Totally Unnamed Gaming Column - I Am Lonely Driver

by dw,

These days you're spoilt for choice when it comes to racing games and with such a variety, it's actually quite easy to find the balance between arcade and realism that you want. For the most part, each title sticks to it's own time-proven formula. Gran Turismo remains the pinnacle of realism (within certain limits) and Project Gotham Racing egging you on to race like a madman. However, some still can't seem to decide what kind of racing game they want to be. I'm looking at you Need for Speed.

What's really surprised me is the resurgence in arcade racing games at actual arcades. Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune and Initial D: Arcade Stage have become the holy grails of arcade games. They managed this by pushing forward arcade technology - Take the card system for instance: Both games allow the players to save their progress on a magnetic card to not only allow them to come back later to further their progress in the game (incentive), but also allow them to take their save to another machine somewhere else. Another innovative feature is the online scoreboards which allowed for players to better compete with eachother.

Admittedly, from my standpoint these two games annoy me slightly. For one, to make any real progress in the games you'd find it much cheaper to buy the actual machines to use yourself than pump money into one at an arcade. You'll also find that in some areas, like Australia, that it can take quite a long time for the next generation of your preferred game to make it to the arcades and because the developers usually shutdown the online scoreboards for a game a couple of months after the next version has been released, that any progress you have made is for naught until the new machines arrive. However, the main reason these games annoy me, especially with Maximum Tune, is the elitism it breeds.

Most times I've walked into my local Timezone, I've found that all four Maxi Tune machines being taken up by some trendy, head-to-toe Louis-Vuitton wearing rich kids, all of whom take it in turn to slam the gearboxes around and brag about their 1000 victory stars and perfect story-mode completed cars. They're always on the lookout for their next victim and there's no way to beat them because they've got more money than sense to waste on playing the game. But enough about Initial D and Wangan Midnight. On to the reviews.

In today's current economy a lot of people can't afford to go to arcades, one solution of course is to look towards consoles, where costs are much more limited, and with the prevalance of importing, they can be obtained at your leisure. That's why this week I'll be looking at some newly released racing games for consoles, Forza 3 and Gran Turismo PSP. As well as a couple of PS3 games based on popular racing Manga/Anime, Initial D and Wangan Midnight.

Ah, crap...

[DW] PS3: Initial D: Extreme Stage (SEGA)

Probable Rating G
Release Date 03/07/2008
# of Players Local: 1
Online: 2-4
Availability Import: Common
Language Japanese
Fluency/Literacy Level Basic: Hiragana/Katakana, If you've seen the series you should be well off.

When I first started to attend my local anime club, one of first shows I saw there was Initial D. The episode I saw didn't even have any racing in it, but after hearing all the technical terms they were using I knew I had to get more and before I knew it, I was hooked. After watching all of the Anime and reading all of the manga... I was left still wanting more. As luck would have it, I found out on an exchange trip to Japan, that student whose family I was staying with was also a fan and he introduced me to the Arcade game and its PS2 port.

I had a great deal of fun playing them both in Japan and when the arcade cabinets made their way to Australia I was able to play it here. Eventually they updated the Arcade version with a completely new engine with HD graphics and now they've put out the PS3 port of it which we'll look at right here - Extreme Stage.

The first thing you notice when you start up the game is how crisp the graphics are, especially in the opening sequence. The second thing you notice is the horrendous loading times - typical of any Blu-ray game. Thing is, they could have at least have had the foresight to have the loading between races happen either at the start or end of the races and NOT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CUTSCENE!

Being based on Initial D Arcade Stage 4 means that Extreme Stage has a lot of extra features that weren't present in the previous games, like the avatar customization and online ranking. The avatar system, MyChara, has a good variety of parts that you start off with and others which are unlocked as you play through the game or through online battles. You also can have to the 3 cars for your character which means you can specialise your car to certain types of races unlike the Arcade. You earn points in most races, even Time-Trials, that you can spend to upgrade your car/s.

The car selection is pretty much identical to the Arcade Stage and includes most of the cars featured in the series up until the end of the 4th Stage anime. Though with typical Arcade balancing, all the cars start off weak - I was surprised when I started off with a Skyline GT-R R34 V-Spec Nur II that LOST to a AE-85 Levin in acceleration.

