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All reviews - Games (111)

Call of Duty: United Offensive review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 04:21 (A review of Call of Duty: United Offensive)

United Offensive is an excellent expansion that takes the intensity of Call of Duty and ratchets it up even higher.

There's no doubt that Call of Duty was one of the standout shooters of 2003 thanks to its addictive blend of intense single-player action and wild multiplayer gameplay. By taking its cues from Hollywood movies and television shows such as Band of Brothers, Call of Duty manages to immerse you in a virtual cinematic experience as you fight the battles of World War II on the front lines. So it's not too hard to imagine that developer Gray Matter faced a daunting task when it was asked to make an expansion for Call of Duty, which was originally developed by Infinity Ward. However, apparently Gray Matter was more than up to the task, because the developer took everything that was great about Call of Duty and then ratcheted the gameplay's intensity even higher. The result is that Call of Duty: United Offensive is a truly great expansion.

United Offensive follows a similar format to that found in Call of Duty. You play as three Allied soldiers--an American paratrooper, a British SAS commando, and a Soviet infantryman--who are caught in the great struggle against Nazi Germany. Over the course of the single-player campaign, you'll go from the frozen siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge to the epic German counterattack at Kursk. Throughout most of the campaign, you'll participate in huge, heavily scripted, set-piece battles that make the squad-based battles in Call of Duty look downright minuscule in comparison.

A good case in point involves Bastogne, which represents the opening segment of the expansion. After a short joyride in an American jeep through German lines (not unlike the similar sequence found in Call of Duty), you and your fellow paratroopers have to repulse a powerful German attack on American lines. While a battle in Call of Duty usually involved Germans that came at you in manageable numbers at a time, the sheer number of opponents that the computer throws at you in United Offensive is almost overwhelming (at times). We're not just talking infantry, either, because the Germans come at you with tanks and half-tracks as well. With gunfire and tracer fire all around, you must run from foxhole to foxhole in a desperate defense of the lines. And just when you think that things can't get more intense, P-51 fighter-bombers streak in on devastating bombing runs. It's an awe-inspiring moment, to say the least.

The expansion switches gears a bit for the British portion of the campaign by starting you off as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress that's on a bombing mission over Germany. It's a visually stunning sequence, though you don't get to do much other than shoot down waves of incoming Luftwaffe fighters. Luckily, it's a one-time event, so you'll spend the rest of the British campaign on the ground partaking in commando missions that are probably closest in scale and scope to those found in Call of Duty. These include a Guns of Navarone-style mission where your team must destroy coastal guns that are threatening the invasion of Sicily. While packed with variety, the British segment of the campaign feels relatively low-key compared to the rest of the expansion, mainly because it lacks the massive set-piece battles that are at the heart of the American and Soviet segments of the campaign.

Thankfully, the gameplay returns to over-the-top form with the Soviet portion of the campaign, where you and your Soviet comrades face Hitler's last major offensive on the eastern front. This segment weaves from chaotic trench warfare to house-to-house--and even room-to-room--combat as you attempt to clear the Germans from a broken and burned-out city. It culminates in a climactic battle for a rail yard that pits you against oncoming German infantry and tanks, with Stuka dive-bombers making strafing runs over your positions. It definitely makes for a harrowing experience.

About the only complaint about the single-player campaign is that it's not that long. The fast pace of the action works against the game, because there's somewhere between six and 10 hours of total gameplay, depending on how proficiently you're able to get past the tough parts, of which there are many. On the medium difficulty level, you can generally get past most battles and encounters after one or two attempts, but there are some notable sequences that may require a greater number of tries. The key in those situations is to recognize what the problem is and to figure out a way around it. The original Call of Duty featured its own fair share of challenging, almost puzzle-like sequences like these, so the overall level of difficulty in United Offensive is actually about the same.

You'll also get some new toys to play with, including semiautomatic rifles for the Germans and Soviets, which represent more than welcome additions. Another big addition is the machine gun, like the German MG34 and the American .30-caliber, which can deliver a heavy rate of fire but which can only be used while stationary and prone. And since Gray Matter developed Return to Castle Wolfenstein, it's not too surprising to see that it has imported the memorable flamethrower from that game to United Offensive.

After you've exhausted the single-player campaign, you can look forward to the impressive new multiplayer modes in United Offensive, which reinvent the multiplayer features from Call of Duty. For example, there are 11 new, huge maps that easily dwarf the largest multiplayer levels from Call of Duty. United Offensive also introduces vehicles to the mix--mainly jeeps and tanks. Jeeps are useful for scooting around the map quickly, while tanks have their obvious benefits. Tanks aren't too overwhelming, though, since both teams have access to armor, and there is usually plenty of antitank weaponry laying around for infantry. Snipers are less of a problem with tanks around, and it also helps that the maps are so large that snipers are more spread out. In fact, one of the nightmares of Call of Duty's multiplayer was the high concentration of snipers on relatively small maps, which often turned the entire affair into camping fests.

The new multiplayer modes certainly feel influenced by the popular Battlefield 1942, particularly with the addition of the vehicles. The domination mode is very much like Battlefield 1942's conquest mode in that each team must take over a set of strategic points on the map to win. Though it lacks the sheer variety of Battlefield 1942 in terms of settings and vehicles, it still makes for a fun gameplay experience as your team has to use combined arms tactics effectively in order to win. Base assault is another new mode that should prove popular, as the goal for each team is to destroy the opposing team's bunkers. The catch is that destroying a bunker is a two-stage affair. First, the bunker has to be shattered by heavy weapons fire, and then infantry must run into the gutted ruins to plant explosives. The maps themselves are well designed, and most of them offer a mix of huge, open areas for vehicle combat, along with narrow, indoor areas that are perfect for close-quarters infantry combat. A good example of this is the Berlin level, which offers narrow streets for tanks to roam, and plenty of gutted buildings where infantry can hide and lay ambushes, as well as a sewer system to move around. Then there's Kharkov, which features huge, wide-open avenues, as well as rooftops where infantry can rain antitank rounds down on tanks.

Another welcome multiplayer addition is a ranking system that rewards players for helping their teams win the match. Above each player is a rank symbol, which resets at the beginning of each match. The more you help your team win by seizing objective locations, the higher you rise in rank. A high rank means that you get special bonuses, like extra grenades, and at higher ranks, you have access to binoculars which can be used to call in powerful artillery strikes. The rank system is a good incentive to actually work as a member of the team rather than running around as a lone wolf, as you get more points for seizing objectives than you do for simply killing the enemy.

It's worth mentioning that we encountered a slight bug while playing United Offensive. The expansion retains Call of Duty's mechanic that prevents you from opening doors on your own. As a result, you have to wait for another soldier to run up and open a door for you. The problem is, we ran into a couple of instances in which the scripting broke, and that soldier didn't appear. So then we had to go back to an earlier save point. Also, though you can quicksave the game at any point, it automatically saves at certain checkpoints, which is helpful when you're caught up in the game's action. However, when you're low on health, the autosaving doesn't kick in (apparently so that you aren't stuck at death's door if you load up the saved game). We mistakenly thought this was a bug as we played through long stretches without any autosaving.

As testament to the sheer amount of chaos on the screen, United Offensive pushes the aged Quake III engine to its limits, and even high-end machines may stutter at times to keep up with all the action. However, the action is generally smooth, and the graphics have even been improved a bit from Call of Duty. In particular, explosions and smoke effects are rendered beautifully now, and it's a visual treat to watch an artillery barrage rain down around you. You'll see trees shatter, huge plumes of dirt will kick up into the air, and the earth will shake all around you. And, yes, the excellent sound effects that were in Call of Duty are back, from the overwhelming noise of gunfire and explosions to the squeal of tank treads in the distance to the dreaded sound of a Stuka dive-bomber coming in for a bombing run.

By turning up the intensity, United Offensive breathes new life into Call of Duty, which is saying quite a bit, because Call of Duty is an impressive game by itself. Nonetheless, this is an excellent expansion. The single-player campaign may be a bit brief, but it's packed with plenty of cinematic moments, and the new multiplayer gameplay should keep you busy long after you've blown through the single-player game. It's a no-brainer to say that United Offensive is a must-have if you enjoyed Call of Duty.

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NASCAR The Game 2011 review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 03:53 (A review of NASCAR The Game 2011)

It gets the job done, but NASCAR 2011 is a better reminder of the great old NASCAR games than it is a good game in its own right.

The Good

Often captures the tension of actual NASCAR racing
Looks and sounds good
Invitational events add some variety.

The Bad

Online play is a disaster
Caution flags don't always fly when they should
Inconsistent AI, inconsistent challenge.

Naysayers dismiss driving in a NASCAR game as simply "turning left," but series enthusiasts know that there's more to it than that. Driving with 42 others in a NASCAR race demands focus and precision, and when it's running on all cylinders, NASCAR 2011: The Game does a good job of simulating that tension. One tiny rub can be disastrous, so you must push ahead carefully, drafting behind drivers in front of you while being mindful of those that would take advantage of an opening. Alas, not all is well on these tracks. Online play is the most troubled aspect: leaderboards are hilariously broken, and the racing itself isn't far behind. Elsewhere, caution flags are slow to wave or simply never come. These and other flaws frequently hinder the game's authenticity, though that doesn't mean you won't have some fun, particularly if you stick to short races and avoid grueling multi-hour marathons. Just be prepared to encounter a number of fits and starts on your way to NASCAR glory.

