Burning rubber. (driving simulation computer games) (Evaluation)
by Paul C. Schuytema
On a weekend drive down an unfamiliar, winding road, I long for an old MG-TD to tame the banking blacktop. Of course, a manual transmission is essential; I glide through the gears to the reassuring "snick" of the tight clutch. I turn the wooden steering wheel tight into the corner, finding that perfect line where the car seems to ride on rails as it accelerates into the straight-away. Crowds cheer, and I choose not to pit. Instead, I try to put one more lap between me and the pack.
Shaking my head, I realize that it's the middle of the week and I'm not out on a twisting road or burning up the Grand Prix at Hockenheim. I'm safe in my Midwestern study, dripping sweat all the same as I eat up the asphalt on my PC, steering wheel in one hand, joystick in the other.
When I loaded Car and Driver from Electronic Arts, I trembled at its possibilities. Set up as an electronic issue of Car and Driver magazine, the game features in-depth articles that focus on ten cars, from the Lamborghini Countach to the Shelby Cobra.
There are also articles on ten different driving areas, from the Mahomet drag strip to California's Route 1. You choose a car and a place to drive, slide on the fingerless leather gloves, pop the clutch--and you're off.
I've found that two of the nearly limitless scenarios really feed my driving machismo. The first involves taking a 1957 Ferrari Testarossa on Highway 97 in New York
This classic car zooms over the hilly roads, narrowly missing the stream below the road on one side and the oncoming cars in the other lane. The drive is set up as a timed point-to-point race, and I'm constantly racing against a recording of my last best race.
My other pulse-pounding favorite scenario lets me take a Mercedes C11 IMSA to the banked, oval Super Speedway. Slamming down the accelerator, I keep one eye on the rpm as I shift up through the five speeds to well over 200 mph before I hit the first bend, just ahead of my three competitors. The feeling of speed is so real that I can barely breathe as I try to keep the screaming Mercedes on track (any harsh moves and the wind will whip under the car and lift it like a feather).
After any race, successful or not, I can watch the replay in a hi-res simulation of a television broadcast with different cameras panning to follow my car.
For my more cerebral driving fantasies, I turn to World Circuit from MicroPose. A Formula One simulation, World Circuit gives me the chance to battle for points in a panglobal series of Grand Prix races.
World Circuit somehow replicates the real feeling of competing in a championship international race. All the variables add up to a true knot in my stomach as I wait for the green light.
World Circuit's hypnotic representation of the Zen of driving is not an effect to which I alone am enslaved. My wife, who seems at times to be a professional computer skeptic and who certainly is the hardest sell for a computer game that I've ever met, sat mesmerized as she battled a three-lapper at Monza. I watched her eyes, glassy and manic, as she leaned into the turns to the sound of her squealing tires; she had worked her way to sixth place when I paused the game to show her a replay of her latest pass. She nearly killed me for breaking her concentration. She was hooked.
World Circuit is an effort to play because there's so much going on and the variables--like setting the car's racing trim and gearing, navigating the pit stops, timing the braking to cut inside that fellow from France who dogs you the whole race--are are exhaustive.
The game even lets me tweak the frame rate and check my on-the-fly processor performance, allowing me to create a completely realtime experience. At Hockenheim, when I'm hot, the competition doesn't stand a chance because on the second chicane, I've found a line that's fast--very fast. The only problem is that with the slightest miscalculation, I ram my Formula One into a concrete wall, and I'm out of the race. Just one of the risks I have to take.
To make driving a little more realistic, I swap my desk chair for a canvas sling garden chair (it looks dumb, but feels right) and clamp Colorado Spectrum's Mouse Wheel to my desk. The Mouse Wheel is a steering wheel that controls my mouse, allowing me to steer in a more realistic fashion. The product is great, but with every game I have to tweak it some to make the mouse feel right (Car and Driver lets me change the sensitivity right in the game). But when it's right, I'm out there, on the open road.