It must have taken me at least twenty minutes of internal debating over which topic to cover here first. Should I start by telling you about how absolutely stunning the graphics are, or how completely addicting the gameplay is? Both areas have their own laundry lists of positives to cover and neither is leaps and bounds more impressive than the other. I guess I'll just start with the one that has more immediate impact -- graphics!
A few months back a little title going by the name of Ferrari 355 was released for the Dreamcast, and I (along with other racing nuts) was simply floored by the quality of the graphics (not to mention the stunning gameplay). I figued it would have taken at least six or more months before another Dreamcast racer would come along and challenge F355 in the visuals department. I mean come on; F355 is an AM2 game for crying out loud! Well racing fans, it's time for this reviewer to admit that a little known Aussie developers has contested (and arguably, won) the racing visuals crown with Test Drive: Le Mans... and this is only about two months past the release of F355! The developers claim that the engine pushes no less than five million polygons a second, and after extensive play, I'd have to defend that claim. Let me break it down a bit.
The sheer quantity of cars you can have onscreen is impressive.
The forty or so licensed vehicles are all accurate representations of their real life counterparts. Vipers look like Vipers, Porches look like Porches, and those whacked out prototype cars look like... well you get the idea. What is quite amazing is that unlike other racers of late, with their maximum of six or eight cars on track at once, Le Mans boasts a maximum of twenty-four(!) fully modeled vehicles on track and on screen at a time! While the cars themselves are drawn with a slightly lower polygon count and grainier textures than those in F355, a number of well-implemented special effects give them a massive visual punch. My favorite bit is that each has fully-modeled wheels and brake disks and calipers are viewable through the spokes. That's all well and good, but the cool thing is that during periods of extreme braking it's possible to actually see the brake disks glowing red hot from the friction! Talk about detail! Other great car effects include faked (but still really nice looking) reflection mapping flowing over the player's car body, vapor trails emanating from rear spoilers, backfires, smoke effects, tire water trails, and the proverbial "more."
The ten included tracks are no less impressive. The first thing to notice is the incredibly crisp and detailed textures covering the road and surrounding surfaces. Take for instance the grass textures. Instead of the standard greenish blur found in most racers, Le Mans has textures so clear that it's possible to actually make out individual blades of grass "painted" into the textures! On top of having great textures, tracks also have plenty of geometry detail. Close objects like barriers and grandstands look very good, but most impressive is the very lengthy draw distance; the only fog seen here is used solely for effect during downpours. Since I'm on the topic of downpours, I'll mention how dynamic weather changes the look and feel of the tracks accordingly. At the beginning of a race it could be somewhat sunny, and then a little bit later some sprinkles start to appear, and then finally the skies open up and drench the track. While raining, visibility suffers, raindrops satisfyingly splatter off the road surfaces and the camera lens, and head/tail lights reflect off the wet track. Details man, details.
I've saved the best graphical effect for last: lighting! Witness by far the best lighting seen in a console racing game... ever! During 24-hour Le Mans races, it's incredible to watch as the car bodies become saturated with a warm glow as the sun sets in the distance, and then later glisten as the light from the moon and the stars illuminates the track. As the racing continues on into the early hours of evening, great looking trackside lighting and car headlight flare effects become apparent, and the real-time shadows begin to draw longer.
The real-time weather effects and lighting are great.
And, all of this visual lusciousness clips along at a rock solid 30 frames per second. When I say rock solid, I mean ROCK SOLID! Not once did I notice even a hint of a frame rate hit, even with a ton of cars on screen during rainy conditions. What's possibly even more remarkable is that multiplayer racing with two, three, or four players is no less solid in the frame rate department, and only incurs a minimal downgrade of the visuals! An absolutely great sense of speed accompanies both single player and multiplayer modes as players tear around the circuits at a blistering pace that approaches 200 mph (check out the bumper cam for full effect). Full-length replays of the races round out the package with wonderful camera work (with a personal favorite being the wheel cam) really showing off just how impressive this engine is.
As promised, next up is the gameplay. Saying a game is "fun" is probably the biggest compliment it can receive, so I'm happy to say that this game is definitely fun! With up to twenty-three other cars on track to race against (or bash into if you like) this is the first game I've played in a long while that actually feels like a "racing game" instead of just a "driving game". There is a real sense of competition as each car jockeys for position and players have to fend off oodles of opponents to secure their place on the podium. At all difficulty levels, the computer AI is easily some of the best I've seen -- opponents will draft one another, block each other's paths, swerve to avoid accidents (try driving head on into traffic and watch as the computer cars take evasive action to avoid a head-on collision), pit to refuel/change tires, and even make driving mistakes. At the most difficult skill level ("expert"), besides performing all of the aforementioned behaviors, they also haul ass! It takes quite a lot of time and practice to take first place against these suckers.
Next: More Good, The Bad, and The Final Word