Career mode offers the most mileage, dropping you in the shoes of a known NASCAR driver or one of your own making, and putting you through the paces, from Daytona to Homestead-Miami. Fans should note that as of this writing, the game is based on the 2010 schedule, so sponsors, car designs, the point system, and so on aren't necessarily current. An update is scheduled to bring these aspects of the game up to date, though that might be cold comfort to those expecting the 2011 season to be represented right out of the box. In any case, you take to the circuits one at a time and make your way through a 36-race season, including the road course races on Watkins-Glen International and Infineon Raceway. The mode is functional, but it's also dry and straightforward--no substitute for the impressive and extensive Fight to the Top modes in older NASCAR games. Even victory celebrations are subdued. Your driver dances about and breaks out the champagne while surrounded by fist-pumping fans, but this canned display gets old, and the roar of the crowd sounds more like a mild sigh.

Once qualification begins, NASCAR 2011's presentation picks up. You could nitpick the blurry crowd textures, but tracks and vehicles look good, and you aren't likely to notice the idiosyncrasies once the game is in motion. Light shines brightly off your hood, the rear-view mirror displays proper reflections, and the asphalt shows authentic-looking skid marks. Just the right amount of motion blur imbues a proper sense of speed, and as long as you're focused on the road and on the cars (as you should be), you probably won't notice cookie-cutter palm trees and such. Crashes are another matter. Fenders get dented and hoods fly off, but collisions that seem as if they should cause spectacular damage don't necessarily bring dramatic results. More consistent is the way NASCAR 2011 re-creates the roar and buzz of vehicles on the track, which is enough to instill excitement, but is never overwhelming. Doug Rice and Mark Garrow enthusiastically introduce each race, though your spotter is the only voice you hear behind the wheel. He's good company to have, even if his advice ("Clear on the inside") often comes too late. You may also tire of his limited number of lines; judging from his comments, NASCAR spotters drop an inordinate number of hot dogs on fans.

Outside of the career mode, you can take any car to any track for a one-off race, or compete in eliminator events in which you set the number of challengers. These modes hold no surprises, so it's up to NASCAR 2011's invitational events to provide some diversity, and they do a decent job of it. You unlock these as you progress through your career, and they come in a few varieties. Perhaps the most interesting are legends challenges, in which you must draft other drivers to unlock collectible coins. A satisfying whoosh and slight controller rumble make it enjoyable to draft, so an event focused on this mechanic is a good addition. Time trials, elimination events, and two-part gauntlet races round out the invitationals, some of which require particular skill. (It isn't easy to earn a gold medal on Infineon.) They also earn you extra NASCAR experience points (NXP), which unlock paint schemes and other rewards.

Behind the wheel, NASCAR 2011 makes a good first impression, and the driving model is smooth and consistent enough that it feels good to take to the track. NASCAR newcomers should be able to jump right in, and there are a number of driving assists to help them get used to the demands of circuit races. Such assists (braking, steering, wheel-spinning, and more) can be tweaked to various degrees, and you can feel their effects on the track when adjusting these settings. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty, you can customize individual tire pressure, brake bias, differential ratio, and so on. If you don't know your camber angle from your caster angle, you can simply choose a preset designed for the course at hand. Neophytes may also appreciate the proximity radar at the bottom of the screen, which shows you any vehicles in the immediate vicinity.

Regardless, the driving hits the right notes, rewarding you when sticking close to a proper racing line and requiring you to draft and pick up speed so that you might slingshot ahead. The game assigns you a rival in each race, and beating him (or her) gives you a little extra incentive to drive well, though this is a far cry from NASCAR Thunder 2004's involved rivalry/alliance system. In NASCAR 2011, the track is your greatest rival; scraping the wall might throw you out of your rhythm, while a misconceived attempt to slide into an opening might lead to disaster. Assuming you're racing more than a few laps and have turned on tire wear and damage, you also need to pay mind to your fuel gauge and vehicle condition. This affects your efficacy on the course, and in long races, you need to make a pit stop when necessary to replace tires and fuel up.

Given a little time, NASCAR 2011's flaws become readily apparent. One of the first issues you may encounter is the inconsistency of caution flags. Minor contact between two AI cars in the rear can trigger an immediate yellow flag, but if you are involved in a 15-car pileup, the flag might never fly. On such an occasion, you might use NASCAR 2011's rewind feature to turn back the clock and try again, though you get only limited chances per race. Or you might continue on, though going from the front of the pack to the rear is frustrating in any race, whether it's a five-lap quickie or a 400-mile marathon. Such tests of endurance highlight other issues, many of them related to the AI. Drivers exiting the pit drive directly into the pack without thought and tend to bunch up and slow down too much around certain turns. The AI performs better on certain tracks than others. For example, on medium difficulty (and sometimes even on hard), it isn't that challenging to grab pole position for most courses and then lead the pack for the majority of the race, even if you hit the wall every so often. On the other hand, you could maintain a good line and top speeds on Daytona and still not qualify in the top 10.

Off the track, there are a couple of features to keep you occupied, paint customization being at the top of the list. NASCAR 09 let you create custom designs in a paint program like Photoshop and upload them to an online locker; now, you need to do all of your cosmetic configuration in-game. Fortunately, the in-game tools are robust, though to gain access to every sponsor logo, you need to unlock them by meeting certain criteria. Otherwise, you get a huge selection of basic shapes, flags, flames, comical faces, and much more right off the bat. Imaginative players will enjoy creating their own decals using these tools, though you don't have to be an artist to customize a vehicle that would look at home on the NASCAR circuit.

It's a pity that there is no easy way to share your paint schemes with others in the manner of Forza Motorsport 3, though PlayStation 3 owners have already devised a clever workaround for this drawback. That isn't the only area in which the PlayStation 3 release gets the upper hand, however. While both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions let you edit and save race highlights, PS3 players can upload those videos (as long as they are under a minute in length) to YouTube directly from the game. Unfortunately, the uploaded videos are uneven, often resulting in choppy video and audio, even when you select the "medium" quality setting. And neither platform offers a direct way to upload and share the photos you can take. (Though again, enterprising PS3 owners have come up with a clever alternative.)

If you want to leave behind the inconsistencies of the offline AI, you can head online and seek friendly competition there, though you're more likely to find irritation than inspiration. A simple glance at the leaderboards is the first indication that trouble is just around the bend: most of them show record lap times of just a few seconds, or even zero. Once you've entered a race, the problems become even more apparent. All too often, you might be frozen in place, unable to race, while the few racers able to move intentionally zip about, crashing into the paralyzed competitors. It is difficult, but not impossible, to enter a smooth race, though public matches are plagued by players intent on spoiling the fun with intentional crashes and other such shenanigans. Your best bet is to hook up with friends. Presuming a lag-free race, racing with like-minded individuals is enjoyable as you focus on maintaining the line while swapping positions and slingshotting forward after some effective drafting.

For Sprint Cup fans, NASCAR 2011 is the only game in town, and the more forgiving of you will enjoy your time behind the wheel. The basic racing feels good and is customizable enough that you should find a sweet spot that suits your level of racing expertise. When the game finds its groove, it delivers a good sense of enjoyable tension that rewards smart, controlled driving. Unfortunately, the more deeply you dig, the deeper the hole NASCAR 2011 digs itself into. There's a lot of room for this series to improve, and developer Eutechnyx need only look to the superior NASCAR games of previous generations for proper inspiration.

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DiRT Showdown review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 12:43 (A review of DiRT Showdown)

Dirt Showdown is a satisfying mix of driving tricks and destruction wrapped up in the slickest of presentations.

The Good

Varied deformation models make for satisfying destruction
Sharp presentation and smooth visuals
Wide range of event types
Online racing is masses of fun
Easy-to-master arcade handling.

The Bad

Single-player campaign lacks a proper career to nurture or narrative to follow
Cheesy commentary wears thin quickly.

UK REVIEW: There's a spectacle to Dirt Showdown that flies in the face of racing tradition: the jumps, the drifts, the squealing doughnuts, and the blinding flash of fireworks. With each crumpled bumper and shattered windscreen, a vast arena crowd roars, eager to be wowed not with the shaving of valuable seconds from a lap time, but with pyrotechnic-laden displays of driving that are as much about showmanship and destruction as they are about skilful precision. It's an intoxicating mix that forgoes the difficulty of simulation for a thrilling and beautifully presented arcade ride.

The biggest difference between Showdown and its predecessors is that the handling is surprisingly forgiving. You can whip your car around the tightest of corners without ever easing off the accelerator, while even the most dramatic twirls of the steering wheel don't send you hurtling headfirst towards a barrier like they used to. But there's still a balance to be found. The skill lies in the timing of your turns and the judicious tapping of your hand brake and boost to perform impressive drifts and show-stopping doughnut rings. It's a dramatically different feel, but one that lends itself beautifully to the events at hand.

Some, like the Hoonigan events, are all about precision and showmanship in licensed cars. The destructible blocks of Smash Hunter are intricately arranged to reward delicate turns and tight drifts, while a timer for high scores keeps the pressure on, and your speed up. There's more challenge to be had in Trick Rush events, where drifts, doughnuts, and jumps are scattered throughout cleverly designed environments. With each trick your multiplier climbs ever higher, resulting in a mad dash to rack up points before the timer runs down.

