Test Drive Le Mans (PSX) Review
Electronic Arts tried in 1999 to give gamers a solid sports-car game with Sports Car GT, but that game was filled with flaws, including a lack of tracks and cars. It was another classic case of EA taking a fine PC game and converting it into a shoddy PlayStation version. So when Infogrames and Eutechnyx teamed up to produce Test Drive Le Mans, fans of sports car racing had to be both thrilled and a bit scared.
Thrilled, because finally a developer was trying to create a simulation of the Le Mans 24 Hours, easily the most prestigious sports-car race in the world and arguably one of the top three races in the world, up there with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. Scared, because the Test Drive franchise has plummeted faster than Al Gore's credibility lately. Test Drive 5 and 6 were unrealistic attempts to tap into the Gran Turismo and Need For Speed market.
So how does Test Drive Le Mans stack up? Will it deliver the true sim experience that the small, but devoted, band of sports-car fans craves? Count me as a member of that clique, so let's take Test Drive Le Mans for a spin.
Presentation/Graphics : 83
Sports cars can reach more than 220 mph on the Mulsanne Straightaway on the Le Mans 24 Hours course at Le Sarthe, and that sense of speed is noticeable immediately in TDLM. Simply put, this game really rips. It's not as fast as the insanely fleet Jet Moto 3 or Moto Racer 2, but it's arguably the fastest racing game on the PlayStation that purports itself as a sim. That speed is augmented by hardly any slowdown, pop-up or draw-in. It's clear that the developers at Eutechnyx concentrated on smooth, fast graphics. They succeeded - big time.
There are plenty of excellent peripheral graphical touches, too. Details such as glowing brake discs when stopping quickly, small flames backfiring from the exhaust pipes during downshifting and upshifting, crippled cars burning on the side of the course, multicolored fireworks shooting skyward during night racing and your car moving on the jumbo video screen as you drive past.
But Eutechnyx really nailed the sensation of driving at night, a key component of endurance sports-car racing. The transition from daylight to dusk to night to dawn to daylight in the 24 Hours of Le Mans is nearly perfect. For example, at dusk and dawn, your screen will fill with glare when driving into the setting or rising sun. The sun also will appear low in the sky as a glowing ball at sunrise and sunset. The headlights for each car cast a realistic beam and shadow when driving at night, causing you to take extra care when racing after sundown. Very realistic.
Weather effects also are convincing. Rain pelts and splatters the pavement, while the cars cast small tails of spray from the rear wheels. The rooster tails of spray should have been a bit bigger in heavier downpours, but it's a minor omission.
But the graphical touches unravel when it comes to the cars. The car models are drab, lifeless and almost two-dimensional. They lack the sheen and lighting effects of such recent quality racing releases as Gran Turismo 2, Need For Speed: V-Rally 2 and Formula 1 99. The cars lack definition and are very reminiscent of the dull, boxy car models used by EA in the disappointing Sports Car GT. It's a real shame that Eutechnyx didn't concentrate on the car models, as the exotic and varied shapes of sports cars are probably the best-looking cars in racing. Eutechnyx failed to capture that. Compare the vivid, curvaceous car model of the ORECA Viper in Gran Turismo 2 and the underwhelming model of the same car in TDLM, and you'll know exactly what I mean.
Another flaw of the car models is the lack of visible damage. It's ironic that Eutechnyx artists worked hard to recreate such car details as fires and smoke pouring from blown engines and the realistic buffeting of the car caused by suspension movement over bumps, but none of the cars show any body or glass damage after incidents. It's very unrealistic, and the lack of damage probably was a criterion of the various manufacturers during the licensing process. That's ridiculous. Damage happens in racing, folks.
The final weakness in the graphics model is the lack of camera angles. Only three angles - near rear, far rear and front bumper - are offered. There's no in-car camera, a glaring omission.
Presentation/Audio : 66
The quality of the announcing is no better than the car sounds. In fact, it's worse. Tiff Needell, a British sports-car driver who is a Le Mans veteran, handles the announcing chores. Eutechnyx totally wastes Needell's ability. The game's audio script could have included more detail about the various courses and each of the cars. Instead, Needell pays lip service to those important aspects and instead spouts silly drivel for most of the game.
Some of Tiff's dimwitted jewels include, "What a performance!" after you pass one car, or "Was that really necessary?" after brushing another car. Remember, this isn't Mario Kart we're playing here. TDLM is supposed to be a sim. But Needell's silly, over-the-top commentary belongs in the motorized version of NFL Blitz, not a supposed sim of the greatest sports-car race on Earth.
Eutechnyx also failed when it came to creative music during gameplay. Guess what? Techno fills the background during each race. Wow, that's innovative. A racing game featuring techno music? What's next? The real shame is that this game had great musical promise, as the Dandy Warhols' rippin', foot-tapping "Bohemian Like You" plays during the superb full-motion video at the start of the game. But the music sinks into mediocrity after that.
