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Motor City Online

Written by Matt Phelan

"Race against thousands over the internet!" the box cover of Motor City Online tells us. On the inside cover there's a photo of many virtual cars pulling up to a diner, giving one the impression that Motor City Online is actually a virtual city you can drive through. This isn't the case, and has caused some newer members to get upset once they start up the game and find out what it really is (we'll get to that in a moment). The box is one of the things some EA developers have said they would like to have changed.

When you first connect, you're asked to create a new persona on one of the four shards (City Center Atlantic, Crossroads Atlantic, Uptown Pacific and Midtown Pacific). You get to select your character's looks (several different characters to chose from. You can change the hair color, clothes color and skin color). You also pick your name and what you want your license plate to read. Once you're done doing that, you're asked to buy your first car (you start out with about $10,000. A starter car will put you back about $5-8 thousand maybe). The cars you can buy at this point are the 1957 Chevrolet Nomad, '57 Bel Air, '57 Ford Fairlane and the '57 Ford Ranchero. A lot of people will say to go for the Bel Air, but the Fairlane can hold its own as well (for a starter car).

Once you get inside the game, you have a lot of different things on your screen. It can feel confusing and even a bit complicated, but, like tweaking with your car, you find out by simply playing around with it. Simply put, there is a LOT of things in Motor City Online. This is by no means a simple racing game you just constantly race and build up your car. There are several thousand parts and many cars to chose from. You can put any engine you like in any car (not the most realistic, but it certainly adds to the many many options already have). The combinations are endless with this game. You don't even have to race to make money. You can simply be a tycoon who buys and sells cars for money and work your way up that way (although you will have to race somewhat if you want to enlarge your inventory so you can hold more cars and such). Although getting money through the many racing options are probably easier.

The actual racing consists of many things inside of this game. There is not just Player vs. Player racing (PvP for short) in the Motor City. There is also time trials as well. There are open trials, where you race your own car, and there are sponsored trials. In sponsored trials, you race someone else's car, basically. Not another member's car in the Motor City, but a sponsor's car. You do not pay for damages with these cars, but you also get paid less to qualify a sponsored car than your own. You get paid money and points for a top 10 time on open trials, and only points for a top 10 in sponsored (no money at the end of the week). Trials are on a weekly basis. At the end of the week, the top drivers are rewarded and the times are reset to start a new week.

Now the real racing (against/with other players) is similar in some ways to the trials. You have open races and sponsored races. As far as the cars go, it's the same as the aforementioned trials. Except with open races, you get to place an entry fee on a race you create. All participants who join the race will have that amount of money automatically withdrawn from their bank account (wallet?). That money is added to the purse for the winner (depends on how many people are playing. If you get 4 players, first through third get some of that money. If only two players, only the winner gets the money). There are some extra ways of racing besides open and sponsored, however.

Club racing is where members of clubs race against members of a different club (at least one from a different club) to possess "turf" (a track). The club with the lowest average time (of the 5 fastest qualifiers for club races) wins the turf for that week.

EA has introduced a new way of racing with Update 6 (introduced in late April/early May I beleive), it's called "Team Trials." The point of this addition was to get some people out of open trials and onto the tracks to race with other members of Motor City. The concept behind it is that you're not racing against drivers, but rather with them to combine for the lowest possible time. Of course the faster drivers will earn a little more money, but the "bonus" of your whole team qualifying is bigger than anything else, so everyone who gets under the alloted amount of time gets paid almost the same amount no matter where they finish. The money and points in Team Trials was meant to rival the open trials (when originally introduced, EA had lowered open trial payouts, making Team Trials the big money-maker. Unfortunately, too many people complained and threatened to quit because they apparently don't like change or being social with other players, so EA bent over for that vocal minority and put the open trial payouts higher than team trials once again, making the population on tracks smaller once again). But it still is a genius concept. It introduces a way for people to drive with one another and be friendly rather than hard-nosed racing or just driving by yourself in open trials.