Most challenging are the head to head Gymkhana events, where you take on the mighty Ken Block in a trick-filled arena course. The turns are tighter, the jumps larger, and the pyrotechnics even wilder. But while the bright, neon fireworks and explosive confetti cannons certainly add excitement to the proceedings, it's the process of improving bit by bit, drawing ever closer to success and perfection that makes such events so entertaining and incredibly addictive.

But there's another side to Dirt Showdown, one that sheds the skill for mindless and supremely satisfying displays of destruction: Demolition events. The licensed cars are ditched in favour of made-up machines that are turned into crumpled heaps of scrap as you're launched into the centre of an arena to ram, slam, and boost your way into opponents, doing everything you can to whittle down their health bars and to score points. Enclosed arenas give you barriers to ram them against, while open arenas mean mistimed boosts send you spiralling out of control onto the surrounding sandy ground.

It's all very dramatic, and heaps of fun, despite the incredibly cheesy and quickly grating quips from the commentator. There's a sick satisfaction to be had from tearing into cars and ripping off bumpers, but of course, your competitors can do the same to you. And when a whole gang of them are chasing after you at once in Hard Target events, it becomes a tense battle for survival. There are more conventional events on offer, such as Lap Attack, Eliminator, and Domination races. But while cleverly designed figure-of-eight circuits and ramp-filled tracks keep the racing firmly in the arcade, these events are unremarkable when compared to the bombast of Gymkhana or the all-out carnage of Demolition.

A mix of all events makes up the Showdown Tour career mode. There are four stages to play through, each consisting of 15 events that take you on a tour of the world. There are the colourful lights and sharp corners of Tokyo; the dusty roads and sweeping drifts of the Baja California circuits; the slippery snow-covered slopes of Colorado; and the wide-open industrial spaces of Battersea. All are beautifully presented, showcasing the typically great circuit design that Codemasters is famed for. The ability to purchase new cars or upgrade their basic stats such as power and handling using money you earn is a nice incentive to progress, but without a narrative or character to develop, it can get a little tiresome.

The events really come into their own when you take them online or compete via two-player split-screen. Smashing AI opponents is one thing, but when it's your friend's car you've turned into scrap, that's a whole other level of satisfaction. Even the race events are more enjoyable, thanks to the inevitable smashing of opponents' cars as you drive around a circuit. There's also the option to split into teams, thrusting you and seven other players into epic battles for destruction domination. It all comes together brilliantly, giving you the feeling that perhaps Showdown always was intended to be an online experience, even if the single-player is hardly a rush job.

That said, Showdown has one more single-player trick up its sleeve in the form of Joyride. Its large, free-roaming levels offer up a range of fun quick-fire missions for you to complete. Some are in the form of tricks like performing death-defying leaps or tight drifts. Others are speed challenges where you race through tight circuits as quickly as possible. There are hidden Showdown icons to collect too. With all there is to do, you can spend lots of time simply enjoying a drive around a Joyride level and picking off missions. Plus, your scores and times can be sent over to friends as challenges for them to complete, which is a nice touch.

Competing with friends really is the best way to enjoy Dirt Showdown. Sure, the single-player campaign is pleasant enough, but it's nothing compared to the joy of online destruction and the satisfaction of nailing those most impressive of skilful driving tricks in front of an audience. And when it's delivered via some of the smoothest and most stunning visuals in the racing genre, it's easy to see how you can get lost for hours in Showdown's bombastic world. If you're looking for the next great rally simulator, you won't find it here. But to ignore Dirt Showdown because of its arcade styling would be to deny yourself one of the most satisfying of pleasures: that of mindless, over-the-top, and--above all--deliciously addictive destruction.

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The Fast and the Furious review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 11:43 (A review of The Fast and the Furious)

Aside from the name, this street racer has little to distinguish itself from an already crowded field.

The Good

Good variety of licensed cars, aftermarket parts
It says "The Fast and the Furious" right on the box.

The Bad

Limited number of race types
Tracks get repetitive quickly
Inconsistent frame rate
Early races can be easily exploited to kill any semblance of challenge.

If there is one force that can be credited for jump-starting the current mass popularity of the street racing culture, it's the 2001 film The Fast and the Furious. The Vin Diesel/Paul Walker movie's slick sense of style and glamorization of illegally racing highly modified production cars were cribbed almost verbatim by games like Need for Speed Underground and the handful of uninspired also-rans that followed in NFSU's wake. Five years after the film's release, Namco Bandai and Eutechnyx have finally squeezed out a game based on The Fast and the Furious, and ironically, it feels like one of those uninspired also-rans cribbed from The Fast and the Furious in the first place. It's not an entirely bad street racer, but it does nothing new, and it makes pretty lousy use of the license.

The game takes a stab at relevance by basing itself largely on the most recent film in the franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and accordingly, all of the driving takes place in and around Tokyo. Though you'll see the names of characters from the films dropped on occasion, the connection isn't overt, and the game doesn't really have a story of its own. You play as some nameless street racer, and your existence revolves around beating each member of all the different crews in Tokyo, along the way earning a lot of money to be spent on more cars and upgrades.

The Fast and the Furious is strictly about one-on-one races--which take place either on the Tokyo freeway system known as the Wangan or in the winding hills outside Tokyo known as the Touge--and where you race influences the racing style. The Touge is filled with the kind of hairpin turns that make drifting a necessity, while the Wangan is mostly straightaways littered with traffic. All across the city you'll find various hot spots where the different street racing crews are based, and from these different hot spots you can challenge anyone in the crew to a race of his or her choosing, though there aren't that many race types to choose from, and most are finished in well under four minutes. On the Wangan there are basic point-to-point races, as well as top-speed races that simply challenge you to achieve a higher top speed than your opponent before the end of the track. On the Touge, there are drift battles, where you're scored based on how well you drift around corners, and grip battles, which is really just another name for the same type of point-to-point races you'll do on the Wangan.

For a game called The Fast and the Furious, the game is frustratingly slow from the start. The cars you can initially select are painfully sluggish, and it's nearly impossible to do any worthwhile drifting. Additionally, there are only a few crews for you to challenge from the beginning. It can be frustrating as you bang away at opponents who simply outmatch you, though just because you beat an opponent doesn't mean you can't race that opponent again. With a little patience, you can take on the same inferior opponent over and over again, racking up the necessary bankroll to get a better car with some high-end upgrades. In fact, there's an early top-speed race that pays well enough that after a half-dozen repeated victories you can buy a car that will beat any of your opponents in the foreseeable future. The game encourages you to maintain two separate rides, one for straight racing and one for drifting, but by gaming the system, you can easily build a single car that capably suits both needs. And just like that, the game goes from feeling incredibly punishing to offering no challenge whatsoever.

There's kind of an open-world thing going on in The Fast and the Furious, and in between crew challenges you can just drive around the city, hitting various hot spots, dealerships, and tuner shops, though you can just as easily pull up the game's city map and instantly warp to a specific location, further shrinking the game's already streamlined, miniaturized take on Tokyo. There are a total of 80 different crew members for you to challenge, as well as 40 racers you'll meet out on the open road, whom you can challenge to a race on the spot by flashing your headlights. It's a good amount of racing, but even early on it seems like you're just racing on the same strips of road over and over again. The game also has a simple online component that lets up to four players race at once, though our experience with it wasn't particularly favorable. The game seemed to stutter when all four cars were in close proximity, which made for a lot of jumpy starts. Though there's no damage model for the cars in The Fast and the Furious, a little nudge from another car can easily cause a spinout, so most of our online races seemed to start with a lot of bumping and spinning out and one car coming out unscathed and so far ahead that the other cars had no chance of catching up.

To its credit, the game does feature a great variety of licensed production cars and aftermarket parts, with a focus on Japanese makes and models, which adds an air of authenticity to the game. In addition to loads of performance enhancements, you can customize the look of your cars with body kits, rims, spoilers, layer upon layer of vinyl decals, and a veritable rainbow of paint colors. For all the visual customizing you can do, though, in the end it's not very satisfying, due to the game's jagged presentation. As is rather popular within the genre of street racers, it's eternally nighttime in The Fast and the Furious, and artistically, the game does a decent job of presenting you with a cool, neon-tinged vision of Tokyo. Unfortunately, on the technical side, the game can't support that vision. Cars tend to look like boxy approximations of their real-world counterparts, and the colors always seem to look kind of flat, with lots of color-banding and low-res textures in the environments. There's some wicked aliasing, too, which fuzzes up the perspective to the point that it's difficult to tell where the road goes beyond a couple hundred yards ahead of you. The frame rate is also wildly erratic, something that the game tries to cover up with a screen rattle effect, though the constant shaking just makes it that much harder to look at. Save for some really unnatural-sounding squeals that you can get out of your tires, the sounds of the cars are unremarkable. The licensed soundtrack gets dragged down a bit by some songs that sound like they're there on behalf of the marketing department, but there's also some good dark electronic music and Asian hip-hop that seems in line with the tuner feel.

More than anything, The Fast and the Furious evokes a sense of indifference. The PlayStation 2 already has a wealth of similarly styled street racers, several of which offer a greater variety of driving, some semblance of a story, and a slicker presentation. Those looking for an extension of the films will be sorely disappointed, and those just looking for some solid street racing have no shortage of other, better options.

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Split/Second review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 11:36 (A review of Split/Second)

This shallow but rambunctious arcade racer may have only one trick up its sleeve, but it's a really good trick.

The Good

Power plays lead to some fiery thrills
Slick racing model with a good sense of speed
Survival and Airstrike modes are neat twists.

