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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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Ups: Great graphics and sense of humor. Tracks and interactive animations are a blast. 
Downs: Realistic handling plus many obstacles can make for frustrating gameplay.
System Reqs:
Pentium-166, 32 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM, SVGA w/ 2MB, 3D card 4MB.
sb1.jpg (7276 bytes)While ultra-realism buffs may prefer racing games like the Nascar series or Grand Prix Legends, I’ve got to admit that my own racing preferences lean way towards arcade-style racers. And in Ubisoft’s Speed Busters, I’ve found a game that indulges those preferences with just the sort of loud, goofy, flashy and crashy gameplay that more or less defines arcade racing.

The game’s premise is pretty absurd—a policeman wins the lottery and stages a series of races on various North American highways. Whoever drives the fastest and clocks highest on the various police radar traps scattered around the tracks wins. Sure, fine.

You can race in either arcade mode or in championship mode—in which you’ll be able to use your winnings to repair your car or upgrade it with such items as spoilers, new engines, and tires. You can also buy insurance and road assistance. In typical console fashion, you’ll have to unlock tracks and cars as you go along, though this is fairly easily done by finishing in the top three in championship mode. Multiplayer is also available, and you can race for free on Ubisoft’s severs with their game client software. I raced several times on their Montreal server (never could find anyone on the San Francisco one) and it worked very smoothly.

sb2.jpg (5941 bytes)The game includes seven tracks located in California, Mexico, Louisiana, Colorado, Nevada, and Canada—and a secret "hidden" one as well. The tracks are truly one of the game’s strongest points. First of all, they attempt to capture the various locations’ ambience not through some sort of photorealistic depiction of the area, but rather through an almost cartoony postmodern pastiche of regional pop iconography. So in California, you’ll race through movie studios replete with the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the shark from Jaws, down the streets of San Francisco, and across the sands of Venice beach. In Nevada, you race through both Las Vegas and a neon sign junk lot, across Hoover dam, and through Area 51. And of course Elvis and a few of his alien buddies make an appearance. Louisiana is full of bayous, narrow French Quarter streets, and ‘gators. And the tracks are crammed with shortcuts, hairpin curves, and jumps as well; there’s no lack of personality here. While probably not the Nascar set’s cup of tea, this sort of goofy irreverence and wit works very well in tandem with the game’s hardcore arcade racing mindset.

sb3.jpg (7048 bytes)Adding to this personality are what Ubisoft calls their "interactive animations." While in most racing games animations are small and used merely as window dressing, in this game you can "interact" with them, which mostly means crash into them. The UFOs you drive under in Nevada will lift your car off the track, the King Kong animation in California will smash you with his fist, the natives in Mexcio will throw spears that damage your car. And all of this looks terrific. The game requires a 3D video card, and all the graphics are beautifully rendered, with weather effects looking especially nice. All this glitz doesn’t seem to come at the expense of slower gameplay, either; the game ran exceptionally smoothly.

The odd combination of loopiness and beauty found in the tracks is also evident in the cars, which are a sort of hybrid of several classic models from the 50’s to the present. You can also customize them with a collection of paints and skins, some of which are pretty eccentric. The cars handle fairly realistically; different road surfaces and conditions affect handling, it’s very easy to spin out, and as your car accrues damage (and it will) handling becomes more and more sluggish.

sb5.jpg (7865 bytes)And this is where the one problem I have with the game comes into play. The cars are pretty touchy for an arcade racer, and it takes a while to get a handle on the controls. This can be frustrating, especially when you’re just beginning and trying to unlock the second set of tracks. (By the way, the secret to effective driving is the using the handbrake in turns and leaning on the nitro in the straights. Master these, you master the game.) But even after you become adept at driving, a certain frustration level will remain, due mostly to such things as the random wierdnesses that occur on the tracks—manholes that suddenly shoot into the air, avalanches, alien death rays, you name it—as well as the extreme aggressiveness of your fellow drivers. These guys are vicious, and will not hesitate to rear-end or ram you, even if it’s counterproductive for them. I don’t know how many times I’ve been racing splendidly, avoiding rabid moose and other obstacles, only to have some loser bump me off the track and into a fourth-place place finish. All of these little hazards might not have been so bothersome if it weren’t so difficult to recover in this game. If you get pushed off the road, it’ll probably take a while to get back on. And in the game’s most egregious oversight, there’s no reverse gear, so if you get stuck between a tree and a building it takes a lot of frustrating maneuvering to get back in the race.

But when all is said and done, Speed Busters is still a lot of fun--a combination of high-speed arcade action and high-spirited goofiness wrapped in a gorgeous package. If you like arcade racing games and are prepared to suffer through a little frustration here and there, I’d recommend this game highly.

--Rick Fehrenbacher