Building your car is the next thing. It will probably be the first thing some of you will want to do once you get inside the game. You try out some trials, do a bit of racing in your first time in the game. You make some money and naturally the first thing you want to do will be to juice up your car. Most veteran members will tell you the same thing; work on your handling before you begin to add power to your car! That's a logical thing to do, but you want some power, man! You want to see how fast you can make your beast go! You can upgrade just about any part of your engine. Camshafts, carbuerators, cylinder heads and even parts that won't add to your power (but can reduce engine damage with high horsepower engines and also reduce weight. These parts are connecting rods, crankshafts and the lubrication system (which can increase the cooling rate)). And it does feel good to start getting your car with more power. You watch your creation get faster and faster and you can't help but feel pride. For some, the starter car is almost like a first love. There is nothing like the first car you put together and watch it get faster and faster (many veterans will tell you they regret selling their first car). That's the way I felt with my first when I started playing the beta. Unfortunately, back then, they kept on wiping personas for testing purposes. So by the time I finally got into the final game, I already knew what to do and starting over had lost its novelty.

The parts are available in several ways. The main way to get parts it by the Parts Catalog. Almost every part is in this catalog except for a few, very rare, expensive and high-performance parts. Those are attained by either the "parts as prizes" part of the game (which gives parts to the winner of a race, and is also a rare thing now. EA says they have randomized this feature and will only appear once in a while. Since they did that, I have yet to encounter a part for a winning prize) or getting them off of customized cars in the car auctions or buying them off of another member in Motor City Online. Fortunately, most people don't need those high end parts as cars are fast enough out of the catalog and there is also something known as class racing in the Motor City now.

The car classes are much better than what EA used to have to limit cars in certain areas. They used to limit them by horsepower number only. The new class system is based on body style and power to weight ratio. Certain power to weight ratios will put a car into one of the following classes (starting from the lowest): E, D, C, B, A, SD, SC, SB, SA. The other classification of body styles is done more by era. There is vintage (1932-1949), Classic (1950-1958 or '62 maybe) and Muscle (196x-1973 at the moment). These two combine. So you get classes like Muscle D, Vintage A and Classic SC, if you see what I'm trying to say. You combine the body-style and power to weight ratio to classify a car. This class racing is much better than simply using horsepower as the limiting factor. It has created a whole new level of racing and a new challenge for veterans. For class racing, you have to fit the best car into a power to weight ratio rather than trying to make the fastest car in the game. It's a lot more interesting.

Cars are available for purchase by car lots and auctions. Motor City Auto Sales has many cheap cars. A few vintage, some classic and a few lower muscle cars. Some higher end cars are available at Righteous Rides (but they are still factory "stock" cars). Then we have the auctions. There are three different types of car auctions. First there are the factory stock auctions. They are sorted by brand (General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. Of course with Chrysler and Ford, all the other brands those respective companies own have cars in those same auctions as well. Dodge, Plymouth and AMC are in Chrysler lots and Mercury is in Ford's. And same with GM, of course). Then there are the modified auctions. These are sorted by era. Fat Fender Freddy's handles the vintage cars, Cool Cat Wheels are classic cars and Muscle Mike's is, obviously, the muscle cars. These cars can contain some rare parts (like fat 345/45/17" tires) and are by no means stock. A 1970 Mustang, for example, can "spawn" with a Ford Y Block motor rather than the small block the the factory car would come with (why anyone would do that is beyond me. Small blocks are infinitely better than the old Y Block. But it's just the game mechanics ;)). The last auction type is Player Hosted Auctions. This is where the players of Motor City get to put their own cars up for auctions (the name should tell you that.) You decide the starting bid and get to put in a short description of the car. The auctions can be held for 1 day, 2 days or 3 days.

It looks like this has turned into a description rather than a review.

Now that the author has significantly numbed your minds with what you can do in Motor City Online, let's get on with how the game actually plays, shall we?