There are a few decent points about the audio in TDLM. The screeches of each skid as cars struggle for grip and the thud of each collision with the wall or another car are very realistic. The crackling and pop of backfiring engines and constant whir of wind against the car also are very convincing and add realism to the game.
Interface/Options : 88
Everyone give a hand to Infogrames and Eutechnyx: They were smart enough to include analog steering with the left stick and analog acceleration/braking with the right stick. It should be standard in all racing games, but many companies, such as the industry giant Electronic Arts, doesn't agree. And the analog controls in this game are excellent, giving great precision and feel when the car is at peak operating efficiency.
The fine interface continues before each race. When choosing a car, a simple bar graph shows the relative braking, handling and speed of each model. It's simple and effective. Once a car and track are selected, players can choose easily from automatic or manual transmissions and turn both traction control and/or braking assist either on or off. Players also can test the cars on a test track and see telemetry after each run. No telemetry tracings to compare the braking and acceleration points of various laps is available like in the brilliant new F1 2000 by EA Sports, but the telemetry still helps you compare the various strengths and weaknesses of each car and your driving style. Nice touch.
Once racing, the interface also is excellent. The on-screen displays include a simple digital speedometer, gear indicator and tachometer, with horizontal bars for temperature and fuel level. A color-coded heads-up display of your car shows the level of tire wear and damage on your car, with green indicating low wear or damage, yellow moderate and red high. It's simple, but it works. Your place in the race is clearly marked on screen, with periodic field rundowns flashing across the bottom of the screen.
One of the most unique aspects of the interface is the display showing your position relative to the cars immediately ahead and behind you. A small model of the car ahead and behind you is shown on the left and right sides of the top of the screen, respectively. Next to each of those models is the number of feet they're ahead and behind you. The display is dynamic and gives you a constant, accurate indication of your progress. There's no onscreen track map in TDLM, but this ingenious graphical touch keeps you readily informed of your position. A great touch.
But perhaps the best aspect of the interface of TDLM is the options that players have when re-creating the Le Mans 24 Hours. The great race can be played in 12 minutes, 24 minutes, two hours or 24 hours of real time. That's right: Hardcore sports-car racers and otherwise generally sick bastards can play the entire 24 Hours of Le Mans in real time. Thankfully, you won't need a big supply of food and a porta-potty to accomplish the feat, as the game can be saved to a memory card during pit stops and played in multiple sessions. Still, the option to play this game for 24 straight hours is enticing and one of the greatest tests of gaming endurance. I guess I'm one of those sick bastards, too!
The only major weakness in the interface of TDLM - and it's a biggie - is the lack of car setup options. Only three adjustments can be made in the cars' aerodynamics and steering sensitivity, and four types of tires (hard slick, soft slick, intermediates and wets) are available. The level of fuel can be adjusted, and that's it. It's primitive and insufficient for a game that depicts itself as a sim. Not every sim needs the complex setup options of Gran Turismo, but there needs to be more than these basic setup parameters. This is arcade-like junk, all the way.
Gameplay : 71
The arcade-like play starts with the handling. The cars are simply too tight and responsive when operating with no damage or tire wear on a clean track. They stick to the tracks with frightening ease and maneuverability, with hardly any oversteer or understeer. When the car is running well, this game becomes more of an exercise in steering than the combination of taking proper lines and striking a proper balance of acceleration and braking. It's almost like Ridge Racer Type 4 without powerslides.
And what's even worse is that all of the cars handle the same. The slowest, most ill-handling GT2 sports car doesn't handle much differently than the BMW prototype that won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1999. The only major difference in the cars' handling models at peak efficiency is speed. The BMW will move much more quickly than a GT2 car, increasing the challenge and risk. But the front-engine, rear-wheel drive Viper handles the same as the rear-engine prototypes. That's unrealistic.
Cornering speeds also are unrealistically high, even when tires are worn or the car has sustained damage. Computer-controlled cars often are faster than human-controlled cars on the straights, but it's a snap for human-controlled cars to blast past CPU cars in the braking zones before turns. The CPU cars brake much earlier and accelerate much later than human cars.
I'm not sure whether it's the high cornering speeds, but the lap times for the 8.45-mile course at Le Sarthe are unrealistically quick. Allan McNish won the pole for this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans with a lap of approximately 3 minutes, 35 seconds. But I routinely turn laps in the 1:25 to 1:35 range in this game. That equates to an average speed of more than 320 mph. Need I say more?
Speeds in the turns aren't the only unrealistic aspect of the CPU cars. The computer cars also break down much more frequently than their human-controlled opponents. The attrition rate in this game is unusually high, especially considering that only 12 cars start each 24 Hours of Le Mans in this game, a flaw in itself. The attrition rate creates many situations in which only three or fewer cars are running at the finish. I have earned overall victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours with a GT2 car, the slowest class in the game, due to attrition. That's incredibly unrealistic. Prototypes win at Le Mans, not cars that resemble showroom specials. Sure, the Viper earned an overall victory this year at Daytona, but that was a fluke that might never be repeated again. And it shouldn't be repeated in this game.
