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Ferrari 355 (DC) Hands-on Preview

Every now and then a game comes along and completely redefines a genre. For my favorite category of games, racing, that revolution came with Gran Turismo on the Sony PlayStation. It promised realistic physics and was tagged a driving simulator. Since then, it seems like every publisher has latched onto the realism angle. The upcoming Sega GT is one such title. The physics behind Sega GT are on par or a step above Gran Turismo, and when it arrives stateside it is definitely a must-buy title.

However, the title I have anticipated for the longest time is Sega's F355. It was a cold January night in blustery Buffalo. I was on a business trip, and to waste a little time I noticed there was an arcade at a local mall. I looked around and saw some familiar cabinets. But out there, like a shining tower of light stood the F355 arcade game. "Holy smokes," I said to myself as I gazed at this incredible piece of work. Three screens, loud sound, and realistic pedals and steering wheel. This was serious stuff. I then spent the next twenty minutes blowing my per diem on the game. My heart was pounding from the action. This was unlike anything I have ever played.

Fast forward to August and Sega's title has been released in Japan. I could not wait for Acclaim to release Sega's game over here (Acclaim has an exclusive on Ferrari titles in the US), so I had to pick it up. And am I glad I did. The memories of Buffalo are coming back to me, and those memories are fond indeed.

Graphically, the game is a stunner. I compared the title to Ridge Racer V on the PlayStation 2, and F355 holds its own. The signs around the course are gorgeous, and the clouds are the best I have ever seen in any game. To put it mildly, I was awestruck by the graphics. The game is beautiful. Cars are modeled to painstaking detail. With only one model of car, the Ferrari 355, plenty of effort could be devoted to the car. To add to the realism of the title, only a first person view is provided. You look out the front window, and near the bottom of the screen gloved hands rotate the steering wheel. The rear view mirror is the best I have seen in a console racing game. It displays the action behind you with detail tantamount to what is ahead. And before you start wondering where the catch is, let me tell you about the frame rate. It is silky smooth with no slowdown whatsoever. What's more, pop-up is nearly non-existent. I noticed a tree pop-up far in the horizon, but for the most part it just is not there. So what is the catch? Well if you have played the arcade version of the game, you know that it utilizes three screens. Two monitors on the side act like side windows or the location near the door frame. Clearly this is impossible to implement for the home user. To their credit, Sega programmed up a nifty radar that lets you keep track of the competition to your sides as well as giving you a way to gauge the track boundaries. It works well, and it completes a stellar graphical display.

The sound in the game is likewise incredible once you turn off the awful music. I had my television blasting, and the rumble of the engine was awesome. I felt like I was inside the car ready for action. Granted, I have never been in a Ferrari, so I will have to trust Sega on the sounds. But what I hear is music to my ears. The purring of the idle engines and the whines put out at 8000 rpm make the game.

There are several game modes in F355. The arcade mode mirrors the coin-op version, complete with options to pull training laps (the game shows you the best line, when to brake, and what gears to use), simply drive, or take on seven other Ferrari 355s. There is also a non-arcade race mode, and to add some longevity to the game, a championship mode covers the six tracks (Monza, Long Beach, Suzuka, Montegi, Suzuka Short, and Sugo) originally available. More courses are available as you progress through the game, and I have already seen Atlanta Motor Speedway and Laguna Seca. Two player action is implemented via split screen or a link cable with two Dreamcasts.

Since the field is identical (except for the color and decal schemes), expect pack racing at its finest. Sega combed through the Ferrari specs to simulate the performance of the 355. By focusing on a single make and model, they could put every effort into making the game simulate the real deal. Again, I have never driven the model, but I trust that Sega did right by the physics.

And let me tell you, those physics are absolutely incredible. My all-time favorite racing game is the import version of Monaco Grand Prix 2 on the Dreamcast. The physics of the cars in that title come the closest to simulating a real F1 car. Just catch an F1 race some weekend on Fox Sports and you will see why. The thrill of recovering from a loose back end is exhilarating. That game requires plenty of skill and patience, but once you put the practice in, the experience is a real treasure. But MGP2 has been displaced by F355. The first time I started it up I knew this was something special. It seemed to play easier than the arcade version, probably due in large part because I could use the Dreamcast controller or move my rally wheel where I wanted it (to get the full experience, buy a steering wheel). Once I started driving, I was amazed.

A high performance sports car such as the Ferrari 355 takes some special handling. It is easy for the back end to get loose on you, and what really made the game was the necessity to carry out plenty of opposite wheel lock maneuvers. On many occasions I saved myself by making a hard turn into the skid and then quickly turning opposite. If you have seen Indy or F1 racing from the cockpit view, you know what I am talking about. The inertia of the car was dead on. This is also the first game where you really have to corner properly. In the past, you could cheat on some games. The hand brake was a saving grace on many a game. Here you actually have to slow down for corners. At the final hairpin at Long Beach just before heading out on Shoreline Drive, you have to turn in at about 25-30 miles per hour.

At this point, some of you may be thinking this game is too much for you. Gran Turismo with its supposed realism was hard enough, and now comes a came that steps up a level? Don't fret. The arcade aids are available in the home version. You can turn the aids on and off at your discretion, and they include traction control, spin control, ABS, and an intelligent braking system (IBS) that automatically brakes for you if you are slow to the brake pedal. With these aids you can motor down the courses with no problem. Eventually you will work your way up to driving without aids, and once there, you will be in bliss.

Unless you have completely blanked out, you will recognize my enthusiasm for this title is unbridled. There are very few games out there which have made me this giddy. In the racing genre, I can think of only three games that have wowed me this much, both in presentation and performance. Those titles are Moncao Grand Prix 2, Sega GT, and Gran Turismo. Mighty company indeed.

By: James Smith 8/17/00

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