Updated: June 2, 2010
Great computers games are like love at first sight. The moment you power on the game, you know it's something different and you know you're going to love it. This is what happened to me with Live For Speed. While reading about VDrift, a cross-platform racing simulator, on Wikipedia I noticed a reference to Live for Speed (LFS). The game had a free demo available, so I downloaded it.
Five minutes into the tutorial, I was hooked. Ten minutes later, I headed to the official website and bought the full version, S2, which unlocks numerous other cars and tracks and allows online multiplayer mode. It's the best digital investment I had in a long time.
Realism - 100% perfect!
Finding the right adjectives to describe LFS is not easy. Calling it a game would be unfair. The mere fact it takes place on your computer screen does not make any less realistic than actually driving. As pompous as that sounds, it's the sheer truth. LFS is the closest you will ever come to experiencing proper driving without sitting in a car. And the difference is not that big.
LFS features the most advanced, most realistic physics engine I've encountered in any racing simulator. Even though I'm fairly skilled with words, I have trouble expressing the magnitude of quality this game brings. You have everything, a proper 3.4-turn steering, understeer on front-wheel vehicles, the torque twist when shifting gears aggressively, the squeal of tires, tire flexing, the locking of wheels when braking too hard, the absolutely perfect motion physics matched to individual cars, it's all there.
Driving in LFS is rather easy. Driving properly is not. If you want to master LFS, you will have to spend hours practicing and many days mastering the control of your car. Not without a reason you begin your training with a modest 1.3-liter 115HP Peugeot 106 GTI rather than a 500HP monostrosity you normally see in arcade racing games. You may think that such a small car would be boring. On the contrary! Squeezing the juice from its tiny engine is what makes it so much fun. Besides, it behaves more like the average European car you might be driving, so you can really relate to the experience.
I've been to a Gymkhana course a few months back, where we had some four hours of fun driving round the practice yard, burning tires and learning how to control the car. I have to say that LFS offers the exact same level of fun and realism, to the last bit. Honestly. The realism level is mind-boggling.
Furthermore, in most racing games, I do not bother with manual transmission, as the goal of these games is to hit the gas pedal and go as fast as you can. With LFS, you actually want the manual transmission so you can fully control the torque of your engine at any given moment. And the fact you're steering with the mouse is another unique feature. I am considering buying a proper wheel set, but I'm not aware of any gadget that can simulate the real end-to-end 3+ turns wheel of a real car.
Controlling cars in LFS takes tremendous effort. You will have to be careful not to lock your wheels when braking, as your car will essentially coast with no turning ability. You will have to learn to bleed speed before corners correctly and turn against the corner to maintain the straight line. This is especially true with high-end cars. Here's how it ought not to be done. That's me, exiting the corner, hitting the grass bank and rolling over. So terribly easy when you're speeding at 120kph. I was third in the competition and essentially lost because of one small mistake. Live for Speed is merciless when it comes to precision.
Graphics & sound
Even if LFS delivered a 16-color experience, it would still be perfect. But the thing is, the quality of graphics and sound is really great. Kids worldwide may point out there are 23GB games out there that need DirectX 14 to run that have better graphics than LFS, but with just a 400MB installation and relatively modest requirements, LFS manages a stunning level of detail. And I would disagree with the kids, because LFS looks fantastic.
Part of the quality of graphics is the realistic depiction of elements. From car body reflecting sunlight to the same car body getting dented and mangled in crashes, cloudlets of dust and dirt that you raise like a hellborn hound racing down the track, the rubber smears of zealous braking on tarmac, and so much more. There are moments where you really feel you're participating in a real racing event.
The art of detail
It gets better and better. The driver figure you can place inside your car is not a static puppet. You will see him move his/her hands about in turns, like a proper Stig. It feels so exhilarating. You can also load passengers into you car. If you want the rally driving experience, then you will have a navigator sitting by your side. Speaking of sides, unlike most games which really give you silly 90-degree views to the left and right, in LFS you have gradual 50-60-degree side views, covering the side mirrors mostly and the dead angles, so you don't collide with other vehicles.
There's the Pit Lane speed limitation of 80kph. You also have to be careful during race starts, especially in multiplayer gamers against other humans, since things can get really messy, really easily and really fast. Unlike the Hollywood driving experience, collision with other cars, even friendly nudges, are often quite dangerous. You can very easily lose control and spin around.
You can also pit in sand, if you're not careful. Blowing your engine by downshifting is also an option. You may also turn over. And there's no magic button to get you racing. You'll have to go to pits and start over. Car body damage is spectacularly accurate, even tiny damage like headlights. Your steering will be affected when you crash the front side. And if you roll over a few times, there's a fair chance your roof will be banged in. See example; notice the significant damage:
Since you're driving sports cars with roll bars and cages and reinforced chasses, you won't see your cars disintegrate into bits, but it may come close to that. This ain't no arcade, fellas! Another cool thing is the myriad options of decalling your car. You can practically go for any color scheme you like, so you can have an endless number of different vehicles driving about, even though they are based on a limited number of models. But the color definitely adds to the atmosphere. And then, there's visiting the pits for tire replacement and refueling. Especially important during long races with Formula cars, where every little detail matters.
The game features an extensive training mode, allowing you to get familiar with the game's serious physics. Even if you do not buy the game, although this would be the biggest mistake you could make, you can still enjoy many hours driving in the car park, practicing the art of braking and turning, entry and exit angles in turns and all the other fundamentals of sports driving. But let me warn you. LFS reflects your real life driving. There's the computer element involved, of course, and the more you practice the better you will get, but if you're a lousy driver in real life, don't expect miracles with LFS.
