Mario Andretti's Racing Challenge. (computer game) (Evaluation)
by Scott May
At one time, slamming into a wall at 240 mph could ruin your whole day. Behind the wheel of Mario Andretti's Racing Challenge, you almost look forward to that sort of disaster.
This high-octane outing hails from the mechanics at Distinctive Software, creators of the original Test Drive and last year's fabulous Stunts. It's a project of the company's B team--veterans Don Mattrick, Brad Gour, and Kevin Pickell are conspicuously absent from the credits--but the rookies pull off an ambitious effort with only minor bumps and bruises.
Though similar in form to EA's Indianapolis 500, this game travels a more rugged path than previous efforts in the genre. Rather than spotlighting a particular race or racing style, the designers run players through the real-life rigors of professional sports car competition. To reach the top, you must pound your way up from the bottom, earning cash to finance a move to the next, more difficult, series. You'll experience triumph and frustration on this long road.
Players begin their careers on the venerable sprint car circuit. Little more than roll cages on wheels, these feisty racers perform the bump and grind on dirt tracks at rural fairgrounds.
The serial picks up speed as you advance into modifieds, stock cars, prototypes, Formula One, and Indy cars. All circuits are authentically staged according to season schedule, race lengths, and qualification requirements.
The game nicely exploits the gut-level relationship between car, track, and driver. In sprint car racing, for example, you feel the tires spin and grasp for traction, sliding sideways through tight corners. The strain's fearsome as you hug an inside curve at top speed, centrifugall force pulling your Formula One racer into the retaining wall.
Twelve tracks comprise the entire series, ranging from tiny Ascot Park to the lengthy Hockenheim Speedway. The designers capture perfectly the unique characteristics of each track, from the banked curves of Daytona to the deceptive turns of Monte Carlo's Grand Prix.
Three levels of graphic detail allow slower machines to trade background embellishments--clouds, trees, buildings--for extra speed. Even at the highest VGA setting, the solid-fill polygon graphics are merely serviceable. In a race for the checkered flag, however, only the losers concern themselves with landscaping.
Overresponsive steering negates the use of a joystick, where a simple flick of the wrist results in a spin-out. Serious drivers will opt instead for the cursor keys, applying a lighter touch for better control.
The simulation strives for accuracy, yet it exhibits some curious lapses in realism. The cars in the first lineup--near-perfect computer controlled opponents--seem to execute every move with uncanny speed and agility. The margin for human error seems almost nonexistent.
Every track and automotive class allows for practice laps. Pit stops are available in some races, delegated to specific laps. It's simply a routine, not a consequence of your actions, so there's no sense of urgency.
Other dubious frills include an instant replay with six fixed-position cameras. Limited mobility and negligible memory capacity render this feature of questionable worth.
Mario Andretti's Racing Challenge falls short of the ultimate racing simulation, but it does take us several laps in the right direction.