The Bad

Thin package that relies too much on a single mechanic
Scant online options
Lacks proper controller prompts.

Speeding down an airport runway in a shiny red sports car is cool; speeding down an airport runway with an out-of-control aircraft thundering toward you is insane. That's the idea behind Split/Second, an arcade racer in which you wreck your opponents by triggering destructive hot spots scattered all about the track. The frequent explosions, tumbling debris, and resulting tug-of-war among racers are undeniably stimulating, at least for a while. You'll whoop for joy when you demolish four opponents at once as they pass under a fuel station and moan aloud when a falling concrete beam crushes your vehicle like a beer can. These jolts are electrifying, but they aren't lasting ones. Once you learn the tracks and the tricks, the excitement dies away. Then, you realize that underneath the booms and bangs is a solid but one-dimensional racer that relies almost completely on a single mechanic. That mechanic isn't enough to boost Split/Second to the head of the pack, but it is still a fun racer with a lot of speed and a lot of spark.

Split/Second is all about power plays. As you zip about the 11 tracks (a 12th empty slot hints at the possibility of future downloadable content), you earn power by drifting, drafting, and getting air. Once you gain enough power, icons appear, indicating an opportunity to take down opponents by triggering a destructive event. If you press a button, a helicopter might drop metal pipes onto the course, a crane may go sliding across the roadway, or rocks and boulders may erupt from a canyon wall. Alternatively, you might trigger a bridge to be lowered or a door to be raised, opening up a temporary shortcut. If you trigger a level-two power play after completely filling your power bar, the devastation is even more dramatic. A chunk of roadway could collapse, changing that entire section of the course, or you might cause that enormous airplane to barrel menacingly down the runway. Just be mindful: You could fall victim to your own power play.

The first few times you unleash your newfound power on an opponent are breathtaking. Explosions and screeches are loud and obnoxious, and if you're driving a lighter vehicle, the powerful shocks might send you careening out of control for a moment. You won't always steer clear of trouble, however. Depending on your position and the timing of your opponent's power play, there may be no evading that enormous obstacle that comes crashing down in front of you. If you've ever cursed the unavoidable blue shell in the Mario Kart series, the inescapable events in Split/Second might annoy you. But getting wrecked is rarely frustrating, for several reasons. Firstly, power play triggers are intelligently laid out, so you aren't likely to get caught up in an inexorable string of accidents. (It's possible to respawn in the middle of more devastation and wreck immediately, but such aggravations are uncommon.) Secondly, the game gets you back into the race quickly after you crash. And thirdly, being behind the pack isn't really a bad thing because it gives you the opportunity to bust up the competition.

The single-player campaign is structured as a reality television show on which you are contestant. Split/Second doesn't do a whole lot with the premise (you won't meet any slimy TV producers or peek in on any bloodthirsty viewers), but each episode's introduction and credit sequence is produced so well that you look forward to seeing what courses you unlock next. Episodes and one-off events include the usual races and elimination matches, all limited to eight participants. There are a few additional modes worth noting, however. In Survivor mode, you earn points by passing a series of semitrucks as you circle around the course. There's some fine print, however: These trucks are dropping explosive barrels onto the track. The more trucks you pass without wrecking, the faster you accumulate points. In Air Revenge mode, you must avoid a helicopter's missile strikes long enough to trigger a power play that deflects the missiles back toward the badly behaving chopper. Neither mode features the environmental devastation that makes Split/Second stand out, but they make for fun and anarchic diversions nonetheless.

Yet even with the variety these and a couple of other extra modes add, Split/Second comes off as a bit basic. It doesn't take long to memorize each track, including power play locations. So while entire sections of the track may change if someone activates a level-two power play, the game doesn't offer as much flexibility and variety as Burnout: Paradise or even MotorStorm: Pacific Rift. If you strip away the power plays completely, you have a solid but unspectacular racer with few trimmings. You unlock new vehicles as you play with various stats relating to power, drifting, and so on, but there is no way to customize their appearance, aside from changing their color. You also unlock decals as you play, but they appear automatically on your vehicle. Fortunately, the racing itself is smooth; a low camera angle gives sports cars a terrific sense of speed, and drifting feels great, even in the slipperiest of vehicles. Collision sensitivity, however, can go a bit awry. Sometimes you can bang into a wall and emerge perfectly intact, while at other times, barely scraping a girder can result in an immediate crash. But these are rare moments in an otherwise dependable racing model.

Once you've cut your teeth on the single-player season, you can show off your racing and crashing expertise online. There's a rather bare-bones experience here. You can jump quickly into a race using the Public Game option, but the game cycles through tracks on its own. Conversely, you can host a match for friends and fill empty slots with AI racers, but you can't limit the vehicles allowed in the race or even set the number of laps. Nevertheless, while it lacks the peripheral online features you'd expect from a modern racer, multiplayer Split/Second is often a riot. The AI is aggressive, but computer opponents don't offer the cutthroat competition human players do. In full races, expect an intriguing tug-of-war as pack leaders fall victim to well-timed power plays from racers lagging behind. Besides, it's always a pleasure to destroy a competitor who previously caused an enormous wrecking ball to smash into the side of your racecar.

You can play Elimination and Survival matches with other players, though standard races offer the most pound-for-pound thrills. (Multiplayer Survival can get too chaotic for its own good.) There are some Xbox 360-specific online quirks that need sorting out, however. In that version, the game may report erroneous times and point totals should a competitor drop out midrace. This issue doesn't appear to affect the points you receive toward your overall ranking. However, it's still annoying for the game to indicate you are in first place as you cross the finish line, only for the results screen to erroneously report that an AI racer crossed the finish line two minutes beforehand. We didn't experience this issue in other versions of the game, though the PC version possesses a few foibles of its own. Most noticeably, the game's button prompts don't change if you've plugged in a controller, and in some cases, contextual prompts are completely missing. For example, you will get a prompt inviting you to view an instant replay, but for some reason, the game doesn't tell you how to view it.

Split/Second is unlikely to become your go-to racer, but while it lasts, it's one hell of a thrill ride. Tailing an opponent and taking advantage of his shortcut, watching a tall tower fall onto your speeding nemesis, drifting around a corner while miraculously avoiding destruction raining from the sky--these are great moments that will make you cry out in glee. This is a one-trick pony, and once you see through the trick, it's hard not to wish there was something more substantial to support it. But if you're in the mood for some rip-roaring fun with no strings attached, Split/Second makes for a boisterous weekend romp.

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Blur review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 11:28 (A review of Blur)

This fast and exciting racer continually finds a way to keep you circling around for another lap.

The Good

Driving is smooth and responsive
Weapons add a burst of energy to the standard racing action
Rewards system makes game difficult to put down
In-depth multiplayer mode is easy to lose hours to
Wide variety of tracks and cars.

The Bad

Split-screen mode is stripped
Level cap is too low in single-player.

Blur answers the long-contemplated question: What would happen if a speeding Renault dropped a land mine in front of a gaining Nissan at 130mph? The answer is, of course, a massive wreck, but it’s only now that Blur has merged the real-life cars from Project Gotham Racing with the over-the-top weapons more commonly found in the cartoony Mario Kart series that such questions can finally be laid to rest forever. This odd combination paves the way for an exhilarating racing experience with an absolutely relentless pace, but there is another element borrowed from a popular franchise that makes it even harder to put this racer down. An experience system similar to the one that worked so well in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has been integrated into the missile-shooting, corner-taking action, giving you a healthy stream of prizes for successfully pulling off specific maneuvers. The thrilling racing does hit a couple of rough patches, though. The drifting is a little too stiff, and the level cap in single-player can be hit long before you finish up your career. But once you get a handle on the driving, nothing can slow down your fun in this exciting racer.

Despite all the fancy rewards and destructive weapons in Blur, the most important aspect is still the driving, and thankfully, it's a blast to take to the road. This is a fast-moving game where quick reflexes are paramount to success, and the controls rarely get in the way of your chance to grab the checkered flag. You can smoothly glide between competitors, dodge land mines and missiles without any worry, and take tight turns at top speeds--at least after a bit of practice. The drifting is a bit stiff, and it can take a little finesse to steer yourself around corners without slamming into the wall. This stiffness can be mitigated by selecting a vehicle with more grip, allowing you to stay fully in control when cornering at the expense of speed. But once you get a handle on the timing needed to perform a perfect drift, it's a rush to scream around corners with style.

The early portions of the single-player campaign make it easy to learn how to drive on the fly, but the challenges become stiffer once you get deeper into the game. There are 63 events to compete in, topped off by nine bosses that are none too pleased that you're trying to wrest their racing crowns from them. There are three unique event types: racing, checkpoint, and destruction. In racing, you test your mettle against up to 19 other drivers, squealing around corners and unleashing weapons to claw your way to the top. Checkpoint removes the weapons and competitors, and the game is just as fun when you're focused on the smooth driving without anything to distract you from the road. Destruction flips that idea around, forcing you to dispatch as many nameless drivers as possible before your time is up. With only three different event types, there isn't a ton of variety, but the action is so engaging and fun that it hardly matters that your overall objective doesn't change much.

