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Need for Speed Porsche Unleashed (PSX) Review


PSX Screens(8)

One of my all-time favorite racing games on the PlayStation is Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, the third title in the Need for Speed series. Over the years the series has evolved and given us a different spin on the whole arcade racing scene. This year, Porsche lovers will appreciate the fact that a game is singly devoted to the German sports car.

NFS Porsche Unleashed has a stable of 74 cars, spread between consumer stock and racing machines. Granted, there are plenty of repeats, but as Porsche fans will attest, any given model has evolved over the years. Racing all those cars occurs on one of 23 courses. The current edition follows the previous versions by stretching racing over a variety of game modes, including traditional arcade racing, a few chase modes, capture the flag, and a lengthy trip through the history of Porsche.

Presentation/Graphics : 70
The phrase "less is more" accurately describes how Need for Speed Porsche Unleashed should have been programmed. As soon as the game loaded, the menu graphics were nice with detailed renderings of the Porsche lineup. The glitzy menu graphics quickly rolled into the actual game play. The automobiles are intricately modeled; each model of the Porsche is easily distinguishable. At the beginning of the game you are prompted for your name, and it shows up legibly on your license plate. Cars are either convertible or hard-top, and each has a fairly detailed driver. In fact, in one car I noticed that as I backed up, the driver would turn and look over his shoulder.

NFS Porsche Unleashed utilizes a damage model, and during a race your car visibly changes as damage occurs. Starting with a perfect car, your headlights and tail lights gleam. After a few hits, the luminance declines until finally your light goes out. And the game keeps track of damage to location. That is, only one headlight may be damaged to the point of not working. Likewise, taking damage to the front of the car puts some dings in the hood.

The roadside graphics are abundant. Races take place in several locales, and each has graphics suited for the geography. For example, there is a course in Japan, and the Japanese architecture is commonplace. In addition, parts of the course run through a downtown district. Shops that litter the landscape have unique designs. There are a few racing circuits in the game, and those are graphical delights. The garage area has an incredible amount of detail. In all, the programmers are pumping out a bunch of polygons to generate all this detail.

And that's the problem. The programmers are trying to do too much. Sure the graphics are pretty, but the game suffers because of it. During my first race I was yearning for some speed. Instead, I felt like Nancy Kerrigan after being whacked on the leg. How could anyone do this to me? The "Speed" in "Need for Speed" was replaced with a Sunday afternoon drive. The graphical pace is so slow you'll wonder if a bunch of blue hairs are out on the road. Heck, it reminds me of some of my slow freeway commutes.

Rain and snow just cause the game to crawl even more. The game is simply devoting too much time and attention to the extra fluff. Racing the same locale with rain or snow shows a marked decline in speed. And to top it off, there is plenty of pop-up in the game. Or, if you switch to a rear view you find plenty of pop-down, as architectural features disappear like only Houdini could master.

The slow pace can be mitigated by using a first person view instead of one of the two available third person views. However, I found the first person view to be too close to the ground. This made it difficult to judge upcoming turns or obstacles. To just make it through the course I had to use the slower third person view.

Presentation/Audio : 80
The sound track in NFS Porsche Unleashed is varied to say the least. Playing in Evolution mode, which follows the history of Porsche, the music changes from a definite '50s and '60s theme to modern electronica. Nearly all the tracks are instrumental. Some are pretty good and others just plain annoy. I've never been a fan of boogie music, so when the boogie track changed over to a little surf music, I was groovin'. The '70s era had a kind of "CHiPs" thing going, offering up some cheesy funk.

The cars have different sounds. Some cars have audible backfire (accompanied by a quick flash of light in third person views), and moving up and down through the gears is realistic. Unfortunately there are no sounds that give you an audible clue to the damage status of your car. I would have wished for a creaky sound as my suspension worsened.

Interface/Options : 80
The menu system in NFS is straightforward. The main options screen lists three available game modes and a few other things (like options). While menus are quick to cycle through, I did notice one fatal flaw. Most games remember certain settings to the game such as audio or controller settings. NFS went one step further by remembering car settings. You may think this is all fine and dandy, but I don't. In Evolution mode, you can buy and sell Porsches. I owned one model, made some adjustments and later sold the car. When I checked the settings of a newly purchased Porsche, the game retained the car performance settings of the sold car rather than using a default configuration.

Once you press the race button, get ready for the load times. The long load times are pure agony. It wouldn't be so bad if the pace of the game wasn't already moving at a snail's pace.

Driving is easy enough with the default controls. Supporting both digital and analog controls, I found steering to be simple with the analog stick. My favorite NFS controller is a hand wheel, but I didn't need it here. But I think it's due more to the fact the game is so slow. The gas and brakes are controlled with the X and square button, respectively. Alternatively, a relatively useless hand brake is pulled with the circle button. Views are cycled with the triangle, and a quick rear view is displayed with the L2 button. For manual gearbox fans, shifting is with the R1/R2 buttons. To check your position, you can press the L1 button. That pops up the positions of the cars and time behind the leader.

The game uses a damage model that carries damage over from race to race. I found the damage model to be pretty good. As damage to the brakes and suspension racked up, the car's handling deteriorated. In the Japan locale, my damaged engine could never muster enough power to maintain a high speed on dirt. Once on a solid road surface, the engine could effectively recover. The only damage category I was unsure of was the body. Sure my headlights went out, but they don't actively light the road surface.

