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Polaris SnoCross Racing (PSX) Review


Polaris SnoCross Racing is the second snowmobile racer to hit the Playstation in the past few months. Developed by Vicarious Visions and published by Vatical Entertainment, Polaris SnoCross Racing takes a more arcade approach to snowmobile racing than the recent SnoCross Championship Racing by Crave Entertainment. The result is an incredibly fun, but ultimately short-lived, racing experience.

Presentation/Graphics : 74
The far distance has been a problem for many racing games. If your graphics engine isn't up to scratch then the distance becomes a thick fog and things pop up into sight as you approach them. If you have a solid engine you can use an exquisite combination of polygonal buildings and 2D bitmaps. If you're Vicarious Visions you just slap a crappy low resolution 2D bitmap in the background and go have a coffee! The very first thing I noticed as I started a race was the horrid, blurry, ultra low-resolution travesty that was Vicarious Visions' representation of the far distance. At times, if you stare at the background while racing it feels as if the game's trying to emulate the cheesy blue screen effects seen in cheap television movies!

It really is a mystery why the developers couldn't produce a better background as the rest of the game's graphics really aren't that bad. The snowmobile models, though not as detailed as those in Crave's Championship SnoCross Racing, are decent and modeled after various Polaris snowmobiles. The rider animations are also pretty good as the riders lean to either side and back and forward. However, once you start doing tricks you can see poor transitions between the animations and at times they can look quite unnatural. Polaris SnoCross also features decent particle and lighting effects. The snowmobiles kick up snow in a realistic fashion and the snowing effects are realistic. Racing at night shows off the game's lighting effects as the headlights illuminate the darkness.

Polaris SnoCross also features some very good course and trackside graphics. If you can manage to ignore the mesmerizing ugliness of the far horizon and focus on the courses themselves you'll see that they're crisp, clear and excellently modeled. Traditional winter details such as the frozen tundra, the undulating hills, rocks, trees and cliff-sides are all well represented with great 3D models and textures. Many of the tracks have unique locations, such as an abandoned coal mine and an amusement park, and each have specific details. For example, one race occurring in an amusement park features concession stands and various rides as well as a massive Ferris wheel in the background! Unfortunately, a few of the tracks have some clipping problems, but nothing that serves to the detriment of the gaming experience.

Throughout the action Polaris SnoCross maintains a fairly good frame-rate; it's not blistering, but it gives you a good sense of speed as you race. On the whole Polaris SnoCross is a decent graphical effort. The visuals aren't as clean or sharp as the excellent graphics found in Crave's SnoCross racer, but they do the job adequately.

Presentation/Audio : 60
While Polaris SnoCross' graphics are good, the audio is most definitely sub-par and lacks any imagination. The music is your generic racer techno/dance; it's nothing spectacular, and it's nothing you haven't heard in dozens of other mediocre racing games. It's the gaming equivalent of elevator music--it plays constantly in the background but after a few minutes your brain blocks it out and you don't even realize it's there. The sound effects are adequate, the engines constantly roar, the crowd cheers occasionally, and you also get a pretty lame sounding thump when you smack into a tree. Some of the later tracks have unique ambient sounds, such as birds chirping and construction machinery, but nothing to really break the monotony. The sound of snow as it's crushed under the tracks of the snowmobile and as it's kicked into the air are done pretty well; however, neither sound is as realistic nor as striking as the equivalent sounds in Crave's SnoCross game. I really feel the aural aspects of a game are just as important to creating a game's atmosphere as the graphics, and Vicarious Visions really fail to impress whatsoever in the aural department and as a result the game's atmosphere suffers as well.

Interface/Options : 70
Polaris SnoCross is also slightly disappointing on the options front and only features three major modes of play: Single Event, Instant Action and Tournament. Single Event allows you to race on your track of choice, and you can also select the time of day and the weather conditions. At the beginning of the game there are only three tracks available in the Single Event mode; however, seven other courses can be unlocked as you progress through the game. Instant Action puts you directly into a race and randomly chooses the track and the weather conditions.

Tournament mode is where the real meat of the game lies and, as you probably guessed, this is a circuit racing mode where you accumulate points for wins and try to rise up the three available divisions--Sport, Semi-Pro and Pro. Each division consists of three races and each of the courses can be of the SnoCross or Cross Country variety. The SnoCross tracks are enclosed course-based tracks that follow a set path and are dominated by spectacular jumps. The Cross Country tracks, on the other hand, while still being circuit-based, allow for a lot more freedom and many of the Cross Country tracks in the Semi-Pro and Pro levels feature multiple paths and several shortcuts. While Crave's SnoCross featured cash winnings that could be used for snowmobile upgrades and repairs, Polaris SnoCross uses a slightly different system. Upon finishing within the top three, rather than receive cash you get a certain number of “wrenches”--3 for first, 2 for second, and 1 for third. These wrenches act as a kind of currency, and you can then trade in the wrenches to improve your snowmobile's performance in four areas: Speed, Acceleration, Handling, and Stability. While this isn't exactly realistic, it ties in with the arcade nature of the game, and the system is very accessible and easy to understand. When you win a division, any tracks that you won become added to the Single Race mode. If you manage to win the Pro Class you unlock a final race, the “Polardome” which is a huge SnoCross track.