A lot of the enjoyment comes from the secondary objectives you need to complete. Every action you take in Blur is tracked and tallied, and rewards are doled out when you reach certain milestones. Rewards include new cars and passive modifications, giving you plenty of control over your on-track strategy. The mods give you all sorts of additional powers to play around with, such as earning turbo boost at the beginning of every lap or equipping your car with a laser sight to make shooting weapons easier. There are also mini challenges in every event that let you earn more fans which unlocks more cars after you gain enough. Every track has a checkpoint challenge where you must drive through a series of markers within a time limit, but there are more specific challenges as well that keep the racing fresh. These include hitting opponents with a missile while you're drifting or achieving a certain high speed, and it's a blast to strive for these goals while trying to overtake the car in first place. The only strange thing is how quickly you reach the maximum fan-level limit. In single-player, 25 is the highest level available, and you can reach this long before you finish all the events. There are still other rewards to strive for, but it's disheartening to reach your fan limit and be left without levels to strive for before you reach the end of the game.

The weapons have mostly been inspired by Mario Kart, but they're well balanced and provide a satisfying way to overcome your foes. The assortment of missiles, land mines, and homing bombs are expected inclusions, but most items have multiple uses that make you strategize a bit more. For instance, your force push attack can slam a nearby enemy into a wall or straight off the course, but you can also use it as a defensive mechanism. Time your button push right, and you can destroy a missile homing in on your tailgate. Also, unlike in Mario Kart, none of the weapons are overpowered. The lightning bolt does send three electrical clouds after the pack leader, but these are easy enough to avoid that they won't drastically upset the balance. Because defense is just as important as offense, the rearview mirror is incredibly useful. You need to have eyes in the back of your head to counter offensive barrages or accurately shoot missiles backward, so you have to learn how to protect your backside while still concentrating on where you're going.

All of these different elements culminate in a thrilling experience. Between the weapons and objectives, there is plenty of variety to be found in each race, with a new experience waiting for you every time you take to the track. And earning the right to challenge a boss takes more than just coming in first in enough races. Instead, every one of these battles comes with its own set of requirements, and it can be difficult to pass some of these tougher objectives. Some of these requirements come in the normal course of your racing. Passing drivers using a nitro burst or drifting for a set number of meters comes with the territory, but there are others that require you to change your tactics. Knocking an opponent into the water with a push attack or maintaining at least 120mph for an entire lap are not easy goals, but it's still a lot of fun to reach these lofty levels. The rewards system ensures that you have a chance to earn something even when you come in last place, always giving you an incentive to take on one more race.

The tracks are just as varied as the objective types, making each race feel unique. Although they are based on real locations, they are not necessarily realistic. One ridiculous track takes place directly behind the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, where one lousy turn could see you tumbling off a cliff. Another track takes place on the hilly streets of San Francisco, and as long as you don't mind slamming your undercarriage repeatedly against the ground, it's tons of fun swerving through this iconic city. There's also a one-lap course that takes place on a mountain. You have to navigate narrow, winding roads at top speeds, desperately trying to make it to the finish line in one piece. Because of the diversity in the track types, you need to plan a strategy ahead of time. Certain courses have so many tight corners that you need a car that's good at drifting, while others have dirt shortcuts that beg for an off-road vehicle. The assortment of tracks makes it interesting to play these courses again and again as you attempt to unlock all the rewards.

Once you finish the single-player experience, there is a multiplayer mode with its own rewards to strive for. Like in the campaign, you earn fans for pulling off fancy maneuvers during races, and these points go toward your overall level. Instead of being limited to the single-player level cap of 25, the independent level cap goes up to 50 in online play, giving you much more reason to keep getting out on the track to prove your worth. You unlock cars and modifications as you get deeper into the game, and it's a blast mixing and matching to form the perfect strategy for coming out in first place. When you first go online, you're limited to just a few different race types, but after leveling up for a few hours, the rest opens up to you. These include races with or without power-ups and even battle arenas on circular tracks. Adding to the online experience are challenges you can send to people on your friends list, giving them specific goals to try to beat. If you get an impressive time and high score during a race, you can see if your buddies are good enough to top your best. It's a lot of fun to send out and complete challenges, and the diversity in objectives ensures there's always something to strive for.

There's a split-screen mode as well, but this is far less entertaining than single-player and online multiplayer. First of all, there are no persistent rewards. Even though point markers appear whenever you strike your friend with a weapon or pull off a smooth turn, they don't accumulate, and there aren't any prizes to earn. This removes much of the appeal of the other modes in which striving for new toys to play with is almost as much fun as the racing. Furthermore, the rearview mirror has been taken out, which makes it difficult to play defensively during races. It's almost impossible to dodge attacks when you can't see them coming, so you find yourself immobilized far more often. Finally, you can't go online with a friend in tow. Split-screen is fun if you just want to play a quick race with a buddy, but it lacks any sort of long-term appeal and doesn't stack up to the other elements in the game.

The visuals also have a few rough patches. When your health gets too low, the screen throbs read, which is fine except that it makes it difficult to see the road in front of you while you’re desperately trying to stay alive. Crashes also leave a lot to be desired. When you tumble off a cliff or fly into the water, you passively watch your car fly off in the distance without a satisfying explosion. Everything else is technically proficient but lacks any sort of flair to keep your eyes entertained. The cars are nicely detailed and move at a breakneck speed, but everything has a generic look that makes it difficult for this game to stand out from the crowd. The one bit of personality Blur's visual exhibit is in the outlandish power-ups. The neon purple missiles and shocking blue lightning bolts add a dose of energy to the sterile view. The bland visuals don't take away the thrill of the high-speed action, but it lacks the artistic brilliance that could have made this a treat for your eyes.

Thankfully, the lame split-screen mode and unremarkable visuals won't keep you from enjoying this exciting racing game. The odd combination of Mario Kart and PGR is surprisingly fun, and the added rewards system makes it extremely difficult to put this racer down. Blur is so fast and fun to control that you can lose hours slamming into enemies and racking up fans, always coming back for one more race before you turn the system off and walk away. This unlikely marriage has created an offspring that does a fine job of honoring its well-respected parents.

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TOCA Race Driver 3 review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 11:10 (A review of TOCA Race Driver 3)

TOCA 3 boasts an awesome variety of racing disciplines, and it backs that boast up with some really excellent driving mechanics.

The Good

70 licensed cars, 80 licensed tracks, and more than 35 disciplines of racing
Two distinct career modes that should keep you busy for a while
Great graphics and sound
Online play is nicely customizable, and a lot of fun
The amount of realism in the damage modeling, physics, and opposing AI is delightful.

The Bad

Amount of precision required in some races can get frustrating
Online game browser could have used a little more work
Some of the ancillary visual components aren't so great.

Codemasters' TOCA Race Driver series has always been about two things: solid, simulation-based driving, and an insane amount of racing variety. Unlike most other racers out there, TOCA skips the usual methodology of sticking to one main type of racing and overloading the package with a ton of licensed cars. Certainly TOCA does have quite a few licensed vehicles, but they're spread across such a wide assortment of racing disciplines that at times it seems like no two races are ever alike. TOCA Race Driver 3 is the latest game in the series, and it's every bit as good as its predecessors, if not markedly better. The variety of race types has grown significantly, the driving remains a great deal of fun, and the game still presents itself extremely well.

TOCA 3 boasts more than 35 different types of racing, including open wheel, Indy cars, stock cars, GT, historic, off-road, rally, supertrucks, sprint cars, touring cars, monster trucks, and go-karts, among others. While this everything-to-everyone approach might seem like it would lead to a profoundly scattershot experience, it doesn't, because TOCA 3 knows exactly how to handle its business. No one discipline feels neglected in any way, whether it's handling, artificial intelligence, or visuals. But we'll get to all that stuff in a bit. You'll find quite a bit of car variety, with around 70 licensed vehicles in the game. Some races require one specific car type, meaning you won't get your choice in vehicles, but others offer multiple available cars. You can't go crazy and race a Formula Palmer Audi against a monster truck or anything like that, but really, you shouldn't be able to. TOCA 3 is first and foremost a simulation racer, so it maintains some strict guidelines for conduct.

From the moment you boot up the game, you're thrown directly into the action. Once you've created your profile, you actually launch directly into the middle of a race, where you'll start out behind and need to catch up. On the radio, a Scottish gentleman feeds you directions on how best to control your vehicle. Once you've finished the race, you're treated to a cutscene where your Scottish mechanic introduces himself and tells you how things work around there. Mainly, he talks about how true racers exude patience and control at all times. That's good advice, given the way TOCA 3 plays. Sticking to your racing lines and careful driving are rewarded practices, while frequent bumping and cutting corners are often penalized, both with specifically flagged race penalties, and also with what happens to your car when you drive on the infield too much or bump around like a crazy person.

TOCA 3 has some really excellent damage effects, specifically in regards to what damage does to your car, like when you go crashing into a wall at high speeds. For example, your transmission might get jacked up, causing you to shift gears at a slower, more erratic rate; your wheel alignment might go all higgledy-piggledy, forcing you to veer off to one direction or another if you don't hold the steering wheel tight; and your engine might just cut out altogether. Even simply driving onto the infield shows noticeable problems, as your tires start to cool down and collect all kinds of gunk. The visual representations of this damage vary in quality. Open-wheel racers tend to show the physical damage to the car better than most other cars, but if you wreck hard enough, you'll see some nice-looking damage to just about any vehicle.