You can train with XF GTI, BMW Formula and Porsche 928, the last which also includes rally driving on offroad dirt tracks, so you get additional elements of mastering rear-wheel drive, power sliding and everything else that is cool and fun and you see on Top Gear.
Single player mode
Single player mode is also fun, as you can compete against AI drivers, one or many, or just cruise alone, by yourself, in one of many cars available down some 20+ tracks. You can fine tune the weather conditions to make it harder. Again, something as trivial as wind may not seem like an important element of the experience and is often overlooked in most games, but when you're driving 200kph, it becomes an issue.
Multiplayer is the heart of the game. You go online and compete against fellow humans. My experience with other LFS players has been fairly positive. No nonsense, serious people who want to enjoy the art of driving. Best of all, you will encounter all kinds of driving, some better than you, some worse, but with a very small margin, which makes it all the more exciting.
Most online servers feature lower-end cars, since they are easier to control and offer more fun. But you will also find some with Formula racing and offroad rallies. Regardless, you're bound to enjoy yourself immensely.
Formula racing is probably the cream of the crop, and also the most demanding one. With synchromesh gearbox, you will have to learn to let go off the gas pedal when shifting. Then, you will have to work the throttle very carefully, otherwise you will spin around in circles. Don't believe me? See Richard Hammond do this classic mistake on Top Gear. The game is real, people. And make sure you don't get pitted in sand:
The multiplayer mode also introduces the Yellow and Blue Flag in-game warnings. If there's a slow car before you, you will get a Yellow Flag warning, allowing you to slow down so you don't collide. Similarly, if you're more than a lap behind the leading players, you will get a Blue Flag warning, which means you should courteously slow down and let them drive past.
A handful of video demonstrations!
A superb in-game replay function and a handful of camera angles let you capture the spirit of the game. But to be able to show you just how great this game is, you need video. Therefore, I downloaded FRAPS and captured several short clips demonstrating the awesome power of LFS and its physics engine through a handful of spectacular in-race crashes I had. You will love the absolutely realistic behavior shown here.
Now, a small update, I deleted the older movies as I liked them less and replaced them with a new set. One shows a wheel-lock and crash. Another shows the loss of control over a Formula 1 car, in slow motion, with audio pitch altered and all that, somewhat similar to Allan McNish during the 2011 Le Mas 24 endurance race, where he crashed at 250kph into the tire barrier. Mine is just as sweet, sans the flying debris. The third video is about a rally race in Minis, with a spectacular and realistic loss of control through a corner. The last one is about tire flexing. Slowed down, zoomed in, shows the tires bending in and out under centripetal force.
The videos are all available on Youtube, including HD format, 1920x1080. The clips are just 5-10 seconds in length, about 20-60MB in size, so you get a handful of pixels there. For those who do not care for embedded videos, follow the URLs.
Video 1: Low speed crash into a fence
This video portrays the amazing accuracy and quality of the game engine. I'm driving, braking hard, the wheels lock, I have no turning power, then I slam into the fence and my bonnet gets crushed like a piece of aluminum foil that it really is. You won't see this kind of realistic behavior except in real movies of genuine car crashes. If you wanted to teach people about car physics - this ought to do it. The only thing missing is the impact on human body due to rapid deceleration, but there's so much you can do with a computer screen.
Video 2: Formula 1 crash & spin
Here, nothing much to be said. Me failing. But with style. I slowed down the action 2.5x times to allow you to appreciate the dynamics of the crash. The rigid body of the Formula car turns it into a puck, until it slowed down by the gravel and ultimately the belt of rubber. Special effects in place, not quite as Frankenstein as my other productions, but close enough.
Video 3: Lame but sweet
No further explanation is necessary!
Video 4: Tire flexing
This is just superb. I applaud the developers. You may ask why I showed you mainly the videos that feature my driving failures rather than feats? Well, for several reasons, including the benevolent educational aspect, as well as to show you the mind-boggling physics of the game that are less apparent in normal driving. You really start to appreciate the quality when you see the car response across the spectrum of driving conditions, including crashes, skids and whatnot. You don't expect it. The realism is frightening. And it helps you think about your own driving and the consequences of your actions. Furthermore, everyone else seems to be showing you all kinds of spectacular moments, which is why I chose the less glamorous ones. LFS is tremendous. No other game comes even close.
Great news for Linux users!
The game works in Linux, almost perfectly. Power on WINE and install it. No worries. The only thing that is missing is that Wine does not handle shadows that well and the graphics level is a little less than in Windows. However, if you turn off the shadows, you get a near perfect experience.
What else can I say except that Live for Speed is the most phenomenal racing simulator invented. I don't know what kind of driving experience the game developers have, but they've turned reality into a game. Live for Speed is the Operation FlashPoint of cars. The game plays extremely well on all levels. It's perfect in every aspect. Sounds, graphics, the physics, all the little details, the choice of cars and tracks. Simply beautiful.
Furthermore, the game developers are extremely fair. They let you unlock the game two times, so you can play on LAN with your friends. Then, you get an additional unlock every week, which is way more than you get in other games. If you have a few extra dollars and wonder how to spend them or would like to buy a friend a great present, this is an excellent opportunity to invest that money. You won't be disappointed. That's all. I'm off to race.