Category: Videogames

By on March 31, 2011

Test Drive Unlimited 2 (TDU2) is the latest pistonhead-oriented video game, a genre I’ve enjoyed since Test Drive first arrived in 1987. My PS3 usually spins two amazing time wasters: Gran Turismo 5 (GT5) for sheer hotshoe geekiness and the Grand Theft Auto series (GTA) for snark, storyline and reality-blurring gameplay. TDU2 sets out to blend elements of both, making it unique and intriguing in concept alone. But does the promise of a game that’s less serious than GT5 but more car-focused than GTA work in practice? Read More >

By on December 6, 2010

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Time and time again, it’s the comparison that kept occurring to me as I played Gran Turismo 5 on my PS3. The fruit of years – and years of development, Sony’s Forza-killer was finally bestowed upon us this November. Befitting its immense gestation period, the game is a mix of out-dated user interfaces and standard cars and tracks, a sublime driving engine, and incredible detail on some of the newer premium cars. Originally targeted at Forza Motorsport 2, it came out after Forza 3, and it plays like something in between the two.

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By on May 16, 2009

Before landing a part-time gig as an automotive test monkey, I cut my teeth driving virtual cars on Gran Turismo 4 (GT4). Developer Polyphony Digital’s attention to detail was startling. You could/can feel subtle differences between ostensibly similar cars, such as an ’89 and a ’93 Mazda Miata (hint: chassis rigidity on the older car sucks). Sure, GT4’s artificial intelligence was a joke. And the lack of damage was mildly disappointing. But it was a great game, except for the understeer . . . the terminal bloody understeer.

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By on January 15, 2009

Now that the Need For Speed franchise has definitively and conclusively jumped the shark, Rockstar’s Midnight Club has emerged as the standard-bearer for street racing games. Enter the newest edition: Midnight Club: LA. The recipe for this one was deceptively simple: take the GTA IV driving engine, enhance it to reflect different (i.e. real) cars, stick the driver in yet another trendy city-– this time LA– and let him get into as much trouble as possible. On the whole, Midnight Club picks up right where NFS Carbon left off (let’s pretend ProStreet and Undercover never happened). It’s a fun, arcade-style game, but it’s not without its flaws.

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By on December 19, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV’s (GTAIV) intricate and involving storyline has drawn comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. You playin’ with me? Yes, well, there are a lot more cars in GTAIV. And the game’s protagonist, a Serbian immigrant named Niko Bellic, has neither a clean license nor a clean conscience. Despite the increased focus on the thematic and shooting action, most of GTAIV’s single-player missions still mandate mastery of a wide range of vehicles. From the start of the first mission, to the usual drug deliveries, to driving a big rig filled with explosives through city streets, Grand Theft is pistonhead catnip. As you’d expect, car chases and street races present some of the game’s toughest– and most rewarding– challenges.

While the simulated car’s simulated physics are more realistic than previous GTA iterations, that’s a bit like saying Sam Wiggle is a better singer than Greg. GTAIV’s driving dynamics are still more Roadrunner than road-worthy. A sharp handbrake turn at 30mph can set a car on its side. Hardly real world reflective. Or, as Travis Bickle might say, I could tell by the way they related there was no connection whatsoever.

Assuming you don’t hail a cab, the game begins behind the virtual wheel of a crappy-looking late 80s Buick look-a-like. All the cars in GTAIV look like real-world automobiles, with subtle and no-so-subtle “enhancements.” No points for guessing what a “Coquette” or “Dukes” would like to be when it grows up. Just in case a manufacturer might get upset about ripped-off whips engaging in criminal activities, GTAIV’s programmers occasionally hedge their bets by morphing two cars into one. The “Infernus” combines a Lamborghini Gallardo front end and a Pagani Zonda butt. Like the game itself, the $1.5m cut-and-shunt is strangely satisfying.

Each car offers specific driving dynamics: front wheel-drive cars understeer. All wheel-drive SUVs feel heavy in corners, and then pull strongly out of them. In this game, weight matters. In a “Patriot”, the only things that will scare you are big rigs, walls and tiny trees. More importantly, driving skill is (now) a critical factor; poor drivers will suffer immensely through the many vehicular missions. That goes double for the multiplayer races. The old turn-and-handbrake technique is no longer sufficient. Multi-tap subtlety is required to negotiate a bend “just right.”

