VIRTUA RACING: FLAT OUT
(PS2: Sega 3D Ages/Japanese import)
Bought from www.play-asia.com for about 15 (inc shipping)

When your correspondent worked for top developers Sensible Software, there were only a few games by other companies that were played to a serious degree in the Sensible offices, located in the leafy metropolitan hubbub of Saffron Walden. One was the original Ridge Racer on PS1 (comfortably ousting the also-popular but flawed Saturn port of Daytona USA), another was the early 3D platformer Jumping Flash (which company co-director Chris Yates couldn't put down), but the biggest resource-hog in the firm's state-of-the-art- technology-stuffed games room was probably a game on Sega's disastrous 32X console.

The 32X port of Sega's own pioneering coin-op Virtua Racing had slightly glitchy graphics and some annoying sound issues, but was nevertheless a superbly playable and faithful port of the arcade original, and also boasted two excellently-designed extra tracks, which made it perfect for best-of-five racing bouts in the speedy split-screen two-player mode. The game's finely-judged balance between fast, wide tracks favouring the speed merchant with nerves of steel, and more tortuous, narrow and twisting affairs rewarding the more technical driver, made contests endlessly unpredictable and entertaining.

Sega later released, in conjunction with the short-lived games arm of Time Warner, a Saturn version of VR which - while boasting an impressive 10 tracks, plenty of speed, and generally not being nearly as bad as it's usually painted in reviews - didn't get the handling quite right and was largely ruined by incessant loading and, especially, whichever doughnut- brained cretin it was who decided that the Grand Prix races at the core of the game should be a gruelling, unalterable 10 laps long. Hence the home-gaming world has been waiting many years for a "perfect" conversion of Virtua Racing, and courtesy of Sega's "3D Ages" budget PS2 remake label, it's finally got one. Or nearly, at any rate.


"I'm just going to park here and admire the view for a minute. Aahh."

Virtua Racing has several factors which appeal particularly to this writer. Firstly, there are the stylised, superbright and ultra-clean graphics, whose sharp lines and simple colours create a far more evocative feel than any amount of gritty, "realistic" modern racers with their fancy textures and round wheels and all. (The look is partly the inspiration for some of the more inventive recent attempts in the genre, such as Capcom's Auto Modellista.) More importantly, VR was pretty much the last "serious" arcade racing game (as opposed to fun knockabout titles like Cruis'n USA) which was more about steering than sliding. It is possible to spin out in Virtua Racing, but you have to make a real effort, and as long as you don't do anything stupid your car will keep facing in approximately the right direction, leaving you to concentrate on going really fast, overtaking the opposition and getting your racing line exactly right on corners (which is the single biggest key to success in the game) - in other words, all the things racing games should be about, not an eternal struggle just to keep the bloody car on the tarmac.

Virtua Racing: Flat Out is, in common with most of the 3D Ages range, a fairly no-frills remake. In addition to the three tracks of the coin-op, you get three all-new ones - a short loop set around a sunny Pacific island, and two tracks which aren't the same as, but bring to mind, the extra courses from the 32X game - a long one set in a mountainous orange desert, and one tight, twisting city track strewn with right-angle turns and bridges. You also get a couple of extra game modes in addition to the straight three-track, single-race Arcade Mode: a "free run" option where you can race any track immediately against your choice of opponent numbers, laps and weather conditions (some token weather being one of the few additions in this remake), and Grand Prix career mode, where you race a season of all six courses (four laps each, for a total of just 24 laps per "season" rather than the Saturn game's daunting 100) and can unlock several new vehicles.


"Blimey, that was a hell of a skid."

Blissfully, the feel of Virtua Racing has made it across intact in the conversion, and this is just about as close to the arcade experience as you could hope to come without buying a coin-op (which, incidentally, can still be widely picked up at bargain prices, eg 450 for a two-player sit-down model, by viewers with plenty of cash and a big garage/spare room who know where to look). The frame rate is actually smoother than the arcade game's, although slightly disappointingly Sega have passed up the chance to significantly improve the game's pop-up issues. They're not serious and don't affect the gameplay at all, only some big bits of scenery and only really if you're using the most zoomed-out view (which is, nevertheless, the View Of Champions, and whose absence from subsequent titles like Daytona was a cruel blow to this reviewer), but it'd have been nice if the power of the PS2 had been worked just a little harder to render the beautiful locations with the total solidity they deserve.

It'd also have been good if some of the tracks from the other VR ports had made it too, for a properly definitive version - how hard or time-consuming could it have been to transport these simple untextured polygons across from the 32X and Saturn games? You don't even, it appears, get to race the six existing tracks backwards or mirrored or anything. The disappointing lack of such basic and easy-to-implement features is the chief reason VR: Flat Out doesn't break the 90% barrier. Racing the same six-track Grand Prix over and over again to unlock the new cars does get a little dull and repetitive, and reversed and mirrored courses would have done a lot to alleviate it at very little cost in development time or effort..

But forget the quibbling. This is a great conversion of one of your reporter's favourite racing titles of all time, a sheer joy to play on its own and also one of the finest two-player racetrack battles money can buy (though obviously, with a thoughtlessly-even number of tracks in this incarnation, you may need to have series tiebreakers. Two percent off). And if you've got a chipped or Japanese PS2, it's the best racing a really piddlingly small amount of money can buy, too. It looks as if at least some of the 3D Ages titles will get a UK release sometime in 2004, but if you've got the hardware for it don't wait. Racing doesn't get much purer and more enjoyable than this slice of absolutely classic Sega arcade action.

87 PERCENT
 

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