The damage model in TDLM also is too forgiving. Damage does take a realistic toll on handling, as the cars become a real handful to drive due to understeer created by moderate to heavy damage. But it takes way too many hard collisions to incur enough damage to affect handling. It's too easy for human drivers to play bumper cars with computer-controlled cars, knocking them out of the game, while driving along happily toward the finish.
Even the CPU cars that survive the attrition war are at a disadvantage against their human-controlled foes due to flawed pit strategy. CPU cars make many more pit stops during a 24-hour race than human-controlled cars, giving human drivers an unfair advantage. I've completed 12-minute sims of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with just one pit stop at the 12-hour mark, while the CPU cars made two or three stops. It stacked the deck way too much in my favor, eroding the challenge of the game.
Still, there are some excellent aspects of the gameplay. First, the cars slow realistically when leaving the track and entering either the grass or gravel. Leads will evaporate quickly if you stray off course. The handling model also is excellent in rain and oily track conditions. The cars struggle for grip in the wet and grease. You'll need to be tiptoe around the track in oily and wet conditions if you want to avoid the gravel traps or barriers.
Tire wear also plays a very, very realistic role in handling. In fact, it's about the only realistic handling variable until the damage model kicks in after repeated contact. Once the tires start to wear, grip is reduced realistically. When the tires are on the verge of blowing or scuffed to the cords, the cars will snap oversteer at the slightest instance of extra acceleration. Very cool stuff.
And finally, the penalty-and-reward system during pit stops is excellent. Quite simply, the longer it takes for you to decide which services your car requires in the pits, the longer you'll sit in the pits. Quick decisions will create quick service. It's one of the few instances of real-time pit stops in racing video games, and the system is excellent.
Replay Value : 57
The Le Mans 24 Hours mode is fun when the computer decides not to play its dodgy attrition games. I've played some excellent 24 Hours of Le Mans sims in which I had to drive my ass off to just gain a top-five finish. But when the computer decides to enact high attrition levels, the game becomes very dull as human players practically earn podium finishes or victories by default. Due to the unrealistic attrition levels and cornering speeds, this game simply doesn't reward good driving enough to be called a true sim.
The Arcade mode allows players to select a car and race on a track without fear of damage. As the name implies, it's a pure arcade romp that loses its appeal quickly. The major flaw of the driving model - high cornering speeds - is magnified by the lack of damage and tire wear. Damage and tire wear at least keeps the competition somewhat close in the Championship and Le Mans modes.
The Championship mode is an exercise in pure tedium. It starts with an innovative, promising system in which teams send you e-mails requesting that you drive their car for the upcoming season. You can weigh the offers and test their cars before accepting or declining. You'll receive only offers for the less-powerful GT2 cars in your first season before receiving offers to drive GT1 cars and awesome prototypes if you're successful in the lower categories. It's a cool system of advancement. Props to Eutechnyx.
But it simply takes way too long to earn a prototype ride. Each season has 10 races, with two races on each of the five tracks outside of Le Mans. Races are either 10 or 15 laps, so it takes anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to complete each race. Multiply that by 10 races, and you're looking at nearly three hours of driving to complete a season. That would be fine except that winning is incredibly easy at the GT2 level. Even drivers of medium skill can win every race despite skipping qualifying and starting at the back of the field. It takes at least three seasons of success to earn a ride in the top prototypes such as the BMW, Toyota or Audi, so players are looking at anywhere between eight and 10 hours of racing just to get the plum rides. I hate cheat codes, but they're almost a necessity in this game. It's just too dull to sit through such easy racing just to get a good car.
And what makes matters worse is that none of the top cars are available to race at Le Mans at the start of the game. Only GT2 cars, the decent GT1 Lister Storm and a couple of mediocre prototypes are available. All other cars must be earned through the championship mode. Ugh.
There are only six tracks total in the game, which is too few. The historic Le Sarthe circuit at Le Mans is faithfully recreated, as is the Bugatti circuit within Le Sarthe. But there are really no other worldwide circuits of renown in the game. Where's Laguna Seca? The Nurburgring? Silverstone? There also are no classic cars, such as the Ford GT-40, Silk Cut Jaguars or Sauber Mercedes, to stretch the longevity of the game.
Overall : 71
If TDLM is treated as an arcade racer with a few sim touches, it's not a bad game. Fans of Ridge Racer Type 4 and the Need For Speed series will enjoy this game. The responsive handling, incredible sense of speed and great night-driving effects provide a great deal of fun.
But the problem is, arcade racers are as common on the PlayStation as rain in the Amazon forest. And both Ridge Racer Type 4 and Need For Speed III are better arcade racers than TDLM. The PlayStation has realistic and deep rally, stock-car, touring-car and Formula 1 simulations. The system really needs a detailed, realistic sports-car sim. Unfortunately, Test Drive Le Mans isn't it.