Dab hands will opt for the first person view from behind the windshield. That’s where the sound of the stereo is drowned out by engine roar (or sputter, if you’re driving some old junk). Talk about aural sex… While the powerplants’ sonic signatures aren’t as faithful as, say Gran Turismo, they’re even more addictive. SUVs have booming big-block V8s, flat 6s wail and tasty imports provide plenty of turbo whine. The radio doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a bit of a shame; a multitude of stations offer some wikkid variety, from DJ Iggy Pop to NPR-style talk radio.

The game’s main mission is good for removing at least 30 hours from your life. Side missions can take up an additional 10 hours, hidden jumps and hunting for “flying rats” notwithstanding.

Despite some poor textures up close, the graphics are where it’s at. The game’s main appeal resides in its setting and the clever dialogue, not its racing qualities. Humorous touches abound, entrance and delight. Liberty City’s Statue of happiness holds a cup of RF’s favorite brew. Even without excessive caffeination, driving around is a buzz– enough to make random meandering almost as much fun as the game’s trademark violence. Bonus: the weather changes randomly, including rain and fog, which alter a car’s handling.

Rating:

Overall, 5/5 stars. Other than repetitive missions, it’s a real show stopper.

As a racing game: 4/5 stars. Gran Turismo and the Forza series are far superior. Then again, if you’re an aspiring gangsta– and who isn’t?– this is the place to be.

By on December 15, 2008

Need for Speed Prostreet is a huge departure from the NFS series, featuring only legal racing. That’s right; the ultimate “I don’t wanna grow up” game has grown up. By banishing typical NFS staples – illegality, police chases and near-invincibility – EA Sports has made a serious racing game. Unfortunately, that places ProStreet squarely in the crosshairs of established franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, who’ve cornered the market on “serious racing.” Against this lethal competition, ProStreet falls far short of establishing a beachhead.

The game’s heart is its career mode, which is structured in a series of “Race Day.” Each race day has a minimum point requirement for victory. If you collect enough points after a few races, you don’t need to finish the entire event to unlock more Race Days. However, you can choose to continue an already-won Race Day to collect even more points and earn a “Domination” victory, which unlocks better rewards and gives you more cash.

And so, you go from Race Day to Race Day, unlocking other Race Days. Gone is the “Free Roam” which allows you to meander through the city, exploring the limits of the car or trying to incite the police play bumper tag with you. All the various types of races within each Race Day are standard fare for experienced Xbox racers: straight-up races, time trials, sector shootouts and drag races. The only “free time” allowed is race practice.

It’s not a bad set-up for a pure racing game, but there are many disappointments. Track-based drag racing, for example, is new to the NFS franchise. It was an idea that must’ve sounded cool to a bunch of geeky car/gamer guys sitting around on bean bags, but wasn’t. Each NFS drag race starts with a burnout. The goal: heat your tires by keeping your revs in a specified power band. Do well and you’ll be catapulted at the green light.

From there, drags are ridiculously easy. Time your shifts to claim a victory. Presto. No race lasts longer than 24 seconds. (Surprise!)  In other words, it’s pure tedium; especially since most Race Days include at least one drag event. In comparison to the canyon duels– an innovative wrinkle introduced in NFS Carbon– drag racing is a non-crashing bore.

The other issue with Race Days: car typing. When you buy a ride, you select one type of racing for the vehicle: grip (standard racing), speed, drag or drift. Switching a car from one mode to another deletes all previous tuning. Obviously, some semi-pro racers optimize their cars for one type of event. But forcing gamers to do the same adds little value to the game, and another dollop of ennui. It seems obvious to me that a stock Corvette Z06 would be a competent dragster and time-attacker all at once.

Another unfortunate mystery: why an all wheel-drive (AWD) car can’t enter drift events. Seriously. I can still recall earning the “Drift King” achievement in NFS Carbon with an AWD R34 Skyline, a car known for its ability to drift. Yet in the next game of the series, the car is apparently unable to drift.

On the other hand, ProStreet introduces damage modeling to the series. Not there’s much to it; there three basic states of damage, each of which hampers your performance slightly. And of course, it costs money to repair your car (which you must do at the end of each Race Day). Unfortunately, there’s no distinction as to what’s been damaged (e.g., steering, engine, gearbox) and how each type of damage hinders you.

Forza’s guiding line is shamelessly aped, though ProStreet’s line is nowhere near as accurate. Follow it at your own risk. Most cars handle like buses at any speed above 40 mph. Some car rumps still have that cartoonish jiggle under acceleration. The steering is vague and imprecise as always. Visuals are not much better than Forza Motorsport 2 (released a year earlier) either.

