Imagine a mechanized future where a steel sky boils over the tangled, rusted highways of an industrial world gone mad, where the cars who run these roads are themselves a nightmare of spikes and fins, equipped with huge knobby tires and paint jobs that make the 1960s look understated. Such is the world of POD, a racing game that Dante would love, where Mel Gibson would feel right at home, where you can drive over 200 MPH through tunnels and canyons that seem to have been inspired more by an anatomical drawing of the large intestine than anything that the Indy circuit has to offer.
Put simply, you race on the edge of your seat, trying to stave off the seven other rabid competitors while avoiding the inevitable dead-end alley, 100 ft. drop-off, or onrushing wall. POD is definitely a game that will have you gripping your joystick, cursing the fates, and wanting to play again to exact vengeance from your tormentors.
In the end though, it is not always obvious if the true tormentors are the on-track competition or the game's designers, and it is this question that you must come to terms with before you buy this game.
The gameplay in POD is incredibly straightforward: pick one of eight cars (more being added for free from Ubi Soft's website all the time), configure it as you like (though in the end, any car can be made to perform exactly like any other with a minimum of effort, so what you're really choosing is the baddest, most jagged harm-mobile), and head out to the highway. Race (usually from behind), and race some more. Missing are any sort of power-ups, weapons, really novel side routes, a convincing high-speed feel, and any true car customizability. These turn out to be gaping holes in an otherwise very pretty and challenging game, and it is too bad that such were not included, as the lack of them makes POD a game where a few die-hard racers will be truly unstoppable opponents, but where the average gamer will quickly tire of being beaten by the AI or cheated of victory by the often misleading tracks. If you want challenge, there are few more challenging racing games on the market, but the racing is only one-dimensional here and does little to encourage a newcomer to return with much zest for competition.
As mentioned, the computer AI is wickedly difficult -- on the easiest setting you will perhaps win one in three races, and those by the narrowest of margins, while on difficult you will be very lucky to do better than 7th (the designers apparently made one very klutzy driver in every race so that you won't feel like a complete loser when you get beat. It might seem like a nice touch at first, but it gets pretty patronizing after a while). The tracks are beautifully constructed, but often not very well thought out, given the difficulty of the competition. One mistake will often drop you from first to last, and the tracks are so full of ambiguously marked areas that an errant turn will either send you careening into the void or steer you into a dead-end alley, from which you might as well reset the game, as you will never catch up.
You would think, given that the racing genre lends itself to joystick-controlled gaming, that POD would be joystick-friendly, but this is not the case. Even with a digital stick, it is still difficult to steer with any precision. With the keyboard or a game pad you get abrupt changes in direction, and with a joystick you get a wide dead-zone with skid-inducing margins of control that leave you forced to overcompensate by steering early or planning on a slide to get you through a corner. With the aforementioned tendency for the AI to take huge advantage of any driver mistakes, this is yet another area where the frustration will quickly mount.
The graphics in POD shine -- not only is the environment beautiful, but the 3Dfx version is a marvel to both play and look at. The racing is fluid and fast, and the graphics engine is ultra-responsive to the smallest movements and adjustments. The demo is worth looking at just to see what the next generation of racing games looks like, as there really isn't anything like this on the market right now. Only downside: some of the supposedly futuristic cars look more like skateboards having a bad hair day or rejected Hot Wheels design prototypes. Then again, it's the future, and nobody would have foreseen what a Gremlin looked like 20 years before it was unleashed on the world.
The audio in POD, as in most racing games, is a frenetic background track with the usual vroom-vroom car stuff thrown in. No bonus points for innovation here, but no penalty for annoying announcers or cheesy voice-overs either.
Human opponents are definitely where it's at in POD -- although getting synched up with them is an adventure. The Ubi Soft website currently has a beta version of an Internet multiplayer client (supposedly new and improved as of June 12), but unfortunately, you can't get it yet, because as of this writing their website has returned an error for 10 days running when we try to download it. Modem play is sporadic at best, and even with a P-120 talking to a P-133 over 28.8 modems, we experienced a lot of latency, choppiness and missing graphics. If you've got a high-end system, especially one with MMX and/or a 3D accelerator board, POD will really fly. Ditto for play on a LAN, but for the vast majority of users who have neither, consider yourself warned. The interface for multiplayer is also a bit funky, and while I appreciate a futuristic look, I'll take something that makes sense over a nifty, stylized, where-the-hell-do-I-type-in-my-phone-number look any day of the week.
Required: Windows 95, Pentium 90 or better (P-100 for multiplayer, P-133 for Internet play), 16 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, PCI graphics card, 16-bit sound card, joystick, DirectX (included on CD)
Recommended: 4X CD-ROM drive, P-133 or better, 28.8 modem for Internet play
POD is a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat race all the way. But that's all it is, and given the lack of true customization, the overly difficult AI and the one-dimensional nature of the game, it rates a 75 out of 100. I am looking forward to POD 2 with great anticipation, though, as the people at Ubi Soft are ahead of the curve in graphic design and fluidity of gameplay. So with some rethinking and retooling, I feel that the next racer from these folks might be one to break the mold. Wait for it, watch for it, and in the meantime dust off that old copy of if you want to hit the road.