Unfortunately there's one problem with the Tournament mode that severely limits the game's longevity and challenge--no matter how many times you repeat a division you never lose any wrenches! Therefore, you could repeat a division until you succeed and each time you gain more wrenches and your snowmobile becomes more and more powerful. This absolutely kills the long-term challenge of the game. Finally, Polaris SnoCross also features two-, three- and four-player split screen modes.

Gameplay : 80
It's obvious from the start that Polaris SnoCross is definitely much more of an arcade game than a simulation. There's no collision damage, the physics engine is very watered down, and the controls are very loose. Racing in Crave's SnoCross requires you to have tight control of your snowmobile's steering and throttle. Racing in Polaris SnoCross Racing requires you to hold down the accelerate button and never let go until you cross the finish line! The question is; does Vicarious Visions' approach towards snowmobile racing result in a lesser gaming experience? Not really. I'm generally more of a simulation fan than an arcade one, especially when it comes to racing games. I feel simulations are generally deeper, more challenging and offer much more in long run than arcade racers. However, there are exceptions such Ridge Racer 4 or Midtown Madness that are just a blast to play, and Polaris SnoCross is definitely one of those exceptions.

First off, the opposition AI smart to the point of being ruthless. There's no damage model and it's almost as if the other riders know this. They'll try to hit you off your snowmobile as you turn a corner, when you're on straights, and they'll even try to knock you down in mid-air! At the beginning of a tournament series this can be quite annoying and you'll be knocked onto the floor several times a race. However, once you gain more “wrenches” and upgrade your Snowmobile's Stability rating you can begin to return the favor. The feeling of satisfaction when you knock the leader off his snowmobile and onto the floor is unparalleled, and if you're really good you can even time your jumps to land [b]on top[/b] of opposing racers! Considering the arcade nature of the game, I wish the developers had of gone all the way and included Road Rash style punches and kicks as well!

As I mentioned before, the physics engine is incredibly watered down. Collide with a rock at full speed and more often than not you'll bounce back. However, sometimes you can just touch another object and you'll go flying off your snowmobile. This inconsistency can often be very annoying, but just as the collisions with other racers, once you increase your vehicle's Stability rating collisions aren't as disastrous. While there are different racing surfaces such as tightly packed snow, ice and mud I couldn't really notice any handling differences between them. Control is pretty loose with the D-Pad, but slightly better with the analog stick. However, I still had problems making very tight turns.

The real star of the gameplay, however, is the track design. As I mentioned before courses are either of the SnoCross or Cross Country variety, and some of the later Cross Country races are a truckload of fun. These courses are loaded with multiple paths and shortcuts, and in the Semi-Pro and Pro divisions you'll be forced to use these shortcuts in order to succeed. Each of these Cross Country tracks also have different locations such as a saw mill, an abandoned mine and a frozen creek! The shortcuts in the races can range from simply taking another path in the road, to the far more complex and exciting, such as jumping through passing train cars or smashing through barriers to restricted areas. These levels really spice up the action, and increase the replay value. You can race some of the later courses several times and never use the exact same route. The Frozen Falls and Mount Revelstoke tracks are two of the best racing courses I have ever seen in a videogame, and the former features an amazing hidden shortcut that allows you to bypass almost half of the track!

When you combine the great tacks with the ruthless AI you get some great arcade racing that is a blast to play. Unfortunately, the action is over all too soon. The aforementioned problem with the “wrenches” really kills the replay value. The multiplayer player modes are decent, but the frame-rate is so watered down that you lose a lot of sense of speed, and as a result the races are far less exciting.

Replay Value: 80
While the Cross Country tracks can be played over several times, the SnoCross tracks are all pretty much similar and offer no replay value whatsoever. Furthermore, there isn't a hill climb mode as in Championship SnoCross nor is there a time trial mode. The problem with the “wrenches” basically means that you can (and I did) complete the game in one 3- to 4-hour sitting. The multiplayer modes add a little more replay value, but nothing really significant. It's really a shame that the replay value is so low because the game is a blast to play and it would have been incredibly easy to fix the problem with the tournament mode by simply removing any accumulated wrenches and upgrades once you restart a division.

Overall : 72
I had a good time playing Polaris SnoCross. It's purely an arcade experience but it's incredibly fun and I was really impressed with Vicarious Visions' track designs. Unfortunately, the action is over far too soon and apart from finding new routes in the Cross Country tracks there isn't much of a reason to go back and play the game again. By comparison, Crave's SnoCross Championship Racing is more polished, has a lot more depth and replay value, and as such I can only recommend Polaris SnoCross as a solid rental.

By: Lavan Chandran 10/30/00

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