The actual handling of the cars varies wildly between classes, though one thing remains constant: The faster the car, the more careful you'll need to be. There are 80 different worldwide tracks featured in TOCA 3, and the one thing they all have in common (save for the pure oval racing courses) is that they tend to feature a lot of tight turns that require precise driving to navigate. Even the dirt tracks and similarly offbeat courses need a bit of precision, lest you start sliding all over the place and bust up your car. Watching for turns is key; though, you'll likely experience a fair bit of trial and error with each track as you start to get used to its various curves. The aggressive opponent AI will often take advantage of your mistakes. On normal difficulty, it's not so hard to get back to a decent finishing position if you slide out or wreck, but on hard, it's damn near an impossibility. Fortunately, you can restart any race at any time, and while restarting races over and over again might be somewhat frustrating after awhile, it's a fair bit better than having to complete a race you know you can't win.

Above all else, racing in TOCA 3 just feels authentic. Sometimes cars might feel a bit floatier than they would seem like they ought to in a realistic scenario, and there are times where your car will magically survive wicked looking crashes with little more than cosmetic damage, but generally the feel of the car jibes with the terrain it's driving on, the speed you're traveling at, and most other mitigating factors. The opponent AI also works extremely realistically. They'll stick to their racing lines as steadfastly as they can, but if a wreck occurs right in front of them, they'll do their best to veer out of the way and get back ontrack. You'll see opponents overtake one another, occasionally wreck themselves, and generally behave as a real racer should. On normal difficulty, they do tend to take turns a bit too conservatively, which makes it much easier for you to roll up and overtake a bunch of racers at once. But on hard difficulty, that behavior pretty much goes away entirely.

Apart from being able to do all these types of races in a typical free race mode, TOCA 3 actually offers two distinct career modes. The world tour is similar to the career mode found in TOCA 2, in that it's a story-based affair where you play as an up-and-coming driver new to the scene, and the aforementioned Scottish fellow works as your primary manager, mechanic, and confidant. The story here is mostly incidental. You simply go through the mode's 32 racing tiers bit by bit, placing in certain spots to advance. Cutcenes will often play between races, but there isn't much of a real plot going on in this game like there was in the last one. You'll see a bit of rivalry going on between you and another racer, but that's about it. This isn't a bad Sylvester Stallone racing movie, though, and there doesn't need to be a bunch of manufactured drama. Being able to race through 32 tiers of racing events, and between a wide variety of races, is more than enough. The other mode is the pro career mode. Here, you simply pick a specific racing discipline, like classics or open-wheel racing, and progress through every track and championship that discipline has to offer. It's a nice progression, as you'll start with the easiest cars and move up to the most fearsome racing machines.

There's also standard split-screen multiplayer, system link play, and online on all versions of the game. The PS2 version only supports eight players online, but the PC and Xbox versions support 12. When you're hosting a game online, you can pick from any of your available championships, disciplines, and cars, and you can play through a full series or just go race by race. Like TOCA 2, the game uses a unique ranking system that adds or detracts points to your overall ranking score depending on how you perform. You can also designate exactly how much you want the races to be focused on the rules, so you can severely penalize people for bumping, cutting corners, or just generally racing like jerks. Or you can just let them be jerks--it's entirely your prerogative. The one thing missing from the server browser is a designation of when a hosted game has already begun. As a result, you may find yourself wandering into a few too many games that have already started, and then you'll be forced to go looking again or just wait around until they've finished. The performance between the different versions mostly held up well during our testing. We ran into next to no lag on the PS2 or Xbox versions, and only intermittent lag on the PC version, which mainly occurred in matches against racers from across the pond.

TOCA 3 also features an excellent presentation across the board. The car models in this game look absolutely wonderful, and again, the ways in which they deform are quite amusing, especially with the open-wheel vehicles. The physics are largely realistic, and watching a race replay (provided you didn't drive around like an alcoholic) really is a lot like watching the real thing unfold in front of you. The race tracks are very much representative of the real-life courses, though you'll see decidedly more effort in the actual tracks themselves than the stuff in the periphery. Road textures, like the infield and things of that nature, are all great, but the stands and distant background set pieces tend not to look quite as hot when you see them up close. Granted, the only way you should be getting a look at that stuff is if you've gone headfirst into a wall and can't move, so it's not such a big deal. Even the game's menus are slickly produced. They look clean and are quite easy to navigate. All three versions of the game look comparable, too. With the resolution turned up, the PC version definitely looks the best. However, the Xbox version comes quite close, and the PS2 version suffers only from less impressive textures and drabber color schemes.

The audio is made up of the typical sorts of things you'd expect, with some great engine sounds, tires squealing around the track, loud cracks as cars bang into one another, and the like. The voice acting during the cutscenes is surprisingly sharp, even if it is mostly just one guy talking all the time. He's funny, charming, and informative--the trifecta of what you'd hope for. Even the in-game music is pleasant to listen to, as most of it is groovy, David Holmes-sounding background fodder, and it's all really listenable.

Above all else, TOCA 3 is the kind of racing game that just about any driving game fan could get into. Simulation enthusiasts will love the variety, the challenging higher difficulty level, and all the various tuning options that can be tweaked prior to a race. Those who just want to jump into a race and go can do just that as well, without having to worry about the sorts of minutiae that most pure sim racers tend to require before beginning. TOCA 3 is a racer with a deep, lasting impact, and regardless of what kind of gearhead you profess yourself to be, you're certain to find something to like about it.

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TOCA Race Driver 2 review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 11:06 (A review of TOCA Race Driver 2)

It may not be quite up to the level of quality of its Xbox counterpart, but TOCA 2 is still a very good choice for PC owners on the hunt for a new racer.

When TOCA Race Driver 2: The Ultimate Racing Simulator, Codemasters' follow-up to its unique 2002 racer, Pro Race Driver, first debuted on the Xbox earlier this month, it proved to be an excellent addition to the system's racing lineup. It's not quite the ultimate racing simulator that it claims to be, but it's absolutely a game worth playing for any serious racing fan. Now TOCA 2 is available for the PC as well, and much like its Xbox counterpart, it provides an excellent variety of race types, backed up with some solid driving mechanics and a deep and engaging career mode. Unfortunately, the PC version also suffers from a few graphical polish issues as well as some extremely irritating sound bugs, which ultimately mar the game's otherwise solid performance.

TOCA Race Driver 2 is all about variety. Rarely has there been a game that brings as many types of races to the table as this one does. You can choose from a bevy of different race types and concordant cars, including stock cars, rallies, Super Trucks, street racing, Mustangs, Land Rovers, open-wheel racers, and so on. There are 15 different varieties of races in all, each of which is actually represented quite well, both visually and in gameplay. TOCA Race Driver 2 also features a huge roster of more than 50 different worldwide racetracks, ranging from the Texas Motor Speedway to Pikes Peak to Brands Hatch, and more. Every track is extremely well constructed, and serious race fans should find each track immediately recognizable.

The racing mechanics in TOCA Race Driver 2 are primarily geared toward the more realistic ilk of racers. Each type of car handles uniquely and quite accurately. Slideouts usually happen when they should, and wrecking your car adversely affects your ability to race in several different ways. Blowing a tire will obviously kill your ability to steer properly, and thrashing your gearbox affects your acceleration and speed quite a bit. Interestingly enough, TOCA 2 on the PC actually seems easier than the Xbox version, though only when using a gamepad. Controlling slideouts seems much easier to control, and concordantly, braking and using your emergency brake to slide around corners seems almost a bit too effective for some reason. The PC version of the game also features a driving mode that is even more simulation-based than the normal mode, and it is also significantly harder. This mode is especially geared toward players with driving wheel controllers, and for that expressed purpose, it works great, adding more challenge than you would get otherwise.

The only serious complaint about TOCA 2's gameplay stems from the game's physics model, which is a little unreliable in certain situations. Though wrecking into other cars is generally not advised, it's too easy to simply use other cars as padding when sliding around corners. Bumping into the side of an opposing car at the right angle simply prevents you from sliding out, and it usually lets you gain a number of spots in a race pretty cheaply. Furthermore, crashes don't always seem to look or feel as they ought to. This is mainly an issue with bigger crashes, specifically in situations where you should be rolling your car or otherwise sustaining or inflicting a huge amount of damage--and sometimes it doesn't actually happen that way. These physics issues aren't a huge problem by any means, but they're definitely an annoyance. For the most part, the game's racing artificial intelligence is quite well done, and drivers are usually smart enough to avoid wrecks whenever possible. Occasionally you'll encounter a random dolt driver who makes a boneheaded mistake on the track.

Anyone who played Pro Race Driver will remember its unique career mode, which focused on a young, passionate driver named Ryan McKane. The game's method of storytelling gave you a much more unique and prominent look at the behind-the-scenes elements of racing. Though the story was a little on the ham-fisted side in certain spots, overall it did an excellent job of keeping you captivated. In TOCA Race Driver 2, the same method of career mode has been implemented, though with a completely different type of story. In the game, you play as a nameless rookie driver, who, quite literally, begins in a trial by fire. Upon starting the career mode, you begin midlap during a race with your mechanic, Scotty, who is feeding you instructions on your controls. Once the race is over, you are presented with the first of many first-person-perspective cutscenes. As the story progresses, you are approached by an attractive female agent who promises to help bring you to the top of the racing circuit, and much to Scotty's chagrin, you agree to let her help you. The story itself, like its predecessor, can be a bit cheesy at times, but for the most part the cutscenes are so well directed and well written that the few goofy moments become instantly forgivable.

