Sierra Sports, famed for NASCAR Racing and the CART series, takes racing down a different road with its new celebration of the Dodge Viper. You can choose a paint job, tweak your car's setup, and peel out against a pack of Vipers in races ranging from serious simulation to raucous arcade action. Tracks include winding mountain paths, circuits, and other 3D-accelerated locales. The alpha copy we played contained some pop-up and needed a better sensation of speed, but hey--that's why it's an alpha. Thankfully, there's still time to fine-tune Viper Racing before it gets the green light.
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So let's take some people out of the highly successful Papyrus Racing Group and have them form their own development group. Let's call this team Monster Games Incorporated (MGI) and let them freely focus on Dodge's unrivaled sports car success, the vehicle that made it from concept car to showroom without much change. Am I talking about the Aries K-Car? I wish. No, this, in my mind, is Dodge's second-best foray into automotive excellence: the Viper. Sierra Sports and MGI's tribute to this pricey vehicle is the aptly-named Viper Racing. You may be a little taken aback by being limited to just one type of car. Sure, the Viper is fun to drive and nice to look at, but eventually you may want to experiment with something else. This feeling is doubled by the fact that you are always racing against other (you guessed it) Dodge Vipers. After a couple of hours, though, you may not want to drive anything else.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
While Viper Racing lacks somewhat in vehicle selection, it does make up for it with a nice array of tracks, ranging from simple ovals to "almost" road courses that are so breathtaking you almost never notice that each one actually loops. By "nice array," I mean "well-designed," with each one having its own distinctive feel. I do not mean, however, that there are a huge number of them. With only eight in all, some may again be turned off by this seemingly limited selection. So what can you do with just one car and eight tracks? I'll go in order:
The Interface: This is actually quite nice. I didn't crack the manual until sitting down to write the review, since most things were readily apparent and accessible. Everything is thoughtfully laid out and placement finally makes sense for a change. Viper Racing should be considered a template on which to model other interfaces for games.
Modes of Play: There is the standard "Quick Race" where you can select your car, select the track, and decide to race against "the pack," the clock, or a ghost car. Here is where you should spend most of your initial time before you are ready for a career in Viper racing.
This is where the real game comes in—the career mode. You start out with a standard stock Dodge Viper. None of the showroom extras are included. You must then compete through four classes and earn money towards beefing up your car. Simply put, win races and in turn you will win money. This ends up being a huge challenge. Currently, I'm still stuck in the Amateur Class earning a measly few hundred bucks a race. With upgrades costing anywhere from $150 for a performance muffler to $18,000 for some prototype slicks, it may be a bit before I can be considered competitive.
There is also the now-standard multiplayer menu. While I didn't try this out for the review, it is there and it looks functional. I would expect Sierra to have this available on their WON.NET service, but as I write this, nothing is there. Leisure Suit Larry's Casino is there… but I would assume the K-car more aptly fits that game.
The Car: I have never driven a real Viper. I have an uncle who knows someone who saw one at the fair—but she may have been drinking and therefore can't be trusted. So I can't really tell you how realistic this game feels. Sure, I could lie, kind of like those flight-sim reviews where the reviewer is commenting on the stall speed of a multi-million dollar stealth fighter. Yeah, they know that from experience, by golly! Heck, if this were K-Car racing, I really couldn't be honest about the performance of that honored beast. I must trust the developers on this one. Given the lineage of MGI, I am assuming that every detail is simulated, every physical attribute represented, and every team member probably has driven one.
What I do know is you can't go at this game like it's some Need for Speed clone. Initially, this game was very frustrating because the Viper seemed to handle so realistically. I then realized that I probably needed to drive it while keeping in mind how much one of these costs. Putting that dollar figure in my head helped me not to sideswipe the guardrails at 130mph. This car seems to feel real, seems to handle realistically, and definitely crashes for real. The damage that can be done to this vehicle is astonishing.
Controls: As with any other racing simulation, I recommend having a Wheel and Pedal set for this one. Nothing makes a game more enjoyable than utilizing some of the peripherals that are available today. Force feedback is there, but Viper Racing's use of it is laughable at best. There are plenty of good examples of how force feedback enhances gameplay -- this isn't one of them.
The Hacks: Thoughtfully included are a number of cheats for the game. Instead of forcing you to finish a complete circuit, beat a certain time, or CTRL-ALT-elbow a secret code into the keyboard, you are given them straight up. You can turn on the oddly named "Horn Ball," which simply fires a rotund mine-looking thing out of the front of your car. You can aim it at other cars, road signs, etc. Not much fun to be had there. I'll be honest as well; I don't feel too comfortable with the term "Horn Ball" for some reason. Maybe that points to my reluctance to enjoy "Horn Balling" with my Viper. There is also the Wheelie button. This is a little more fun as you can pop the front of your car off the road with a simple press of a key. If held down, your car will shimmy in mid-air as if twirling on a string. This is pretty useless in gameplay, but Wheelie sounds cooler than "Horn Ball." Another thing you can do is to "Pave the World." This essentially turns off some of the damage done by leaving the roadway and treats all the scenery as if it were asphalt.
Additionally, the Hacks menu allows you to drive a few other cars. There is nothing special about these cars, and oddly they seem to handle just like a Dodge Viper with some performance tweaks. With the exception of the airplane (impossible to fly with a steering wheel), I was not too excited by these. For those who are truly bothered by the lack of other vehicles, you may find this a welcome addition. The hacks menu is a nice thing to have, but once you get hooked into the career mode side of things, you will most likely leave this stuff behind.
