|No matter what you thought of the Phantom Menace flick, you have
to agree that the pod racing episode was pure action movie magic. The knuckle-biting
bump-and-dodge showdown between Sebulba and Anakin was high theatre, and the amazing
special effects created a thrilling illusion of speed and derring-do. If ever there was a
racing scene that demanded a PC game based upon it, it was this one. Unsurprisingly
enough, LucasArts has decided to recapture (and cash in on) the thrills of the cinematic
race with Star Wars: Racer. And by and large they mostly succeed.
In Racer, you take the role of a pod racer travelling the galaxy and racing in a series of events that gradually escalate in speed, prize money and difficulty. If youre good enough, youll eventually gain the honor of racing in the Boonta Eve Classic on Tatooine, just like Anakin. But before that, youll have to race and place on 24 other courses located on eight different planets. As you progress in the tournament, the courses get more devious, your rivals more aggressive, and their pods faster. Its pretty easy to win on most of the fourteen amateur and semi-pro tracks; the last eleven tracks, however, are a different matter altogether, and will you keep you busy for quite a while.
Fortunately for you, youll be aided by the newer, faster, better-handling pods you unlock as you win races. At first youll only be able to select from about half a dozen pods; however, as you win races more and (sometimes) better pods will be activated, until you finally unlock Sebulbas ship, with its nasty flamejets. Each of the 21 pods in the game has its own distinctive personality: some are fast and big but sloppy in the turns, some are nimble but poor accelerators, and some are just hopeless. The wide variety of rides allows you to pilot a pod that fits your racing style best, but it also adds a good deal of replayability. Youll need entirely different racing strategies to win with different racers.
You can also remedy some of your racers shortcomings by buying an upgrade with your winnings at Wattos shop. Here you can find parts that will give you a boost in one of seven different areastraction, turning, acceleration, top speed, air brake, cooling and repair. Youll have to make wise and sometimes painful decisions here. At times youll have to forgo the tempting bump to your top speed in order to save money for a critical improvements to your wretched cooling system. And if you want to go cheap, you can always look in Wattos junkyard, where you can buy cut ratebut damagedparts.
As befitting a LucasArts game, the graphics are amazing. The eight different worlds you race on all have a very distinctive and dramatic looks, from the spice mines of Mon Gazza to the frozen mountains of Ando Prime to the swampy ruins of Baroonda. Theres no lack of eye candy here, and the dynamic lighting is among the best Ive seen. The pods look great, too, but the best thing about the graphics is the illusion of extreme high speed they convey. Youll spend most of the game driving pods at over 500 miles an hour, and the scenery twists and turns and flies by at a truly dizzying rate. At this speed, you dont need any momentary freeze-ups or chop, and one of the most impressive things about Racer is just how smooth it runs, even on less-than-muscular machines.
Gameplay is also very good; most of the tracks provide very interesting driving conditions, with loads of alternate routes and shortcuts thrown in. Youll spin through tunnels, jump over crevasses, and skid on ice fields. Theres also a fair amount of bumping and jostling for position while youre racing, and if you take enough damage from collisions with other pods and obstacles, your vehicle may overheat. Fortunately, you can repair your pod in mid-race, though it will slow you down considerably. You can also use a turbo key, which gives you a nice boost of speed at the cost of perhaps overheating your engine. Weve used both gamepads and joysticks to drive the racers, and the control is uniformly superb; the racers can be pretty twitchy, and you really have to get a feeling for the your pods nuances in order to compete successfully.
For all its strengths, there are enough little glitches in Racer to keep it from receiving a five-star score, chief amongst them the relatively weak multiplayer support. You can play with up to eight other racers on LAN, but theres no support for internet or modem play. Say what? Racer is as good a racing game as there is, and if ever a game was made for multiplayer, this is it. Unfortunately, the only folks out there who will have this opportunity are those playing with work or home networks. I think this inexcusable, and can only attribute it to the game being rushed out the door so it could be released on the same day as the movie, which if true is idiotic. Lets hope for a multiplayer patch in the near future. Another minor annoyance is that--even though the tracks and racers provide a great deal of variety--there is a certain sameness that sets in after playing for a while. The games a pure racer, and save Sebulbas flamejets, there are no weapons or tricks you can play on other racers. While Im not necessarily lobbying for lasers and RPGs mounted on each pod, it would be nice if more subtle devices were implemented; stuff like smoke screens or magnetic fields or grappling hooks or the occasional mine. Which leads to my last niggleyoull spend surprisingly little time actually in sight of other pods. In the movie, the whole Boonta Eve Classic was a start-to-finish demolition derbyin the game, youll often outrun or lag behind the other racers. It feels more like youre racing against the track than the other pods. And some wont like the way crashes are handled. After crashing, your pod disintegrates and then reappears with just a bit of a time penalty at the place you crunchedwhich means that you can wreck repeatedly and still win the race. Frankly, I think this is OK; the races are wicked enough that it would take forever to finish otherwise.
But even these flaws cant diminish the overall grooviness of Racer. Its darn good-looking with diabolically addictive gameplay, and playing it is the closest youll ever come to being in a Star Wars movie. If and when LucasArts improves its multiplayer support, this game will be a classic; as it stands, its still well worth the dime for both racing and Star Wars fans.