On the surface, this might seem like a superficial cartoon racing game, but Capcom's Auto Modellista offers a surprising degree of realism with a decent physics engine that gives you a convincing sense of speed, which is undermined by subpar controls. The game offers a deep selection of real-life vehicles from 16 different manufacturers, including Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Isuzu and, Mitsubishi. Each manufacturer offers several vehicles ranging from stock cars to concept vehicles with 69 different cars offered. In addition to Japanese firms, there are other regions such as North America with vehicles such as the Dodge Viper, Corvette, Mustang, and the Shelby Cobra. Most of these vehicles are available initially, but players can unlock more as they win races. The game offers an array of courses that range from professional race tracks built for speed, to dirt tracks, to the claustrophobic urban environments of Tokyo. More impressively, despite the cartoon look, each track is faithfully modeled after a real-life location and makes the game feel that much more authentic. The layouts of the tracks can be quite simple or very complex with a lot of difficult, sudden turns. Another challenge lies in the fact that you can race the tracks either forward or reverse.
There are several modes of play in Auto Modellista including the standard Arcade mode where you can race a single course. While you can't unlock anything by playing arcade mode, it allows you to get right into the game, but players looking for a deeper experience will probably want to head straight for the Garage Life mode. This is a surprisingly deep mode and offers players plenty of options. In Garage Life Mode you can customize your car's appearance with decals and stickers, plus select different paint color schemes. This is quite extensive, and you can even create your own decals and stickers using the sticker edit mode. Players can also tune their cars up with a variety of extra parts including tires, brakes, suspension, turbine kit, muffler, computer, and, transmission. Adding to the realism, each part is authentic and appears in the game exactly as they would in real-life.
Since you earn these by winning races, and don't have to worry about money, you can end up with a large selection of parts. However, each track presents its own challenges and you'll need to adjust their settings between races accordingly. Some players might enjoy doing this, but others won't want to be bothered. The good news is that you can use the Easy Tune option and the cars are adjusted automatically. This is very important, because how you tune your car plays a huge role in how you finish the race. For example, some courses are wet, so you'll need to have tires with a strong grip, while others have a lot of curves and you'll need to adjust the transmission accordingly. In this mode, you can unlock secret cars, tracks, parts and decals by winning races and circuits. Some only require you to win a single race, while others need multiple wins before you earn secrets. Additionally, Auto Modellista allows you to edit and add special effects to replays using the special VJ mode. Like the car customization mode, this offers players plenty of options that allows you to create and save an incredibly sleek replay. You can add special effects, change camera angles, and even change the background music. The interface is easy to navigate and flexible, adding some interest to the usually dull replay experience.
In addition to the single-player experience, you can play the game in Network mode and challenge up to eight other racers online. This supports broadband gamers only, but the speedy connections allow for a seamless experience. Signing in and meeting other players is easy, though it seemed to take awhile for enough players to log in to find a race. Once the racing began, the experience was smooth. The cool thing about this mode is that all the vehicles are available immediately, so you can choose the fastest vehicles and race to your heart's content. This also makes for some intensely competitive races, and since the best cars are available, the control problems that plague the rest of the game aren't as evident here. The only downside to this is that the online mode only offers a standard racing mode, which is great, but doesn't really take advantage of online play the way it could have.
Auto Modellista's visual style is obviously its main appeal. While cel-shading has become rather trendy lately, it's use in the game is quite effective and gives the game a stylish look all it's own. The bright primary colors give AM a hip appearance and make playing it feel like you are inside an animated world. However, despite the cartoonish appearance, the game doesn't lack in detail. The car models are impressive and look like their real-world counterparts. The environments look fantastic with some interesting backdrops and trackside objects. There is some minor light sourcing used to make AM feel a bit more realistic, though it never loses its appealing cartoon edge. AM's courses feature an impressive design that's both realistic in layout yet surreal. The game moves at a smooth frame rate and creates a convincing sense of speed. However, the cel-shaded appearance allows the game to go outside conventions and implement some interesting special effects such as black lines that appear on side of the screen when you reach a high speed. Overall, the game looks cool and is an impressive achievement. Capcom has done an excellent job with the game and it definitely takes full advantage of the PS2's processing power. It's hard to compare the game visually to other racing title because it looks unlike any other racer on the market, but suffice to say, this is a unique experience.
While everything up to this point sounds promising, the overwhelming customization menus and cel-shading hipness can't mask Auto Modellista's intrinsic control problems. The cars over-steer and you slide far too frequently, usually ending up in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, the opposing cars seem to go through the paces effortlessly, which makes the gameplay quite frustrating. You can compensate for this by anticipating turns far in advance, but this shaves a lot of time of your lap time and is extremely annoying during the heat of the action. Despite your best efforts, you'll find yourself spinning out and fishtailing far too often. This has the double penalty of causing the car to come to a complete stop. This happens even after you've adjusted your transmission and tires before each track. While you can get used to the sloppy controls after awhule, it ruins the flow because spinouts still happens frequently. The other major problem that undermines the game is the online mode. It was nice of Capcom to allow you to play any vehicle in the game during this mode, but it has the effect of making the single player game nearly moot. Having access to any car completely destroys the motivation to play through the single player mode. While the customization modes are nice, being able to put your own decals on a secret car is a minor reward considering how much time it takes to unlock the cars.
Capcom tried to please both racing and make Auto Modellista appeal to both arcade fans and realistic racers. Unfortunately, the resulting slippery controls are aggravating and make what could have been a brilliant and original game an exercise in maddening frustration. While the controls get better after awhile, the game lets you down repeatedly. Just when you think you've got the hang of it, the vehicle slides out from under you once again. This is frustrating on several levels, the aesthetic design is so unique and there are so many options, you'd think the controls would be up to the task, but they aren't. There was a lot of potential in the game, but it doesn't end up living up to its promise. Auto Modellista is probably worth a rental just to see the graphics in motion, but definitely disappoints in the end. While the graphics and customization modes are quite cool and the online mode is a lot of fun, most players probably won't want to pay full price for this disappointing title.