Freeware MMOs are something I've always labeled as cute, entertaining, and ultimately grind-filled distractions. Very cute and entertaining, but grind-intensive.
And never before have they've been racing games.
I was very pleased to find that Project Torque... Well... It certainly didn't fail to meet expectations. Of the five or so days I've been playing, I've spent the entire time grinding to afford even the most basic of car upgrades. Although Project Torque has surprised me in a different way.
The grind is fun.
Perhaps I'm just now discovering how people can enjoy NASCAR. Because even though some of the tracks manage to only call for left turns (I'm looking at you, America - Short Circuit 1), it's still fun.
Games like Gran Turismo have more concrete accomplishments to hand to me for less time investment, but the play style is still more or less the same. The fact that I can take a car, put close-ratio transmissions, racing tires, a racing chip, and a modified engine and then take this car on the road is a breath-takingly fun pastime for me.
Maybe I'm a bit of a car nerd, sighing wistfully at my lack of ability and money to be a gearhead (as well as not having Top Gear on our channel roster), but I've always loved being able to tinker with cars. Even better when it's a clean, self-fulfilling tinkering-style that costs me no money. Though I digress...
In all actuality, the cars will be much further apart.
Project Torque is a free-to-play, cost-to-epic massive multiplayer online racing game. Produced by Aeria Games, Project Torque is among many cutesy freeware games. Like all seemingly free games, there are "______ Points" which can only be acquired by spending actual money. This particular title uses "Aeria Points", which enables you to purchase items in-game for monumentally less cost than the in-game currency, Rating Points. It also gives you the options of buying things that are not available to non-paying customers.
Despite that minor potential-cost, Project Torque is indeed free-to-play. The cars are tiered into classes, which are separated by level requirements. Unlike traditional RPGs which demand killing several enemies and completing quests, Project Torque has level systems tiered on participation in missions and races. You earn more experience (and Rating Points) for doing well in games like Drift Race or Catch the Flag, and also for placing higher in the Arcade and Simulation races.
The sad thing is that this is a self-defeating mechanic. To do well in any game mode, you're almost required to upgrade your car, which costs tens of thousands of RP. RP that can only be acquired from doing races, and only be acquired with any sufficient speed by doing well. Which you can only do by upgrading your... Er... Yeah.
Despite this, the game has a healthy host of game modes which provide good variety for the gamers who are all looking for something different. Drift Mode for those who enjoy that sort of thing, Arcade races for those wanting to just go really fast, Simulation for those who want to panic and avoid other cars, and Catch the Flag for multiple-car pile-ups under the pretense of holding the flag.
They're all highly effective for gaining RP, and are all fun in their own ways. The problem is they're very repetitive considering you only unlock more stages as you level up. So at the lower levels, you'll find yourself recycling maps very often.
Multiple view modes make for an immersive experience... Sometimes.
Graphically, Project Torque isn't anything to gawk at. At max stats that my computer is capable of, the logo of this review was a screenshot taken on my laptop. There's some minor pixelation, which doesn't look bad, though it doesn't look good. The scenery is detailed enough to give a clear picture of what it is, but not enough to make people stop in their tracks and gawk. The cars look mostly good, and the overall feel is good enough to really make its point.
Sadly, there are few songs, and the ones that are there are simplistic. So the music gets repetitive quickly, which is just on a loop, which means you can get high-adrenaline racing tracks while surfing the menus, and low-key elevator music during the races. Though the game allows you to import MP3s, which means you can self-insert some variety into your listening experience. Thankfully, the car sounds are appropriately noisy, and do sound like cars that should be skidding around corners at high speeds.
Sadly, the leveling system just feels limiting. Even if you're earning RP at a fast enough rate to fully upgrade your car (even the lowest level Class 1 vehicles), you're still limited by your level for which upgrades you can install. This makes the game grind-intensive, which can be frustrating when you're only racing cars that are more fine-tuned than yours. This restricts your ability to sufficiently gain experience and RP, which are both required for upgrading your car. The irony is you get more XP and RP when you generally need it less.
As well as that, the game feels like it punishes you for not exchanging real world money for in-game currency. There are several special-edition cars that cannot be bought by anything but AP, and these cars specs are always a little bit better than the other options in the same class. They also cost less to upgrade overall, and generally go faster with each tier of upgrade. Much to the point that many players suggest that spending 10 USD is the only logical way to play the game if you're serious about it. After leveling up enough and grinding enough RP, the difference is negligible, but the slow grind in the early-game will certainly make that PayPal button incredibly enticing. Good for marketing, bad for the player.
Also, this game has a problem with invisible walls. If there's a huge roadblock twenty feet ahead, then the invisible wall will possibly be ten feet ahead. You'll slam into a wall long before you're actually at the wall, which can make for nasty surprises for objects in the side of the road. If you skid out of the track, that wheel-barrow may not stop you despite the clear "going to miss" trajectory your car is taking. There's also a problem with selectively destructible items. Boxes can easily be plowed through, scaffolding can sometimes be toppled. This is bad when small roadsigns are made of diamond, and some lamp posts will fall while others won't. The safest bet is to dodge everything, which is harder than it sounds when you're taking corners at the speeds you often have to during races or missions.
Lastly, the game is inconsistent. A bizarre hybrid of arcade-style racing and realistic driving sims, the cars will feel and respond well to physics in some situations, and completely insensibly in others. Especially where roll-over physics, clipping, and vehicles that are spinning out. This isn't that big a deal, but will occasionally manage to take a small fender-bender that will spin your car irreparably out of control, leaving rubber-burned spirals across several hundred feet of race-track and planting the car's hood firmly into a tree that may or may not be five feet ahead of where you're crashed.
Bottom Line: Though flawed and grindy, it's a pretty fun game that mixes Ridge Racer and Gran Turismo fairly capably. Just be prepared for a slow start and a very repetitive game later on. Even if you pay to buy good cars, you'll still need to power-level to use them.
Recommendation: Download it. If you're into this kinda game, it's pretty fun. Just don't expect anything even remotely approaching instant gratification.