The graphics are dated, to say the least. It is based on the Need for Speed 4: High Stakes (for the PC) graphics engine, which was released in 1999. And the High Stakes engine was very similar to Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit's (which was a Fall of 1998 game for the PC). EA has tweaked it a bit here and there and it looks nice if you've got the hardware to run Full Scene Anti Aliasing (FSAA for short). EA offers actual reflections on the cars as well. They certainly have gotten better with little details like this over the years with this graphics engine, but it's still dated. The Need for Speed 5 Porsche engine would have looked better (not to mention it's faster!). The old graphics engine runs slowly on a lot of systems as well. But that's fixed once you tweak the options a little bit. The biggest performance gain comes when you turn FOG off. EA has also done a better job of modeling the cars than they have in the past with NFS3 and 4 (coming from the EA Seattle studios anyway. NFS5 was an EA Canada work for the most part and it most definitely surpassed NFS3 and 4 in every right in terms of realism in graphics and accuracy of carmodels). The models aren't the most detailed, but EA is keeping in mind some people don't have powerful enough systems to run with highly detailed cars. The cars look at least mostly accurate this time. Driver animations aren't as advanced as NFS5 either. In MCO, they only steer the wheel. In NFS5, you could see the driver shift and honk the horn.

The sound is decent. Engine sounds will change depending on what kind of engine you have, what parts are in it and the exhaust system (including muffler) you're using. A lot of the engine sounds are great as well. But the on the front end (the main interface of the game, i.e. when you're not racing) some engine sounds aren't so pretty. The music has stuff from different eras and genres as well. We have 1950s-style rock, some harder rock of the later 60s and 70s, some 70s funk and surfing music. Most of the music is nice, but not worth turning the volume up to loud levels for (except for maybe "Packing a Rod"). Other sounds are very realistic as well. Like when you smash a car hard enough and the glass from the windows breaks out, you'll hear that.

The physics, ah yes, the physics. Those of you who have seen me post on messageboards know this is the biggest issue I like to rant on. Realistic physics are what I'm always after. I have always stood by realistic physics as one of the most important factors in a car game since the original installment of the Need for Speed series. When NFS3 came out, I started to complain a bit about the physics. When I finally got a taste of NFS4 for the PC, I thought the series was doomed. But somehow EA saved itself with the wonderful physics engine in Need for Speed 5 Porsche. Now while the modified cars in evolution mode of that game seemed a bit outlandish, the stock cars were very realistic. Motor City Online delivers a real-enough feeling for the cars, but it does need work in my opinion. When you crank the wheel hard, the cars don't go into the High Stakes-style arcade slide and then the rear comes back into as you straighten out the wheel. There is some actual understeer here and there. Although with several setups, the cars do "wobble" unrealistically a tad. You crank the wheel hard and the car might slide and then come back and then slide again. I guarantee you won't see many real cars do that. But when you setup a car properly, this shouldn't be much of a problem. The physics overall are good. Some of the most real looking crashes, that's for sure. The damage model isn't very realistic (not much better than any previous NFS damage model. All it does is rearrange the car's body a bit, no parts will fall off or anything. But your lights might stop working).

As usual, the tracks of the game are of EA's own creation. They have many many different types of tracks as well. There is drag strips, ovals (a tri-oval, b-oval and a small dirt oval) and many different road and street courses. Street courses are non-sanctioned races (and your drive won't be wearing a helmet for these). You drive through streets in a not-so-legal fashion. Although at the moment, there is no traffic or cops, so it doesn't matter a whole lot (they were in beta for a while, though). There are many sanctioned road courses. Even sanctioned races through streets of a city (like CART and Formula 1 do in real life. Just think Monaco Grand Prix or the Long Beach Grand Prix). These "Street races" have walls and such around the course they make up through the streets of a city. There are spectators and everything. There are only two of those courses. The original one is "Motor City Classic" and the new one EA added with Update 6 a couple months ago is called "Goose Pointe" (a little play on words. In the real life Motor City (Detroit) there's an area called "Grosse Pointe").

All in all, Motor City Online is a great game. There is a lot to do, however, so if you don't have a lot of time to spend playing games, then this probably isn't for you. Like many other multiplayer games, there is never going to be a clear cut winner. And sometimes it feels like it's hard to move forward and this has caused some players to feel like the game is becoming like a job. They were simply persuing money and cars rather than taking time to enjoy themselves and do some PvP racing. If you like to just race a lot and not do much else, this probably isn't for you either. You need to spend a lot of time tweaking your car to make it just right, and as you earn more money, you get more cars to tweak and have access to better parts and the tweaking continues! It's not the easiest game to succeed at, but if you've got the time and dedication to do it, it can be a lot of fun as well. Or you can be like some players and simply pay $10 per month to use it as a chat room...