One of the standard features of racing videogames is the replay.
Oddly, it has proven remarkably difficult to get right though the reasons for this are pretty obvious. Most replay systems miss or diminish the best action or fail to make your heroic efforts appear heroic by using the wrong camera at any given moment.
The genre-leading replay system belongs to Sir Geoff Crammond’s legendary Grand Prix series. (What is Sir Geoff up to these days?) The reasons the replay system was so good? It tended to replicate the camera positions as used by the Formula One Administration that broadcast the races on television. The choice of cameras ran into double-digits. The action could be rewound not just dumped back at the beginning. However, these aren’t the most important reasons why the replay system in Grand Prix was so good.
The most important aspect was that the computer could intelligently choose a camera and the action to focus on with a mode that remains virtually unique in replay systems: the Director. At any point, you could press a button and the computer would decide what to show and how. It did this by looking at the flow of the race and highlighting a close battle or watching the leader complete a couple of laps or focusing on an accident.
I’m not saying that the replay system always chose the right camera but I am highlighting that a decision was made over which camera to use. In most replay systems, the camera choice is entirely arbitrary. At any given moment, the number of camera positions which make your driving look amazing are far less than the number of optimum camera positions. Therefore, most replay systems tend to not present your driving or any specific action with an optimum camera position. Grand Prix makes the strongest effort in any replay system to choose an appropriate camera.
The only thing the Grand Prix replay system lacked (that could have been reasonably added) was, funnily enough, a replay system. Television broadcasts follow the action but if something cool happens like an overtake or an accident, it is replayed from different angles. This never happens in any racing game replay. (The slow motion cameras in the Need for Speed series are not replays.)
The Grand Prix replay proves such a remarkably convincing system that you could practice delivering a race commentary and pretend you were Murray Walker. It’s not as easy as it looks, er, sounds. Just ask James Allen. Which, I believe, requires a few quotes from the great man:
“…and there’s no damage to the car… except to the car itself.”
“and I interrupt myself to bring you this…”
“This is an interesting circuit because it has inclines, and not just up, but down as well.”
“Only a few more laps to go and then the action will begin, unless this is the action, which it is.”
“This has been a great season for Nelson Piquet, as he is now known, and always has been.”
“And the first five places are filled by five different cars.”
The mighty Grand Prix series replay function even did something else that a lot of replay systems do not: it used the same keys in gameplay and in replay to change the camera.
It is surprisingly uncommon for a replay system to use the gameplay key for change camera. Some games, like Colin McRae: DiRT and the Forza Motorsport series, use a menu to change cameras in the replay. Some games, like the Gran Turismo series, just use an entirely different button configuration (and make sure they don’t tell you about it).
The reason for this is, well, it’s not terribly obvious. The only explanation, and it is one that doesn’t hold any water, is that the programmers of the replay systems will frequently be entirely different from the main gameplay team.
Which leaves the question: why don’t replay coders use the same buttons as everyone else?
(Screenshots, erm, borrowed from Gamespot’s Grand Prix 4 coverage.)