To advance in the career mode you'll have to compete in championships and complete objectives. Objectives vary from championship to championship; some require you only to place at a certain level, and others require you to earn certain amounts of cash prizes. These objectives are usually not too difficult, though often you will find yourself getting frustrated simply because you'll be racing on a new track that you've never experienced before. And, of course, there is no option to take practice laps before a race, so it will require a fair amount of trial and error to learn racetracks, especially when experiencing new car types for the first time. Oddly enough, though, you can participate in qualifying laps outside of the career mode--just not within it. Often, you'll be presented with multiple options for championship types, though there are no options for what racing team you might want to race for and there is no way to determine your own position on the starting line since both are arbitrarily picked for you seemingly at random. On the plus side, the career mode is quite long and should take you a solid eight hours or more to complete the first time around.

Outside of the career mode, you can also take part in free races and time trials offline. You can also play multiplayer in a two-player, single PC mode or go network via online or LAN modes. Each of these modes lets you choose from any of the game's available championships. However, you can't simply pick a car and track and then race. Championship selection effectively takes care of this for you since only certain cars are permitted to race on specific tracks. It's a bit of a confusing interface if you're used to the industry-standard method of just picking a car and track, but overall, it isn't that big of a deal. One major bonus to the noncareer modes is that you can make adjustments to your car. Options such as gears, downforce, suspension, ride height, and tires and brake bias can be adjusted to your personal content, which is nice considering not every track features the same types of terrain.

From a multiplayer standpoint, TOCA Race Driver 2's network component heavily outshines its offline counterpart because it's the difference between only two players offline and up to 12 players online. TOCA Race Driver 2 employs an interesting rating system when playing online--you earn rating points based on your standing in a race. You start at 1500 and gain or lose ranking points depending on how you perform. This rating, in turn, translates into your standing on the leaderboards. Like the Xbox version of TOCA 2, the game's online performance is a bit spotty, and some lag was definitely apparent on almost any connection type we tried; opposing cars would jump and skip around and do some funny things during races. However, this lag never affected our ability to race, nor did it ever become detrimental to our standings.

Graphically, TOCA Race Driver 2 on the PC looks slightly better than the Xbox version, but not quite as much as you might hope when comparing the two versions. The car models are a big step up from Pro Race Driver and look very good overall. Each car features quite a bit of shine off its reflective surfaces, though the models don't seem quite as polished as in the Xbox version of the game where jags and imperfections seem a bit more prevalent. Cranking up the resolution on a high-end PC did help a bit, but not enough to make a supreme difference. Damage modeling is also fairly well done, and there are plenty of ways to bust up your car, if you're so inclined. The one issue we had with the damage modeling is that the modeling itself doesn't always quite match up to the cause of the damage. So, for instance, getting rear-ended on the right side will sometimes cause weird dents on the left side of the bumper that shouldn't be there, and windows and windshields break with almost reckless abandon.

As mentioned before, each of the game's tracks is nicely representative of its real-life counterpart. The tracks and terrain look great, and little touches, like realistic tire skids and pieces of damaged cars that remain on the tracks, add to the realism. Unfortunately, the background environments and crowds don't look nearly as good and are actually visually unpleasant up close. Granted, these aren't details you'll be paying a lot of attention to while in the throes of a race, but they do stick out at times. TOCA Race Driver 2's cutscenes are also very well produced. Though the models for the characters don't always look especially great, each and every character animates superbly.

The voice acting during the cutscenes is equally top notch, and nowhere will you find a poorly delivered line or a badly acted character. Sadly, where the Xbox version of TOCA 2 featured some great engine sound effects, the PC version falters quite a bit. The engine noises in this version are buggy and often become washed out in a staticky mess. This did not appear to be an issue with a sound card, as the same bad engine sounds were produced on multiple PCs. Infrequent issues also came up with certain other effects, like tire screeching or the sound of cars rolling over gravel surfaces, but these weren't anywhere near as pervasive as the engine sound bugs. It's really unfortunate that these sound issues exist, because the sound effects that do work, along with the decent background soundtrack and excellent voice acting, would otherwise make for a great audio experience.

Were it not for the slight graphical problems and irritating sound bugs, TOCA 2 could have proved to be an even better choice for PC racing fans than it was for the Xbox racing fans. Problems aside, however, TOCA 2 is still a deep and enjoyable racing title with more racing variety than you're likely to find anywhere else on the market today--and at a meager price tag to boot. It may not be quite up to the quality level of its Xbox counterpart, but TOCA 2 is still a very good choice for PC owners on the hunt for a new racer.

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Ford Racing 3 review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 10:59 (A review of Ford Racing 3 )

Ford Racing 3 is a dull and clumsy racing game that will disappoint even the most forgiving Ford enthusiasts.

The Good

25 Ford vehicles including classics, concept cars, and pickups
10 different race types offer a nice break from the standard races.

The Bad

Ugly graphics, especially on the vehicle models
Odd physics result in floating cars and awkward collisions
Almost all of the content is locked at the beginning of the game
Annoying and cheap AI
Sound effects consist of a single engine noise and a single, tire-squealing noise.

In what might be an attempt to capture the lucrative market of the Nintendo DS-owning Ford fanatics, Empire Interactive has released Ford Racing 3, a straightforward racing game featuring 25 of the most popular Ford vehicles from the past nine decades. Like its console cousins, Ford Racing 3 for the DS is a budget title, and it offers the same brand of no-frills, arcade-style racing as those versions of the game. But, while the console versions of Ford Racing 3 have halfway decent racing mechanics and online play, the DS version has neither of these things, and it looks ugly too. The end result is a stiff, lifeless husk of a racing game that will disappoint even the most forgiving of Ford fanatics.

There are 25 vehicles, 14 competitions, 22 challenges, and 10 race types in Ford Racing 3. For some annoying reason, though, when you start up the game you can only access a measly three cars and a few basic tracks. So right off the bat you can't help but feel cheated, since almost all of the content in the game is locked away. You have to complete a number of challenges, or win competitions, before you can access any of the more remarkable vehicles or interesting race types, but even those aren't really worth the effort it takes to unlock them. Apparently, all this stuff is locked away to give you an incentive to make your way through career mode, which is the main focus of the single-player game.

Career mode is divided into 14 competitions, 22 challenges, and 10 collection races. The competitions are basically race tournaments with a specific theme, such as vintage cars or off-road vehicles. These competitions consist of a series of up to six races, with points awarded based on how you place in each race. The person with the most points after the last race is the winner of the competition. The competitions mix things up by having different types of races for each round. You might start out with a standard three-lap race, followed by an elimination race where the last two cars are eliminated each lap, and then move on to a boost race, which is the same as a standard race except you earn two speed boosts per lap. It's a nice way to keep the competitions varied, but the racing isn't especially fun in any of the different types of races, so the added variety quickly becomes irrelevant. By completing competitions, you can unlock new tracks and more competitions. If competitions aren't your thing, you can try to complete the 22 challenges in the game. These challenges are categorized by vehicle type, and each vehicle has a single challenge with two difficulty settings. The challenges do offer a nice break from the standard race rules. In one challenge you have to draft behind a certain number of opponents, in another you have to collect green icons while avoiding red ones, and in another you have to place first in a sort of relay race where you pass the baton each lap by drafting your teammate. By completing these challenges you can unlock new vehicles, which in turn are used to unlock even more new challenges. There is also a Ford collection mode where you can compete in one of 10 different race types to unlock more content.

If the career mode isn't your thing, you can choose to either jump into a quick race or play with up to three other players, as long as each player has a copy of the game. But no matter which race mode you choose, you'll encounter problems such as weird physics, annoying artificial intelligence, ugly presentation, and awkward controls. All the cars do handle somewhat differently, but none of them ever feel like they really make contact with the road surface. You'll move along sluggishly at what feels like a snail's pace, bounce unnaturally off of uneven surfaces, and cruise over grass and gravel as though it were asphalt. Oddly, hitting walls on the side of the track will slow you down only slightly, but if you even slightly tap another vehicle from behind or on the side you'll come to a dead stop while the other vehicle continues on without consequence. This makes passing extremely difficult, since any sort of contact always favors your opponent--unless you get cleanly rear-ended, which results in a boost of speed as you bounce off your opponent's front bumper.

The AI seems to exploit this problem by clustering up in a bunch around you. No matter how well you race, there is almost always a pack of racers right on your tail, ready to overtake you if you make even the slightest mistake. It seems as though there's no way to pull away from the pack; they just hover behind you or pass you up as they head way down the track where you can't possibly catch them. The cars are almost always racing in twos as well, making it difficult to pass even in the open stretches. However, the AI opponents follow the exact same lines each and every lap, so they quickly become predictable, and by the third lap, you'll know exactly when to make your move.

The controls in Ford Racing 3 are functional, but they are slightly awkward. You can use the touch screen if you want to, but it takes getting used to, and it doesn't feel responsive at all. You can accelerate or slow down by moving your finger or stylus to the top or bottom of the screen, and turn by moving left or right. The easier and more familiar method of control employs the standard D pad and face buttons. The button layout is strange, though, since your gas is mapped to the A button, the brake is B, and the boost is Y. This makes it impossible to hit the boost without letting off the gas or inadvertently hitting the brake. The only effective way to use boost is by leaving your thumb on the gas and using your right index finger to hit the boost, which is more than a little awkward. It would make a lot more sense to have the boost button right above the gas button, or at the very least include an option to reconfigure the controls and possibly make use of the shoulder buttons.

