Infogrames' conversion of the cult-favorite Test Drive LeMans has arrived on the Sega Dreamcast. Based on the famous endurance race, the game allows players to race for up to 24 hours - in real time. Kevin Cline takes a good, hard look at the title. With so many competing racers on the system, what special features and options help it stand out from the pack? Read on to find out if the title worth the discount $29.99 price tag.
Another week, another Dreamcast racing game. Despite the systems' relatively short life span, gamers have been offered dozens upon dozens of titles in this popular category. Seemingly every sub-genre is covered, from the customization heavy Sega GT, to the hardcore simulation design of Ferrari F355, and the endless stream of 'kart' racers. There is a unique title for everyone, but unfortunately most fall into mediocrity. If a racing game can't deliver a solid graphics engine, precise control, and challenging artificial intelligence, I view it as a passing diversion regardless of its' unique qualities. Could the tarnished Test Drive franchise possibly have it all?
Being the first ever racing game to recreate the famous 24 Hour Le Mans endurance race, Test Drive: Le Mans certainly brings something very innovative to the table. By saving in the pit stop, those willing can race and eventually complete an entire 24 hour marathon on the famed Le Mans course. Yes, 24 hours on one course. Fortunately, Le Mans is a massive 8.454 mile long track featuring enough wicked turns and high speed straights to challenge you well after you 'think' you have it figured out. Tire wear and fuel usage cannot be turned off in this mode, so strategic pit stops are a must. Weather has been realistically incorporated as well. Witnessing the burning glare of the sun slowly fade into dusk over a period of hours is a subliminal experience. Throw in some low visibility fog and grip reducing rain and you have a diverse racing experience. Those not willing to invest a huge chunk of time can partake in a 'compressed' Le Mans race; 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, and 6 hour versions are offered. The weather system compensates the shorter time by speeding up, while tires and fuel deplete quicker.
In addition to the Le Mans mode, the other time consuming mode of play is Championship. This is a points based system consisting of eight increasingly more difficult mini-championships. Most consist of three courses with varying lap increments, and the goal is simple; finish with the most points and you win. Each win garners you two new cars and access to the next championship, eventually leading up to several incredibly long and difficult challenges. As in Le Mans, weather variations and tire/fuel usage are always on.
Tired of racing Le Mans and finding the championship too hard? The quick race option allows you to pick a car, a difficulty, and a course for as few as 3 laps, up to 25. This is a racing game standard quick race in every way, except the inclusion of 3 difficulty settings; amateur, intermediate, and expert. Driving aids and auto braking are incredibly forgiving on amateur, so much that it should be skipped altogether by racing veterans. Intermediate is the place to start, as auto braking is off, with the non-descript 'driving aids' on. The AI is fairly vicious in this mode, unlike the 'kids' difficulty of amateur. The drivers on expert, however, are masters of the race, so bring your best skills. All aids are off, and the excellent controls and physics model are presented in their deepest form. Analog sensitivity for the gas and brake is perfectly executed, while the overall weight and feel of the cars is a wonderful mix of arcade and simulation, striking a difficult to achieve middle balance. I can't stress enough how amazing the control feels. After some time I found myself in a relaxed state of tension, fiercely gripping the controller in a trance-like groove.
Track selection is somewhat slim but adequate. In addition to the LeMans course, Bugatti, Bruno, Donington National, Catalunya National, Suzuka East, Suzuka West, Donington GP, Catalunya GP, and Suzuka GP are here for the ride, ten in all. Not every track is original, as Suzuka East and Suzuka West combine to make Suzuka GP, for instance. Donington and Catalunya each have two variations as well. More courses would've been nice, but the ones included are excellent recreations of timeless real life courses, each challenging in their own way.
Car selection is likewise fairly small compared to the 100+ variety of games like Gran Turismo. You can unlock up to 40 cars, each having a unique mix of acceleration, speed, handling, and braking. Audi, LMP, Chrysler Viper, and a Lister Storm Jaguar variant are a few of the GT Class and Prototype cars available. Strict motorheads will find very little satisfaction in the modification area. Beyond choosing tire type, transmission, starting fuel amount, and downforce, the only other choice is that of which car to drive. This is paltry by current racing standards, so those looking for a way to tweak the gear ratios on a new Viper GT will be better served with a game allowing more customization. In this regard, the lack of fine tuning lends a more 'jump right in' arcade feel to the game, but the convincing physics model offsets that aspect nicely.
The multiplayer option is especially worthy of mention because it actually works! Up to four people can compete on a split screen with the same speed and fluidity of 1 player mode. Many of the extraneous eye candy is lost, but the presentation remains solid and fun. Kudos to Infogrames Melbourne House for ensuring high playability in a mode most racing games don't include these days.
Speaking of eye candy, this game has it all. Reflective mapping (only on your car however), transparent windshields with drivers inside, realistic lens flare, convincing weather effects, visible brakes (when they get hot you can see them glowing red), detailed texture mapping, and a rock solid 30 frames per second even with a dozen or more cars visible on screen. The dreaded problem of draw-in is still present but limited to small road side objects in the distance such as trees and signs. The overall environment and course are present at all times, and the view distance is remarkable. While arguments could be made for Ferrari F355 and Metropolis, I find this to be the best looking Dreamcast racer on the market. The always consistent frame rate coupled with the large number of cars on screen is a thing of beauty, and the special effects are right on target. The weather system in particular impressed me the most, as car shadows are realistically portrayed depending on the suns position, and the rain actually looks like rain.
The only major problem I have with Le Mans is the unrefined hit detection. Some cars seem to have an invisible barrier that extends far beyond their graphical representation. This is not a huge problem because no damage model exists, but it is slightly annoying to bump another car when it appears you're half a foot away. Other criticisms could be leveled at the lack of courses, cars, and customization features, but it boils down to preference and your individual standards. I found the number of courses to be quite satisfying, and not being a car nut in the slightest, customization features are beyond me.
To conclude, this is not a racing game for gearheads who like to fine tune every aspect of their car to shave .0024 seconds off their lap time. It is also not quite the simulation that Ferrari is. What you do get is a polished racing game with a satisfying Le Mans mode, world class controls, competitive AI, and a remarkable engine. A game of this caliber is a steal at the low MSRP of $29.99, so even you Gran Turismo fans should find something to enjoy for a few hours. Or 24 - if you're man enough.