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Need for Speed Porsche Unleashed (PC) Review


PC Screens(6)

PC Screens(7)

A couple months ago I wrote a very hopeful preview of Need For Speed: Porsche Unleashed but after getting my hands on the final version of the game, all I can say is that, if anything, I wasn't optimistic enough. The only question remaining is whether or not Porsche is a “real” racing game. I hope to settle that discussion over the course of this review.

Presentation/Graphics : 95
One of the issues I was worried about in my preview was a serious deficiency with the frame rate, but it's been worked out. With all the graphics cranked up to full tilt, the only time I had an unsatisfactory rate was in a race where nine cars were all on-screen at once. Other than that isolated case, it's silk…

The graphics are very attractive, not photorealistic in the style of Rally Championship, but rather surrealistic, lending personality to each of the tracks. Zone Industrialle is an urban wasteland in shades of dark reds and browns with flashes of lightning in a menacing sky. Cote d'Azur lives up to its name with a golden glow on a Mediterranean coastline. Normandie looks like a summer evening in the Low Countries. The graphics of each venue are immersive, adding to the enjoyment rather than just being a part of your peripheral vision.

The cars are masterfully done as well, with a showroom screen where the player can open the trunk, hood and doors to admire the detail within. In races, the cars lean realistically in the turns and rise and fall on their suspensions as they go over hills and bumps. With convertibles, even the dashboards are clearly visible. NFS has always had excellent graphics, but this fifth game in the series is the best yet.

Presentation/Audio : 85
Adding to the sense of realism are the sounds of the game. And it's not just engine rumble and tire squeal. Each track has its individual sounds: Cote d'Azur has seagulls, there is a barking dog on one of the Monte Carlo tracks, roosters crow in Normandie. It's these little things that separate a good game from a really good game in which the sounds further enhance the experience.

Each car has a distinctive sound from the Volkswagenish 356 to the basso profundo of the Turbo. I was impressed with the job the sound designers did to give a sense of power to a car like the GT2 without making it noisy or shrill. The car is quiet but the subtle rumble from the subwoofer leaves no doubt that this is a car to be reckoned with. Gravel, grass, pavement and dirt each have their own sounds, and when you mess up, you can feel the car's pain with the crunch and shatter of rollovers and impacts. You can also have music while you drive, but why obscure the wonderful symphony of engine and road?

Interface/Options : 90
As usual in the NFS series, the interface for the game is very friendly and inclusive. The player starts by creating an identity for use in the game and then chooses from a wide selection of game-screen layouts, ranging from much-too-cluttered to neat and clean. I use an analog tach, digital speedometer, gear indicator, and a list of opponents' times, which is updated throughout the events. Players can also add a rearview mirror, track map, radar (for detecting police cars), and a diagram of the car showing damage. Race views include in-car, bumper and chase, but to enjoy the full scenic splendor of the game, I'd suggest the bumpercam.

As has become the norm with games from Electronic Arts, I had some problems getting the game to recognize my TSW wheel, but the trick of setting the accelerator by starting out with the brake depressed and then releasing that and pushing down the throttle did the trick.

Additional settings include the screen size (800x600 worked fine for my P2/400 with a VooDoo3), level of car and environment detail, lighting effects, type of headlights (vertex or projected), lens flare, sky rendering and a convenient gamma setting so that the action is clear and bright on just about every screen.

Gameplay : 98
For all the talk of fancy physics and clever AI, the only real test of gameplay is whether or not the player has a good time with the program. Seems simple but there's more to this idea than it seems. Some games get every nuance perfect – Grand Prix Legends comes immediately to mind – and while you have to admire both the programmers for their brilliance and the efforts of the obsessed souls who master these games, for most of us, they are ultimately a frustrating experience.

On the other side are the arcade games which are fun for an hour or two but soon the player rises to the game's potential and boredom sets in. NFS Porsche walks the fine line between these two by providing a multitude of cars, tracks and levels of difficulty so that whatever your level of skill or experience, there is always something appropriate for you.

There are four basic modes of play – Single Player, Multiplayer, Evolution and Factory Driver. Within the single race mode are the normal race, quick knockout and knockout modes. In quick knockout, every lap, the car in last place is eliminated until only one remains. In knockout, one driver is eliminated per race. Factory Driver simulates the player working as a test driver and sometimes auto delivery service. This includes some driving on the regular tracks used but adds other elements on the skidpad and that are really tricky.

For example, early on, you are given the assignment to do a 360-degree spin between parallel rows of pylons. I probably made over a hundred tries before I came to realize that faster isn't necessarily better in this kind of driving.

In other cases, you may be assigned to a slalom course on the Autobahn or knocking over pylons scattered all over the roads of Corsica. I haven't progressed very far in this mode, but I'm hoping that eventually I'll get a turn at some of the legendary Porsche racecars that are included in the game.

A particularly devious scenario in factory driver mode is delivering a Boxster to the docks in Zone Industrialle within a certain time limit. Sounds easy enough, but complicating the issue are police cars -- Turbo Porsche police cars -- driven by homicidal maniacs who will do whatever it takes to stop you, including running your car into solid objects or other traffic leading to some truly spectacular smashups. I finally won this scenario by setting up one of those police cars for a head on collision with a tanker truck. Just reward for all the misery they'd given me earlier…

But the game mode that I've spent by far the most time playing, and the one that makes Porsche so terrific is the evolution mode. In it, you start at the beginnings of the company's history with a 356. This car has the mixed virtues of being clumsy, which requires the player to develop some driving skills but it's also slow which makes it harder to get in trouble. By the time a player has advanced to the stage where the hot cars are available, he's had plenty of practice and is ready for them.