Regardless of how you personally feel about the style of Ford automobiles, the vehicles in this game look downright ugly. Some of the vehicles look so jagged and nasty that you wouldn't be able to recognize what kind of car it was if the game didn't tell you. There are trucks, Model T's, Mustangs, Thunderbirds, and more, but at best they only look vaguely reminiscent of their real-world counterparts. The textures are screwy, too. The texture for the rims on the vehicles is off-center from the wheel, so when you see a car moving down the road, the wheels look wobbly and lopsided. The tracks aren't much better, but they do offer a bit of variety, which is nice. Terrain ranges from beachfront to snowy mountains to winding forest roads. You'll see a lot of objects pop up on the horizon, though, and there are some nasty-looking, flickering texture seams visible in most of the courses.

The sound doesn't fare any better. The engine noises are all the same, regardless of whether you're driving a '31 Model A or a '00 Cobra. The engine noise isn't especially good either--it sounds more like a motorized scooter than a car. Another noise you'll hear constantly is the distorted screech of tires on the surface of the road. Whether you're driving on asphalt, sand, snow, or water, you'll hear the exact same scratchy noise. The music is simplistic and repetitive, and it sounds like it was taken from a NES-era racing game.

Ford Racing 3 is a dull, ugly racing game that simply isn't worth your time. Even though there aren't many great racing games for the DS, there are at least a couple that are better than this one. If you're on a tight budget, love Ford vehicles, and you simply must have a racing game for your DS, this game might keep you busy for a few hours, but you're still much better off spending a little bit more to get your racing fix elsewhere.

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Ford Racing 2 review

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 16 April 2013 10:54 (A review of Ford Racing 2 )

Empire's latest racer unfortunately does not offer enough excitement for the arcade crowd or nearly enough complexity for simulation hounds.

Ford: First On Race Day or Found On Road Dead? Whatever your acronymic take on the American automotive giant, its products are the only vehicles you'll find in Empire Interactive's long-overdue sequel to its 2001 arcade racing game Ford Racing. Sadly, Ford Racing 2 is most definitely not first on PC race day. Although it delivers a number of unique challenges that go beyond the basic racing routine and more Ford cars and trucks are offered than you can shake a Fiesta at, the game is plagued by dated physics and a sense that you've already seen the same thing--only better. If it were released a few years prior, just as Electronic Arts' Need for Speed was finding its footing, Ford Racing 2 would have fared a lot better. As it is, Empire's latest racer unfortunately does not offer enough excitement for the arcade crowd or nearly enough complexity for simulation hounds.

Ford Racing 2 veers somewhat from the path taken by its forgotten predecessor. Whereas the original featured a barely adequate dozen drivable Ford automobiles, the new game sports more than 30 vintage, current, and concept models. Whereas the original zeroed in almost exclusively on a "career," the new game steers clear of such intricacies in favor of a wide variety of "challenges" that range from traditional head-to-head racing to solo slalom and time-limited affairs.

Aside from these key distinctions, both games share similar key design traits. For starters, Ford Racing 2 is once again an exclusive Ford club, so you won't find any Lamborghinis or BMWs in here. This exclusivity wouldn't matter so much if each of the 30-plus vehicles delivered a unique and plausible ride, but designer Razorworks simply hasn't implemented this. Granted, a circa-1940s pickup truck does behave slightly differently from a Ford Focus rally car and a Jetsons-inspired Ford concept car, but none of these three are truly believable or truly distinct.

The problem would seem to lie in the game's basic, underlying physics modeling, which unfortunately hasn't evolved sufficiently in the three years since Ford Racing first hit the retail market. It remains an apparently simple bit of programming, bereft of the deep, complex actions and reactions found in many competing titles. In essence, you'll generally feel like you're floating over the track rather than driving upon it. Wheelspin is perceptible but not accurately so. Acceleration and braking scarcely take into account the four contact points of each vehicle or the dynamics of rubber meeting ground. And certainly there will be times when you'll forget whether you're driving a big truck or a supposedly nimble compact. Can 30-plus impressively unique driving experiences be created when the fundamental physics model is so vague and arcade-thin? The answer is no.

Razorworks attempts to mask the simplicity and the similarities of its vehicular behavior by instilling a range of variables. Because of these variables, the game is more tolerable than it would be without them. For instance, Ford Racing 2 doesn't restrict you to mere pavement. In fact, the game allows you to experience virtually any driving surface that exists in the real world, including pavement, concrete, hard-packed dirt, and sand. It even lets you blast through hot flowing lava at one point, though the effects and impact of said lava is negligible. Otherwise, you'll find your chosen vehicles spinning their tires impressively and overdriving turns in the sand, gripping occasionally in the dirt, and occasionally grabbing a little air time. In this way, the game does keep moderately fresh.

Furthermore, Ford Racing 2 doesn't stick to common "pack" racing. Variants include time trials, slalom time trials (through a series of cones), elimination events (where the two trailing cars magically evaporate at the end of each lap), and timed solo events where you are either rewarded with floating time bonus power-ups or penalized for not properly adhering to an overlaid image of the ideal driving line. Other possibilities include "duel," where you are presented with a new opponent at the opening of each lap, and the intriguing "drafting," which asks you to eliminate each of your opponents by following closely in their slipstream for a given number of seconds. This particular event is more interesting than most if only because you must predict when the car in front of you will make a move to the right or left. Then you must react accordingly and shadow the car as best you can.

Ford Racing 2 is divided into two general elements--the Ford Challenge and the Ford Collection. The former consists of approximately 30 preset challenges comprising the events listed above and is considered the game's central feature. The latter allows you to create and customize your own events. To advance in the Challenge and add more items and locations to the Collection, you must unlock vehicles, tracks, and much more by winning the game's few unlocked races.

This is pretty fundamental stuff for an arcade racer, yet it isn't as enjoyable as it could be. The truth is that no matter how many variables Razorworks has thrown in, nothing changes the fact that the proceedings only rarely rise to a fever pitch. One of the problems is the relative quality of the AI competition in the first two difficulty levels. Without mincing words, easy mode competition sucks, and medium mode isn't much better. Indeed, any halfway-decent PC driver will immediately win most every race or time trial in easy mode and will only have to resort to the "race again" command a few times in medium. Likewise, early solo events feature such liberal time constraints that they pose no threat at all for even average drivers.

However, the game's highest level of difficulty is a different story. Here, the opponents and the time factor is much more taxing--and often virtually impossible--though the physics model remains as one-dimensional as ever. The Ford Collection also delivers the luxury of customization, thus allowing you to modify the number of laps from its standard three; it further allows you to vary the locale and number of vehicles. Sadly, the game won't support more than a half-dozen cars simultaneously. It does, however, support multiplayer racing but only via split-screen on a single computer. Nevertheless, Ford Racing 2 definitely becomes more absorbing when duking it out mano a mano with a friend (or an enemy).

On the track, anything goes. Bashing your peers is not only permitted, but it's also sometimes necessary, particularly when you make it to the game's most demanding mode. Plunk them into a momentum-killing guardrail or abutment. Bounce two into each other. Or hit them just in the right spot to send them into an amusing little donut. You needn't worry about damaging your own car, because the game unfortunately does not model damage. Furthermore, your car's tires, engine, and transmission do not deteriorate as you race. It goes to follow then that Ford Racing 2 does not feature a garage or repair shop, nor does it allow you to purchase upgraded parts. If it's a true career mode that you want, you've definitely come to the wrong place.

Visually, Ford Racing 2 is pretty but not spectacular. Vehicles are believably rendered with racing color schemes, rotating tires, reflective surfaces, semitransparent windows, exhaust detonation flames, and real time shadows. Headlamps and taillamps are both functional and convincing. Yet much of the bodywork is often unnaturally squared, angular, and somewhat primitive when pitted against the best of the genre. Vehicles do not feature a working suspension system, and their bodies do not roll through turns or dip during heavy braking. Certainly they are not so deeply detailed that they seem like the collection of parts they are.

One of the game's most annoying miscues is its lack of an onboard cockpit camera. You can view Ford Racing 2 two ways--either from a rear chase camera or a front bumper-mounted perspective. The latter is not recommended for optimum drivability, but the bumper cam does deliver both good control and a good sense of speed. Yet you can never, ever, sit in the cockpit.

Razorworks hasn't constructed an abundance of environments, but it has made the most of the few it has built. From realistic ovals to purpose-built road courses to fantasy jungle and desert tracks that only exist in the fertile imaginations of its programmers, the game sports a wide variety of track locations. Generally, the surrounding world appears pleasantly alive, with airplane and bird animations scattered throughout and natural elements, such as volcanoes and waterfalls, doing their things. It, unfortunately, does not rain in the Ford Racing world, nor does the sun create lens flare effects or real-time track shadowing.

Ford Racing 2 sound effects are more than tolerable. Engine notes are divergent, and tire squeal is abundant and credible. The game also portrays competitor engine and tire sounds and extraneous effects, such as the roar of overhead jet planes or trackside heavy machinery equipment. Accompanying music ranges from house to hip-hop to standard nu-metal hard rock selections, each of which may be selected or eliminated beforehand.

Far from "Best of Class," Ford Racing 2 is clearly a budget game that lacks much of the sophistication and depth of many of its closest rivals. Yes, it is relatively pretty and momentarily thrilling, yet it just doesn't have long-term appeal. Best suited as a pleasing diversion for first-time PC drivers or arcade racers needing a quick fix, it is much less attractive for the diehards among us.

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