Gameplay : 45
The hard part of this game is trying to survive the first few hours with it. If you haven't already pulled the game out of your PSX after the first thirty minutes, you'll find a game that is at best a decent racer. The game has plenty of game modes. The Quick Race mode gives you the option to race in four different modes. Capture the Flag is self-explanatory - drive around collecting flags. The flags are displayed on red on the on-screen map. The only problem is that the map has a limited range. Unless you are in the vicinity of the flag, it's a game of hot or cold. A distance meter tells you how far you are to the flag, but without some other clues, this mode loses its intrigue after a single play.

The Battle Mode is a time based attack mode where you and an opponent race around the track. After the lead car crosses the line after the first lap, the other player's clock counts down. It stops counting the moment the second place car passes the stripe. If there is time remaining, you race another lap. This continues until a player has no remaining time. The Chase mode is a cops 'n robbers mode where the heat is on. For the most part this mode is fun. The only problem is that it appears the cop car has the same performance. If you pick a car which lacks horsepower, the game is over in mere seconds. Pick a car with too much power and you simply outrun the law. And of course you can take part in a traditional arcade race in the Race mode.

Taking a page out of Gran Turismo, NFS offers a Factory Driver mode. In this mode, you have a variety of driving tests to complete. Along the way you unlock some faster cars that you can use in the Quick Races. I found this mode to be the most enjoyable in the game. Tasks include completing slalom courses with cones (hitting the cones results in a time penalty) and completing a circuit with putting minimal damage on a car (again a time penalty). There are a total of one dozen driving tests. The only bad thing was that while challenging, this mode is completed quickly and you're left wanting more.

The guts of the game is the Evolution mode, where you race in three eras of Porsche's history. Eras are broken down into the '50s and '60s, the '70s and '80s, and finally the '90s to today. To advance to the next era, you must place in the top three in three tournaments. The three tournaments within an era are divided by car class. You need to purchase the appropriate class of car to compete in each tournament. In addition, there are weekend races where you race a particular model of Porsche. You must purchase the model from the Porsche Centre to race, and if you are low on cash, you can sell cars you no longer need. Finally, if you muster up enough coin, buy a racing machine and head to the circuits.

The flow of the game is such that you have to first buy the slower cars and gradually progress. Because the classic era of cars are awfully slow, your initial impressions will leave a bad taste in your mouth. It's not until you get to the present era that you really have cars with any punch to them. But starting off, you'll find that the tournament races are pretty easy and that placing in third or better in each class is mundane. Along the way you will incur damage. Before each race you have the option of spending some of your prize money to repair your car, and you can specify what level of repair you want if the finances are tight.

Once on the track, you'd expect the Need for Speed of old. Unfortunately it just is not there. While the hand brake is intended to start power slides, the whole process of power sliding and taking hairpins is inferior. Cars simply drift and don't really snap like they did in previous editions. What you get is an unfortunate dose of realism. Rather than taking right angle turns at 100 mph, you have to slow down to about 50-60 mph less you hit the barricades and lose time. Takes the fun away if you ask me.

The AI of the opponents is relatively passive. Each car seemed to have a preferred route. I noticed that on consecutive laps some cars would repeat a particular move repeatedly. For example, instead of taking a straight line through an arch, the same car would do a little wiggle. Cars are not overly aggressive, and if you lose 3 or 4 seconds on the leader on one lap you can easily make up the difference with smart turns.

The courses are a mix of straight sections, gentle turns, hairpins, and ninety degree turns. While I don't mind ninety degree turns in the city courses, out in the country there are more than necessary. An on-screen map helps guide you through the course, which is an absolute must when approaching those right angle turns.

The collision detection and mechanics on this game are pretty bad. For example, I hit a flower pot on the side of the road. What happened next was equally laughable and pathetic. Rather smashing the pot like you'd expect, my car was sent flipping through the air. In another instance I hit the wall and my car spun repeatedly in the air. It would land and then take off again. After about 10 seconds of spinning, the car finally righted itself and I was off. Yet more oddities include AI cars that drive right through objects which if you try the same break the object and scrub your speed. One time I hit a barricade a little too hard and got caught on the other side. The game spazzed out as it shimmied my car back on the course. In the meantime, the competition left me behind. The collision detection is so bad that at time you can penetrate into another car.

Replay Value: 50
Because the game starts with slow cars (I mean really slow), it will quickly turn you off. To give the game its due, I stuck it out to the very end, going through all three eras. Along the way the racing definitely got faster, putting some of the speed back in the title. But even then I found myself going through the motions. Contrasted with NFS Hot Pursuit, in that game I had to focus all my attention on the task at hand. In NFS Porsche Unleashed, I found myself actually thinking about other things. I could have done calculus in my head while playing this game.

Granted, the Factory Driver mode is darn good fun, but it's too short. Opening up the faster cars certainly makes the arcade mode more enjoyable. The faster cars speed the pace of the game to where it should be. But then the poor collision detection adds another scar to the title. What you are left with is a game that is at the very best a rental title.

Overall : 59
Detailed courses that at times sacrifice speed ruin an arcade racer. I was expecting a fast arcade racer, but what I found instead was a laboriously slow arcade racer with poor collision detection and sloppy physics. By the time you should have made it to the faster cars (thereby making the game more enjoyable), you'll have already removed this game from your PSX and put it on the forgotten pile of mediocre games.

By: James Smith 4/27/00

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