Players buy cars and pay entry fees to join tournaments of 3 or 4 races each to earn prize money to either buy new cars or purchase performance parts. If you damage your car in a race, you have to pay for the repairs as well. It's possible to abort a race if the car is badly damaged, but even though the race didn't count, the damage did and you have to pay to return the car to competitive condition before trying it again. In one race at Normandie, I smacked head on into a building and did over $12,000 damage to my car. That's more than it cost for my first 356… To advance to the next level, you have to finish third or better overall in the tournament.

At first, the races are easy, even if you don't spend a lot on improved parts or practice, but by the time you get to the Golden Era, which covers the early 911s and their variants, the competition has gotten very, very tough. Practice becomes mandatory as does spending whatever it takes to equip your car with all the available performance parts. Once, when I was in the tournament for the 944s, I couldn't figure out why I simply didn't have enough speed to stay ahead of the opposing cars. I went back through the parts screen and discovered I'd overlooked one critical performance part on the list and that was the difference between finishing 5th and 1st. And after you buy the parts, don't forget to install them. I once made that mistake as well…

As the competition gets more intense and the cars' performance improves, it's necessary to start paying close attention to your car's setup. The number of adjustments that can be made are limited – shock stiffness, ride height, shock travel, toe-in, brake balance, downforce and tire pressure – but each is critical. Real Porsches have always been temperamental beasts, prone to swap ends in turns if power isn't applied smoothly, and the game simulates that tendency accurately. I've learned that a combination of softer shocks, rearward brake balance and more downforce at the rear will go a long way toward minimizing that tendency, but it's possible to go too far, in which case, the car will simply understeer right off the road. When you get it right, the rear end will come around smoothly in the turns when you ease off the gas. It's a wonderful sensation and indicative of the work the programmers have done to get the feel of these cars just right.

Every car in the game is different, so while a single setting on a particular car will work well on most of the tracks, when you change cars, it's necessary to start over with the process of finding the correct settings. It's well worth it to take plenty of time with a new car trying many different setups on the courses you'll run in an upcoming tournament until you are satisfied. Make a mistake in practice and you lose nothing – there are no repair costs if you tear up your car then, but in a race, you lose the event, the points, the prize money and the funds to fix the car as well.

The AI cars are very good in this game, with a wide enough spread of ability in the field that no matter your level of talent, you'll usually have someone to race. And race they will, with no hesitation to swap paint or slam the door on you soundly entering a turn. But the flip side of the AI racers is the driving of the civilian cars that are optional in some events. They remain just as stupid – intentionally so – as in previous incarnations of NFS and they will provide plenty of heart-stopping moments to enliven what might otherwise be a dull race.

A final note on gameplay is that this game continues the NFS tradition of having secret shortcuts and little tricks to save time in your races. For example, in Zone Industrialle, it's mandatory for a competitive time to cut through an alley. That one is marked on the map, but there are at least two other shortcuts that are not marked. At Normandie, the driver needs to straight-line an s-curve. Corsica has so many different route options that the map resembles a plate of spaghetti, and the path you choose will determine your outcome more than the driving skill you display. This has always bugged me, but as time has passed, I've gotten used to it. I guess it's a holdover from my “serious” games where this sort of thing is considered cheating rather than just part of the game. But remember that not every shortcut is beneficial, so it's a good idea to drive through the course slowly on one of your reconnaissance runs and search for side roads or hidden shortcuts that will save you time when it counts.

Replay Value: 85
I believe this game will stay on most people's hard drives for quite a while. Both the Evolution and Factory Driver modes take a long time to complete. There are many tracks and many cars – I would offer a complete list, but you only gain access to cars and tracks with experience and mine is still limited. I believe the list of tracks I posted in the preview of the game is complete, but they may have added some that I don't know about yet. Each track can be run forward, backward or mirrored in either direction. You can also add civilian traffic or other racers in a wide variety of cars. If you think you're hot stuff, try racing a 914 against a Turbo 911 to even things out a bit. One welcome addition would have been optional weather or a choice between day and night racing, but sadly, these do not exist.

Overall : 92
So is NFS: Porsche Unleashed a racing game? My answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Maybe you don't run traditional tracks, but there's more to racing than going in circles. Porsche has terrific AI – better than many “real” racing games – and excellent car physics. You can race against challenging AI or against other humans over the net.

The reason some may question this game's racing validity is that you can't really get teeth-grinding intense with this game. It does have a cuss factor, especially when fellow racer ricochets off you to make his way through a turn, or when a bus or tanker abruptly turns into your path. But it's hard to get really angry about it the way you do when some person or computer entity takes you out in NASCAR3 or F1 2000. To me, this is a plus because after so many times of getting mad about a game, I'll just stop playing it. There are too many real-world frustrations to allow them to intrude on your recreation time as well. The shallow learning curve and adjustability of opponent strength is also helpful.

I do have some minor gripes with the game. A few more setup adjustments would have been nice, especially ones which allow you to use separate settings for the front and rear shocks and springs. And while the replays are spectacular, the controls are not. There is no way to reverse a replay, for example, so if you miss something by a second, you have to start over, which is a pain. And when I tried to save a screenshot, the image was corrupted. This may be the result of changing the image size in the game.

But these few nit-picks aside, Porsche is a well-done and very enjoyable experience. A lot of games today can claim the former praise, but only a select few can claim both.

By: Paul Hamilton 6/12/00

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