NFS, in any incarnation, has never been a purist’s driving game. As long as it had that taboo underground  feeling, the arcade feel and a city to explore, you’d forgive the unrealistic driving, where brakes are an afterthought and a Viper can hit 120 mph in 1.5 seconds. In a more adult setting, NFS’ driving flaws are laid bare.

And yet someone at EA decided to let NFS step up into the big leagues. Wong answer. Let’s hope EA returns ProStreet to the streets or… no, that’s it. That’s what they need to do.

By on October 23, 2008

One day, we’ll look back fondly on the rivalry between Xbox and Playstation. Inevitably, we’ll discuss the competing pairs of game that these consoles offered, genre by genre, sequel by sequel. We’ll debate Final Fantasy vs. Oblivion, Halo vs. Resistance, and ,of course, Gran Turismo (“GT”) vs. Forza Motorsport. And everyone will pick the Playstation(s)’s GT series. That said, Xbox owners need not lament as the Xbox’s own flagship racer is a solid game indeed and one of the most intuitive, purest racing games available today.

Forza Motorsport 2 offers several modes, the most interesting of which is the career mode. Don’t look for any story here; this game is all about racing. Period. There are no drug package deliveries, no free roam, and certainly no police chases. The entire concept of career mode is to finish a series of races to unlock a harder series of races where better cars can be used.

Starting out as a grassroots racer, you’ll take your track toy to humble, simple tracks to hone your skills. Forza offers all manner of driving aids for the beginner: automatic transmission, ABS, traction control and stability management. Minor point of irritation: all driving aids are available to all cars, even cars that have no business having them. You can now recreate the legendary Ferrari 312P / Ford GT40 face-off, only with traction control.

The best driving aid, of course, is the famous Forza guiding line. Not only does it provide an approximation of the best driving line, it glows red and green to prompt you towards the optimal speed along this line. It’s such a good teacher (or I’m such a bad driver), that I found my lap times dropping drastically on other driving games after playing this one. Of course, to achieve the “elite” times you see on Xbox live, you’ll have to learn to do things on your own. The guiding line doesn’t cut chicanes where possible. Worse yet, the automatic transmission shifts a wee bit before the redline, depriving you of that last ounce of the engine’s power.

As your driving improves, you’ll find it natural to step into better and better cars, on better and better tracks. Each step along the way is well-nuanced; a feat that sets Forza apart from other racers. Early on, the lo-po FWD compacts are forgiving and easy. Midway through, the Ferrari F430 or Corvette Z06 makes you honest about being smooth on the buttons, lest you lock-up going into a bend or spin out coming out of one. Near the end, the Le Mans LMP1 cars will truly test your testicular fortitude.

It’s evident the developers focused on car behavior. Each car, even compared to cars in the same class, has a unique personality. The Ferrari Enzo isn’t shy about singing the family tune through its exhaust. There’s a weight penalty as your AWD Lancer Evo hits the end of a long straight. The Corvette’s ridiculous grip and snap oversteer are present. And so on. There’s no doubt about it, Forza is one of the most faithful reproduction of the driving experience available in videogames today.

The driving dynamics’ gain, though, came at the expense of almost every other aspect of the game. None are major gripes, but taken as a whole, they leave Forza feeling somewhat unfinished.

Being a nice guy, I’ll call the graphics and re-used crowd representations “understated”. Customization is disappointing, especially on higher-end cars. Some of the Le Mans cars can’t even be tuned at all.

Then there are the tracks. Forza 2 offers less tracks than the game before it. The stalwarts are back, but it’s infuriating to buy the game and then pay to download a track as inane as a plain oval on Xbox live. At least the tracks that are included are faithfully represented. You’ll see just how annoying Laguna Seca’s corkscrew can be, or how challenging it is to apex through the carousel on the Nordschleife.

Unfortunately, the interiors come right out of the GM playbook. Every single car has the same interior. The cockpit of your Porsche 914 and my Ferrari P333: identical. Considering many games published a year before this one had distinct interiors, it’s as forgivable as the Corvette and the Aura sharing a steering wheel. Ahem.

My biggest gripe, though, is the number of cars per race: Eight. MAX. In that formation, you’ll find yourself all alone for huge stretches on the game’s bigger tracks – sometimes for entire laps! No one signed up for time attacks, Microsoft.

For Forza 2’s designers, game play was job one – and it’s apparent in every aspect of the game. This game’s realism and driving experience are unmatched.

Bottom line: **** Far from perfect, but you will never stop to ponder the game’s flaws as you hear your tires thumping along Sebring raceway.

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