WoS - Home Of The World-Exclusive OutRun reviews

Car adverts are some of the biggest lies on the planet. Manufacturers spend millions of pounds creating a fantasy world of hair-raising speeds on wide-open mountain roads that make the driver feel like he's in the opening sequence of a James Bond movie. The reality, of course, is crawling along clogged urban commuter routes choking on exhaust fumes, using your all-terrain four-wheel-drive SUV to take your lazy, McDonald's-stuffed kids the four hundred yards to school, and getting penalty points on your licence from bored traffic cops if you dare to do more than 82mph on an empty motorway at 3am.

Most adverts contain at least a grain of truth - hey, a glass of Coke on a hot day IS pretty refreshing - if only in order to save them falling foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, but car ads are almost alone in presenting a picture so completely at odds with the real world that nobody who buys the product will ever have even the tiniest chance of recreating the experience found in the ad's alternative-universe paradise.

What are you waiting for? Start! GO!

What's slightly more mystifying is that videogames, which inhabit a world limited only by our imaginations, so often seek to replicate the most gruelling and tedious aspects of owning a motor car, rather than building - at least in a virtual form - the glorious world shown in those commercials. Wouldn't it be great to play a game set in that driver's Heaven, where the roads were wide and open, the speed limits were forgotten, the sun was shining and the only thing more beautiful than the scenery was sat beside you in the passenger seat? Wouldn't it be great to play a game based on driving the way it should be, rather than the sad, broken mockery of our dreams that it actually is? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to OutRun 2.

This reviewer always liked the idea of the first OutRun game more than the reality of it. The environments and the atmosphere couldn't be faulted, but as a game it left a lot to be desired, with a driving model that was one of the first in the arcades to put the emphasis on braking and controlling your speed sensibly, rather than going flat-out the whole time and just frantically avoiding the obstacles in your path. It can't be a coincidence that when nostalgia sites wax lyrical about OutRun, it's most often the music that people fondly recall, rather than the thrills of racing the narrow, pernickety Cloudy Mountain or the unforgivingly sudden cliff-lined twists of Devil's Canyon. OutRun 2's triumph is that it finally matches the first game's evocative aesthetics with gameplay that's every bit as heartwarming.

You'll feel like punching the air in joy too.

The core to the transformation in OutRun 2 is the new handling style. For the first time in a series which is now up to its 11th distinct game, you can finally powerslide your Ferraris around the game's bends and hairpins, and what a powerslide it is. Easier to trigger and more controllable than even the longstanding champion of the art - Namco's stellar Ridge Racer series, of course - OR2's powerslide lets you traverse half the course sideways if you so desire, but never results in a spin-out or a catastrophic off-road drift. It's like playing with a Scalextric set fixed so that the cars never leave the track.

Don't get your reviewer wrong - you CAN crash in OutRun 2, and those spectacular tumbling, spinning, somersaulting aerobatics that miraculously leave your car undamaged and pointing the right way at the end are still present and correct, but they're no longer the game's main danger. Far more than any of the previous OutRuns, this is - at last - a racing game, not a driving game. Staying on the road is the easy bit.

("So what IS the challenge, then?" - Confused reader, Aldershot) Well, "Confused", there's more than one challenge - 100 more, in fact. Buckle up and we'll take a short but scenic trip through the whole dang structure of the game right now, you just see if we don't.

These Sega press-release shots don't really do the game the high-res justice it deserves.

There are three main elements to OutRun 2. First there's Arcade mode, which is a straight port of the coin-op game and which you should know all about already. The next option is OutRun Challenge, which is the heart of the game and which we'll come back to in a moment, and lastly there are the game's Xbox Live functions, which frankly you can go and read about on some other website where they give a monkey's nuts about online gaming.

So, OutRun Challenge. This mode is what chiefly encompasses the additions that have been made to the arcade game for the Xbox release, and features both single-player and multiplayer content. Slightly surprisingly, there is NO split-screen multiplayer racing available, in as far as this reporter is able to locate any. (Though strictly speaking it's possible, if doubtful, that it's one of the later unlockable features that your correspondent hasn't managed to collect yet.)

OR2's offline multiplayer play is restricted to System Link races, for which you'll need a second Xbox and a link cable, or "Party Missions", in which players (up to four) compete taking turns over a random set of five challenges (if you don't like the five it gives you, you can just hit the button to generate a new set) from the main single-player Mission mode. Which - despite the hollow promises of three paragraphs ago - we haven't got to yet, so we'd better do it now.

By the state of the architecture, there's been some crashing here already.

OutRun Mission takes the now tried-and-trusted "minigames" template that Sega pioneered in the Crazy Taxi series and continued in games like Super Monkey Ball, and applies it in a more refined form to OutRun 2, where it now unlocks some excellent bonus items rather than simply being played for its own sake. There are 101 missions spread out across the game's 16 courses (the arcade 15 plus an introductory course, with six missions each, and then five one-mission "Special Stages"), and when you complete a course's complement of missions, you get to tackle its final challenge which, when completed, unlocks the goodies.

The most impressive ones are the complete and fully-playable 1986 original OutRun, and two whole new courses made up of the tracks from Sega's never-converted late-1990s coin-op titles Scud Race and Daytona USA 2, but there are also numerous remixed versions of soundtrack tunes, reversed courses, extra cars and time-trial tracks and suchlike.

(As an aside here, it's worth pointing out that the Scud Race and Daytona 2 tracks, while visually superb, really show up just how good OutRun 2's course design is. By comparison they're no fun at all, being overly technical, artificial and cheap.)

The challenges themselves are simple but inspired, drawing from both the arcade's straight-racing and Heart Attack modes, and also throwing in a few cute memory-test games like Math Mayhem, where numbers hang above sections of the track and you have to perform simple arithmetic as you pass them so that you can drive through the correctly-numbered gates at the end of each section.