It does take a fair amount of time to build up a car into a decent racing machine, rewarding those who put in the time and effort unlike some other games I've played which give you random upgrade cards at the end of each race, with most of the time the upgrades are either useless or you have them already.

The arcade story mode is pretty much the same as in all the arcade games and their ports - You go to various mountain race courses in and around the Gunma prefecture and challenge the racers there in order to conquer the area.

Most of time you race the courses in both directions at both day and night with a few wet races thrown in every now and then. You can either choose to play through the level linearly or in any order you want. You will find when playing linearly that as you get to the last couple of opponents in Akagi and Akina, you won't be able to defeat them. At this point you have to either skip them and go to the easier opponents in the next region or go back and challenge people you've already defeated in order to get more points.

Just like in the previous games, you get a cutscene featuring the character/s you're racing before and after each race, but unlike the previous games they've switched to using 3D CG for the cutscenes and this doesn't quite work for Shuuichi Shigeno's artstyle. I much prefered the Manga-with-Voice-Acting cutscenes they used before and it's a shame that they've switched over. The voice acting used in Extreme Stage is the same as the Anime and really adds to the experience, especially when you're racing along, way in front of your opponent, and all they can do is curse at you.

One thing I liked about Special Stage (the PS2 port of Arcade Stage) was the story mode, in which you played through all the races featured in Anime/Manga - unfortunately, they left it out of the PS3 release.

The game features an online multiplayer mode where you can race against people from all over the world, but mostly from Japan. And because of this, about the only the time you'll actually be able to play against anyone is during the Japanese night-time or on weekends. Though fortunately, being in Australia, our timezones aren't that far off.

Overall it's a pretty good game and I keep coming back to it, especially since it's much cheaper than playing the Arcade version and offers all of the arcade features.

Now if you want to pick it up for yourself, you'll find it at most major import sites. The game comes in 2 versions, the standard Japanese version and the Asian version. Be careful, while the Asian version comes with an English manual, it doesn't have an online mode. Also, if you do get Extreme Stage, I recommend getting some sort of decent racing wheel - Using the analog stick to steer can lead to some very twitchy driving and no, you can't switch to using the D-pad.

[DW] PS3: Wangan Midnight (Genki)

Probable Rating PG (Adult Themes)
Release Date 26/07/2007
# of Players Local: 1
Online: 2-4
Availability Import: Common
Language Japanese
Fluency/Literacy Level Intermediate: Hiragana/Katakana/Kanji
Notes NOT a port of the Arcade game!

One part of the resurgence of Arcade gaming is the Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune games. Nearly every Arcade I go into has at least one machine and there's always a group of people racing each other with their kitted up EVO VIII's and always on the Hanshin Loop course... How I hate that course...

But luckily/unluckily for us, the Wangan Midnight game for the PS3 ISN'T based on the Maximum Tune series.

It's actually a sequel to 2002's Wangan Midnight on the PS2. So besides being real creative when it comes to naming games, Genki actually has a long history of putting out street racing games - The Shutokou Battle series, or Tokyo Xtreme Racing as it's known outside of Japan.

The main concept of these games usually involve racing up and down the highways and expressways of Tokyo really, really fast. Pretty much the same sort of stuff that happens in Wangan Midnight, so the pairing of Wangan Midnight and Genki is only natural.

While Shutokou Battle sticks to it's own formula of conquering parking lots one racer at a time, Wangan Midnight changes this up a bit with the inclusion of storyline-based missions and a survival mode. The game follows some of the key characters in the series, Akio, the driver of the Devil Z, Skyline-enthusiast/Actress Reina and the quiet yet charismatic doctor, Tatsuya, who drives the Legendary Blackbird. As you play through the game you unlock many other characters, all on their own quest to surpass the Devil Z.

The missions themselves are a bit repetitive. Most of the missions are usually "be in first place when you get to the goal", though they do occasionally throw in a "be at a certain speed at the finish line", it's still quite boring most of the time.

What doesn't help is that the game will fight you most of the way through the races. Because most of the missions don't feature the typical Shutokou Battle hitpoint system, they've also added in an engine heat bar. If you floor it too much, the engine overheats. The problem with it is that in order to have any chance of catching your opponent YOU HAVE TO FLOOR IT! While this can be overcome with upgrade cards, they aren't exactly forthcoming with them.

