Free-to-play is all the rage these days, with in-app purchases proving profitable for developers while allowing users to decide exactly how much they want to spend and everyone — from Square-Enix to Capcom to probably your Gran — has an iOS game or MMO available to install for free with optional micro-transactions attached.
So it should be no surprise to hear that Sega are attempting to bring a free-to-play version of their popular Initial D racing series to the Japanese 3DS, but there’s one slight problem.
It’s not a game.
The thrill of taking part in illicit street races around Japan’s winding mountain roads, drifting through the night in an old Toyota, fierce racer rivalries; these are the things that have taken Initial D from being "just another '90s manga" to a multimedia phenomenon spanning live action movies, arcade games and more anime than you can shake an exhaust pipe at. These things are almost entirely missing from Initial D: Perfect Shift Online, a “game” where your only concern is to shift up or down gear, and only when you’re expressly told to do so.
“But it’s free!” you cry. Puzzle & Dragons is free, and is gracious enough to include an actual puzzle game within all the dragon-raising and dungeon-walking. Sega’s own Phantasy Star Online 2 is also free, and that is arguably one of the most perfect examples available of balancing the expectations of gamers with the financial need to encourage micro-transactions.
To be brutally honest, there is simply no game here. True, you can purchase new cars and customise them, and there is some small tactical element in choosing which helper to use during a race to give yourself an advantage, but other than that it’s just pressing one of two buttons (and the A button at the start of the race – try to keep calm when you read that – I know it’s a lot to take in) when the game tells you to while waiting to be rewarded for being an obedient button-pusher at the end of the race.
If you enjoy watching Japanese cars sliding sideways around corners, then sadly this game is not for you, as you need to focus all your attention on your gear shift lights when you’re “racing” and therefore have little opportunity to soak up the visuals. If you enjoy driving Japanese cars sideways around corners – this game is still not for you, as there is absolutely no driving involved at any point.
We do of course recognise that Initial D: Perfect Shift Online is currently less than a week old and in closed beta testing — it even carries a warning that the game balance is subject to change — but short of throwing it all out and starting again there’s little chance of this "Casual Race Battle" becoming anything even remotely engaging for Initial D fans or racing enthusiasts.