Some of the challenges are about flat-out speed and others are about precision driving, and each course's individual challenges can be tackled in any order so you never need be frustratingly stuck. Also, the "tree" structure of the game's map means that every time you complete one course's challenge, you unlock two more entire courses, meaning that at any given time you could have as many as 40 different individual challenges available to tackle, so there's no reason to ever be bored.

Any rank of "A" or above will get you through a challenge safely, but bettering it gets you smiles.

But that's really all you have to know about how the game works. What you need to understand is why it's such a joy to play, and that's what we touched on back at the start of the review. OutRun 2 is so fantastic because it brings the ideal dream of driving to life. It takes everything that's exciting about being behind the wheel of a powerful sports car (the speed, the glamour, the drama and above all else the control), and throws away everything that's rubbish about it (the tedious reality of physics, the crushing restrictions of traffic laws, the inconvenience of dying horribly when you plough into a petrol tanker at 220mph).

The Xbox's processing power is used here not to perform eight trillion calculations about the precise effect on the alignment of each tyre of every bump in the road, or the exact amount of torque applied to the flange-shaft when you press slightly harder on the grommet-toggling button, but simply to provide the most stunning playground possible for the player to fling his new four-wheeled toy around in, WHICH IS THE WAY IT SHOULD ALWAYS BE.

At times the game's draw distance is nothing short of breathtaking (see the pic below for an example), which has enabled the track designers to build courses that challenge your driving skill, not your ability to pick corners out of a confusing visual mess of extraneous detail inserted to hide the fact that the game can't draw more than 100 yards ahead of you. (The problem that jams a big rusty garden fork into the gearbox of many otherwise-excellent games like Burnout 3, which we won't be mentioning again in this review.)

The very Scottish "Cloudy Highland" course. You can almost see my house from here.

This strategy gives OutRun 2 plenty of opportunities to show off - the "Rush Hour" and "Crazy Convoy" challenges, for example, pack the road with literally dozens of vehicles, for a thrillingly tense bout of high-speed weaving reminiscent of Mario Kart 64's classic Kinopio Highway track. But it always shows off as a facilitator for the gameplay, not at the expense of it. This isn't a game that wants to crush you like some worthless bug, or impress you with how clever the programmers are, it's a game that wants you to enjoy yourself.

(It should be noted at this point, for the benefit of the sort of cretins who should be killed slowly with nailguns, that OR2 does suffer, very occasionally, from mild and very brief framerate hiccups - mostly in the Scud Race/Daytona 2 bonus tracks - but if you're the kind of nauseating stain on the toilet-bowl of the world who cares about that, please go and drown yourself in a big bucket of liquid sewage as soon as humanly possible. Seriously.)

It's ironic, of course, that in designing a game for the benefit of the player rather than as a technical showpiece, the developers have as a result been able to make it such a work of art too. OutRun 2 has a palpably European setting (with a couple of short detours into North Africa), which gives it scope for a dramatic range of visual styles, from the glittering night-time streets of "Metropolis" (actually Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe) to the stunning, sun-drenched Roman landscapes of "Imperial Avenue" (where the finish line is St Peter's Square), through the tulip gardens of Amsterdam and the snowy slopes of the Pyrenees. Even the grim oil refineries of "Industrial Complex" are rendered in a gorgeous, sun-bleached sepia style which somehow makes pollution look beautiful.

"Garcon! Our usual table, five minutes."

Naturally, there are a few disappointments to be found here too. The aforementioned lack of split-screen multi-player modes is a pity, though including them would undoubtedly have compromised the stunning visuals that are such an integral part of OutRun games. It's also a shame that Arcade mode only has one high-score table, which doesn't specify which of the five difficulty settings scores were achieved at, rendering it slightly pointless. And the "Special Stages" you unlock by clearing the five "end" courses in Mission mode are a bit weak, comprising a single gruelling 10-minute race at the end of which all you get are a few more of the useless "cards" the game awards for beating individual challenges.

And if we're going to carp just for the sake of it, it'd have been nicer to have restored to posterity the great "lost" OutRun game - the 1987 coin-op Turbo OutRun, never emulated or satisfactorily converted to home formats - as an unlockable rather than (or as well as) the original game, which has shown up many times now, whether in Xbox games like Shenmue or in various retro releases on the Mega Drive, Saturn, Dreamcast, PS2, GBA and more.

The biggest complaint that's been levelled at OutRun 2 so far, though - that it's too slight and shallow to justify a 40 console release - is nothing but a giant pile of cobblers. Quite aside from the fact that 40 to have a 15,000 arcade machine rendered perfectly in your home (with many extras) is a bargain by anyone's standards, there are many hours of challenge to be found in the 101 missions, tremendous entertainment in the party modes, but more importantly a game that will bring you pure joy to play in its own right - that is, for enjoyment rather than to complete a gruelling task - until the end of time. This reviewer, certainly, will take 20 years of half-hour bursts of sheer videogaming pleasure over some grimly drawn-out 100-hour RPG, FPS or survival horror that'll be played through the end once then flung with relief into a cupboard never to be loaded up again. Every single time.

"I hope that damn coyote isn't up there with another bloody piano."

The bottom line, chums, is that if everything in the world was made this way, and understood its purpose so well, the universe would be an immeasurably happier place. OutRun 2 is glorious. If this game doesn't make you beam like a big happy idiot, you might as well just throw all your consoles into a quarry. And ideally, chuck yourself in there with them - you're only making things worse for everyone, you soulless, joyless nightsoil. Ciao!

OutRun 2 is/was released for the Xbox on 1 October 2004, RRP $40/40/55.

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