The other way the game fights you is the CARS THAT APPEAR OUT OF NOWHERE! Seriously, you'll be driving along, 300km/h+, go round a corner and WHAM, straight up the backside of Toyota TownAce. I guess that's the game being realistic, but it could do with a better depth of field particularly since hitting anything during a race means you can kiss your chance of winning goodbye.

Survival mode is a bit of relief from the tedium of the Story mode, but shouldn't really be attempted until your car is majorly upgraded. It plays out just like the Shutokou Battle games, where you have to out run your opponents in order to drain their health bar, lest they get in front of you and drain yours.

The only other thing to do is try and get online to play some multiplayer, but don't hold your breath. With the game being 2 years old it really hasn't held up to the passage of time. Even when I got the game at launch I was never able to get an online match. So really, your only chance at getting online is if you know another person that owns a copy of the game.

I wouldn't really recommend picking up this dated title unless you're a die-hard Wangan Midnight fan. But if you really have to, they rereleased it as a Playstation3 the Best title so most import sites have it for fairly cheap.

[DW] XBOX360: Forza 3 (Turn 10/Microsoft Game Studios)

Rating G
Release Date 23/10/2009
# of Players Local: 1-2
Online: 2-8
Availability Local: Common
Language English

Gran Turismo games take a long time to make. I mean, Gran Turismo 4 was released nearly 5 years ago and we probably still won't see Gran Turismo 5 until midway into next year. I know that Polyphony Digital have released Gran Turismo HD and 5 Prologue in the past couple of years, but they're hardly fully fledged racing games. Meanwhile, you have Turn 10, whom in the past 5 years have managed to put out 3 Forza Motorsports and with the third and latest iteration, giving the King of Racing Simulators a run for it's money. Let's take a look.

While it does take a bit of time before you can get the game up and running, as a British person has to help you install the disks to the hard drive and other setup... It's well worth the wait, as from the moment the opening cinematics start up, your mind is blown by the incredible hi-def visuals and graphics on show. Having played the previous game on the Xbox 360 I was absolutely astounded by the difference in quality between them. If I had to sum up Forza 3 in one line, it would be "HD Car Pornography."

Most of the time the game itself doesn't actually want you to play, it just wants you look at all its splendour. When you're going through it's quite minimalistic menus and you just so happen to stop pressing any buttons, the menu fades away and your left to admire your current car parked on the side of a road on what looks like an Italian Alp and you think to yourself, "this is the greatest screensaver, ever."

If you do manage to get bored by the oodles of car pornography, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that there's racing game on the disk as well.

The game's main mode has been greatly focused in comparison to its predecessors. In Forza 2 you had different categories of races and each of the different races having certain requirements that had to be fulfilled before you could enter these races or require a certain type or model of car. Forza 3's events, while almost exactly the same, are implemented much differently. The main bread of the game is the Season Mode, where you participate in a championship event every fortnight and get to decide which race event you want to do in the intervening time.

When it comes to the non-championship race events, you're not really left with much choice. The events you can choose to do come from a selection of 3 at a time, depending on what cars you have in your garage. Though you can choose to do events outside of season mode and to go back to previous events to win races you might have previously lost, these races don't count towards your season.

The races themselves are your usual racing simulator norm, if you try to drive like a maniac you're going to be spinning off at every corner. What's great about Forza is that you can set the realism to the level you want. You can have it set up anywhere between a dead easy arcade racer, where you can bump off of your nimwitted AI opponents as you follow the optimal braking/accelerating guideline projected onto the track OR race in a brutal nightmare world against insanely difficult AI, with any small bump to your car causing major damage and crashes being inevitable when you have no Traction Control, Stability Management or Anti-Lock brakes, and of course various levels inbetween. So really, there's something for everyone.

What's good is that while the game doesn't punish you for playing it on easy. It does however reward for the more difficult you have you settings at as you're given an additional reward when you complete most races depending on what difficulty you're playing. The credits you earn in races also contribute to your experience points, with the events you have access to being governed by your driving level. Also, you can level up each car, with each level giving you a discount on certain parts you can get for your car/s.

