Metropolis Street Racer
MSR is certainly different, but does it have the fundamentals down? - Review By zerothreat
This is a tough time for developers. Transitioning from one console generation to the next is difficult, because there's always an intense war between platforms, with many retailers and consumers standing in wait to see how it'll all shake out. In the current battle between Sega and Sony, a majority of retailers are betting on Sony -- which would explain why PlayStation titles enjoy 3 to 4 times as much shelf space as Dreamcast titles. And with shelf space becoming a rare commodity for DC titles, more and more Dreamcast developers feel an intense, exponentially increasing pressure to stand out from the crowd, to create the one be-all, end-all killer title no self-respecting Dreamcast enthusiast can live without.
In response to that pressure comes Bizarre Creations' entry into the DC racing-game foray, Metropolis Street Racer. DC-racer enthusiasts have been anticipating this one for a long time. Let's see if it was worth the wait.
MSR definitely has some cool things going for it. The game contains 250 stages, spread out over 25 chapters, with each stage set in a meticulously-detailed portion of San Francisco, London, or Tokyo. Clearly, the folks at Bizarre spent countless months researching their locations, because their environments are among the most authentic ever seen in a game of any genre, let alone a console racer. In fact, I didn't fully appreciate what a great job they had done until I played a couple of Tokyo circuits, and then later recognized the locations in a TV news segment on Tokyo. The game sports some great environmental effects, which are tied directly to the Dreamcast's built-in clock. Sometimes the effects can be eerie -- especially if you're fortunate enough to live in one of MSR's subject cities. My family and I live about 30 miles north of San Francisco, and last evening, right around dusk, it was cool to watch the game's SF skies turn orange-red just as they did outside. In fact, every city is lit appropriately for its time zone, depending on the actual time of day. Excellent.
The settings are as authentic as you'll find in a console racing game.
As for the driving experience, it's pretty good. I was disappointed to see some races drop to about 20 fps, but that problem was rectified the instant I visited the options menus, and turned off both tire smoke and the rear view mirror. At that point, the framerate increased to what looked like a consistent 30. The physics are serviceable (more on this later), and the enemy AI is spot on. Rivals will try to prevent you from passing without making wild, erratic movements, while plain old civilians get in the way simply by being plausible, responsible drivers.
In addition, you can listen to the car's radio while you drive. Players can choose from a wide variety of fictional, yet completely localized, radio stations that play anything from rock and pop to hip-hop and jazz. Although the song lyrics are infantile at best, with many artists sounding like the latest crop of amateurs from mp3.com, the overall effect is still pretty cool. I especially like the British radio stations' tea-time announcements, and the fact that the Japanese stations all have Japanese-speaking personalities. And the San Francisco stations give traffic reports that are relatively accurate for the time of day (lots of traffic running north on 101 through Marin). If the radio is too distracting, you can create your own "CD." Essentially, the CD is a pre-programmed list (you program the list) of songs from MSR's built-in selections. Or you can skip it altogether, and turn the radio or CD player off.
As you can tell, Metropolis Street Racer is almost infinitely configurable, which I appreciate a great deal. Players can configure nearly every aspect of the game (controls, front-end music, ghost cars, default camera positions), which helps a lot. Anyone who wants to have a clear, unobstructed view, or who wants a consistent, decent frame rate, will probably want to turn off the ghost car and the tire smoke right away. And anyone who doesn't want his head to explode will want to turn off the cheesy front-end disco music, as well as the menu sounds. Thankfully, this is all easily done in the menus... very nice.
Seeing "WEY HEY!" suddenly appear is a good thing. Trust us.
MSR's most benign (and puzzling) problem is its failure to impress straight out of the box. Considering the tremendous expectations and hype surrounding this title, you would think Bizarre would want to put their best foot forward. But, sadly, the game stumbles. For example, camera options are awkwardly presented, as the game defaults to a rear view at the beginning of each race. You can configure the game to begin every race with your most recent camera view, but this type of ergonomic functionality should have been part of the default configuration. I shouldn't need to go scouring around for it.
The same holds true for tire smoke, which, in some races, sucks the frame rate down from a consistent 30 fps to between 15 and 20. MSR enables tire smoke in its default config, which is a serious mistake. Any special visual effect that so seriously diminishes the gameplay experience probably should probably be excluded from the game entirely, rather than be included in any default setup. And then there's the ghost car, yet another annoying feature strangely enabled in the default configuration. Because MSR is set in authenticated city environments, it's difficult for a player to see a tight turn or an intersection until he's right on top of it. Bizarre knew this was a problem, as is evidenced by the giant-ass arrows near every turn, but still chose to let their ghost car occlude the player's view just when he's trying to familiarize himself with the game.
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