The Challenge: Viper Racing is tough. Maybe it's because it seems to be ultra-realistic; maybe it's because I grew up driving a '66 VW Bug. Regardless, the AI drivers in this game kick my back-end all up and down the track. At first, I thought it was because they had faster cars than I did; then I remembered we all drive the SAME CAR! With that excuse wasted, I finally figured out that maybe MGI taught these guys how to drive. Heck, they even taught them to evade certain death.
The true test of any driving game is how the AI handles a player flipping a "U-ie" in the middle of the track. In most games, they meet me head-on, seemingly oblivious to the fact that these cars don't have airbags. Viper Racing is much more prepared on this front. The fact that they wildly swerve to save their own hind-ends points out that you are dealing with some top-notch contenders.
I may never get out of the Amateur Class at this rate…
Graphically, the game is just a tad short of stunning. Very nice, but there is something about it that didn't push me over the edge and make me gape in awe at my monitor. Yes, I have seen better, but sometimes "better graphics" doesn't necessarily mean "better game." Still, something bugged me about it.
Before I get into specifics on the graphics, let me tell you about one of the coolest features yet to hit most games. Remember tweaking settings in the past to find that exact mix of great-looking graphics while still maintaining your desired frames per second? You would turn a setting on or off and then go play to see if you really improved anything. Well, Viper Racing takes all the guesswork out of this menial task and does it all for you. Within the option-screen itself is a "Benchmark" button. After you tweak the resolution, draw distance, smoke-effects, etc. you are then instantly able to see how the effects play. Since the benchmark runs through the exact same gameplay sequence, no guesswork in needed.
The car. Yeah, I guess that's right... THE car. If you focus solely on one type of vehicle, you'd better make it look right. And yes, the Dodge Viper is faithfully represented in its one shape, but many colors. The included "Paint Shop" allows you to customize the exterior of your car to your heart's content. In fact, you can import TGA files and even download new "skins" from the Web. All this helps to alleviate the fact that you really only get to drive one car, but it is THE car.
Damage is another quality faithfully represented graphically. When you break an axle, there is no question in your mind what you have done. Your wheels will get all askew and stop turning as you helplessly drive in circles. Hit a signpost with your car and you'll do a good amount of body damage. In fact, if you keep it up, you'll start to resemble a discarded soda can more than anything made by Dodge.
The tracks themselves are quite nice. The scenery flies by at a good pace, the roads look like roads, and plunging into a body of water is a treat to behold. I fully understand that staying on the road is the main purpose of the game, but sometimes my eyes would wander and off the cliff I would go.
Wait a second! Now I know what it is that bugs me. It's the fact that there is no fog. Well, actually, Viper Racing doesn't seem to feature any type of weather, but it's the lack of fog that I think perplexes me the most. Most 3D games use fog to cheat and give you a better frame rate. The limited distance you are able to see objects with "fog" allows them to move you along at a pretty good clip. Viper Racing, on the other hand, pretty much lets you see as far as the eye can see. It's downright amazing. What I initially thought was wrong is very much right.
Here's really where the game falters a bit for me. A lot of times I don't pay too much attention to the sound in the game, except when there are some serious problems. The first thing you will notice is some sort of weird crackle-bang-pop start-up sound whenever a race starts. It sounds almost as if someone shot carb-cleaner into your air intake before you started your car. Again, since I have never driven an actual Viper, maybe this is what they really sound like when starting. If my car did that, I'd be visiting the Dodge dealership the very next day.
Once you get over being scared to death by your engine starting, you are treated to 4.3 seconds of, from what I can tell, actual Viper engine noise. Wow. Yeah, I bet you are as excited as I was. All is not good with this simple 4.3 seconds of sound. Why? Well, someone decided that it would be nice and simple to loop that 4.3 seconds over and over and call it "engine noise." You don't really notice it as you are accelerating, as they represent the sounds of shifting gears quite nicely. It becomes noticeable once you gather enough speed in fifth gear to keep the engine at a constant hum. It's here that you realize you are listening to a poorly-put-together sound loop. Every 4.3 seconds you can actually tell where it starts over. Maybe it won't bother you, but speaking as someone who usually couldn't care less, it was distracting.
Thank you, MGI and Sierra, for not having a soundtrack. I'm all for music-enhanced gameplay and usually enjoy a good soundtrack for the most part. With the rash of driving titles I've been playing this winter, I have come to a solid conclusion: no music is way, way better than bad music.
Minimum: Pentium 133mhz, 32 MB RAM, and a 4 MB Direct3D compatible video card
Preferred: Pentium 200mhz MMX, 32 MB RAM, and a 4 MB 3Dfx based video card
I recommend: A portable tape player and headphones with a tape of at least more than 4.3 seconds of "Actual Viper Engine Noise." If you don't have access to a Viper, record your neighbor's Buick and pretend.
The documentation is fine. In fact, I never really looked at it until I needed to write this paragraph. You shouldn't need to reference it much, other than looking up the hot keys needed to switch views and such. Viper Racing's interface is so well laid out that the usual checking of the manual to see what to do next is not needed.
This is simple. There are better games out there that are probably not as realistic. There are better games out there that are probably more realistic, but not very fun. This falls nicely in the middle of that road. If you always wanted to know what it feels like to take Dodge's finest -- at least since the K-Car -- and take on some of the best driving AI I've witnessed, go get this.
If having only one car and eight tracks turns you off… well, I won't lie to you. You will probably not enjoy this game and become frustratingly bored in short order. Viper Racing isn't about numbers. It is about doing one thing and doing that one thing better than most. It will remain on my hard drive at least untilfills its place.