful level of feedback about what the car is doing without being over the top. The end result is like much of ORC; I didn’t start driving and find myself thinking “Wow, the FFB is great”, but rather you don’t notice it at first. It’s only when you stop and reflect that you realise how good a job it is doing.
A word that I can happily apply to my time with ORC is “fun”. This isn’t some pseudonym for “watered down” or “compromised”; ORC is sim through and through, and I’ve found driving it a real blast. Nailing the turn in point and line through the high speed esses (not easy with no braking markers or real features of any kind) is massively satisfying and enjoyable. Braking for the hairpin at the bottom of the high speed straight, mindful not to lock the front tyres and miss the line, is challenging and entertaining. Squirting the throttle between two low-speed corners before accelerating away, feeling and judging just how much of a squirt you can get away with, is testing and immensely satisfying. It’s hard to say just exactly what it is that ORC seems to be getting so right here, but as a whole it just does what it does very well indeed. The included single seater provides a combination of engine, chassis and tyres that grant you the ability to pile on the speed at a significant rate, as well as carry that speed and scrub it off in equally impressive fashion. What ORC does is give you a feeling of a full control over all of this; such a machine provides a pretty frenetic driving experience and ORC captures that, whilst at the same time always making you feel like you are in charge. When you pull it off you feel you pulled it off. When you don’t, you know it is you who is responsible. It’s a fine line between between being on the limit and being over it. Walking that line is far from easy, but it is enormously engaging and entertaining.
Having spent some time with ORC now, I can say that I am really rather impressed. It’s only natural that at this stage of development there are issues. The graphics are nice but incomplete, the place-holder sounds are some way below the level that they need to be to compete with the established titles on audio terms, and there is the FFB quirk to sort out. The first two of points are really not something to worry about (visual content will be done when it is done, and a new sound engine in on the agenda), and the FFB bug will no doubt be quashed. That’s the only real negatives of my experience out of the way. On the plus side, even in this early form, ORC provides a solid and absorbing experience. The menus, interface and general presentation are high quality, and put a number of other finished titles in the shade when it comes to usability and aesthetic qualities. Similarly, the physics engine of Gregor Vebles seems to justify Ash’s high praise, and it is successfully absorbed into the rest of the code to provide a truly solid sim experience.
How ORC shapes up further down the line as a complete product depends on a number of factors. An initial implementation of tyre and brake heating are in place, but interaction between the two, along with tyre wear and damage, are yet to be included. Also of upmost importance, the netcode obviously needs to be experienced first hand before I can pass comment and, likewise, content can only be judged and assessed as and when it is available. Netcode is apparently well developed, and many things that aren’t yet included are on the “to do” list. I certainly look forward to trying different machinery within ORC and seeing how it handles them, and given the nature of the underlying engine there’s no reason to suggest it will be with any less aplomb than the formula car driven here.
I said in the closing remarks of our interview that I wouldn’t hesitate to say “watch this space”. Having put some good time in behind the wheel of an up to date build, I can only reiterate this sentiment. Many of the foundation elements are in and appear to be implemented well, and it just remains to be seen when and how it all comes together. With ORC it is the same old story: if Ash can find the time to work on it, I see no reason why it can’t be a top class title. Let’s just hope we don’t have to watch this space for too much longer.