The game's AI is some of the most advanced/realistic I've ever seen in a racing game. If you provoke them, they'll either back away or make mistakes and if you're in the lead they'll try desperately to get ahead of you. I'm pretty sure I've even seen them get revenge for being bumped out of the way, by doing the same thing to me. Luckily, being knocked off the track isn't such a problem anymore since the inclusion of the Rewind system.

If you've ever played Prince of Persia: Sands of Time you'll be familiar with the concept. The system essentially allows you to hit the undo button when you've had a hideous spin-off/crash and rewind your actions back to a point in the race that suits you. Though for better or worse, the number of times you can rewind during a race is unlimited and I even found myself being too reliant on the system. But at least it's good for Machinamae makers and the like, as it allows them to make their perfect lap by letting them undo only their mistakes and not forcing them to start the entire race from the beginning.

One thing I have to say about the selection of cars in Forza 3 is that Gran Turismo has spoiled me when it comes to the number of cars a racing game should have. Though GT4 had over 700 cars, Forza 3 only has around 400 and while they've included most of the major sports cars from the major manufacturers, they're still missing some of, what I consider, key cars that should be included in racing games. Such as the 1996-2000 Honda Civic and the Nissan GT-R, but such is life.

The car customization in Forza is perhaps the best part of the game for me and while it's a great deal similar to Gran Turismo, it has lot more depth to it. Besides being able to upgrade parts, you're also able to perform engine, drivetrain and aspiration replacements. This is something not seen in any other racing simulator and what's actually a common occurence in real-life street race cars. The tuning system is also more developed and it also allows you to benchmark your settings before you take them out to track, which is something you couldn't really do in GT4 and it saves a heck of a lot of time.

Where Forza series comes into its element is its online player-driven community. The auction house allows players to sell cars they no longer want to other people for in-game credits for much more than could by vendor-trashing it, especially when people can sell cars that have been tuned-up or have custom paintjobs. What's even better is that you can sell the tunings and paintjobs to people who already have the cars, saving a lot of hassle of buying the cars to do up. There is already a system in place to gauge the best tuners and artists in the community. But seeing as the game has been out for less than a week, there's only a couple of Itasha available at the moment, but I can see their number rising as time passes.

From what I've seen, there's already a thriving multiplayer community and you're pretty much always guaranteed to be able to race against someone. Being a First-Party title I don't see a time when you'll be troubled to find a match as Microsoft rarely shuts down any of it's online game servers.

When it comes to the multiplayer races themselves, there's a sort of cold war/mutually assured destruction atmosphere going on. Let's say you join a quick match game and a majority of people are using B-Class cars. Someone, usually the person not doing so well, will then go and pick an A-Class car so they'll be able to win the next race. But in the round after everyone else will choose A-Class cars, so then that person will pick an S-Class car, rinse, repeat and before you know it, everyone's sporting R1-Class race cars...

The great thing about the multiplayer mode is that if you're able to place in an online race you'll be rewarded with credits to use in the singleplayer mode/auction house. This can be difficult considering to place you have to cross the finish line within 30 seconds of the winner crossing the line. If you don't manage this, you're given a DNF (Did Not Finish) and no money.

The music in Forza 3 really complements its minimalist aesthetics, it's a mix of ambient, electronica, dance and rock songs that matches really well with the game. The only thing wrong with it is that you can't select/deselect the songs that are played in the game like you can in most Gran Turismo games. Though if you do tire of the game's soundtrack you can always bring in your own songs using the 360's built-in media player.

Forza 3 nearly has everything that you would want in a racing game and more, and the fact that it caters for the casual arcade player as well as the hardcore simulator enthusiast means it's game that almost everyone can enjoy and I definately can say it's worth the purchase.

I managed to pick up the Limited Collector's Edition of the game which includes a 2GB USB thumb drive, a keychain and a couple of redeemable codes which give you more cars and tracks to use in the game, as well as VIP access on the website and it all comes in a nifty magnetically-sealed case.

[DW] PSP: Gran Turismo (Polyphony Digital)

Rating G
Release Date 01/10/2009
# of Players Local: 1
Adhoc: 2-4
Availability Local: Common
Language English

In 2005 the PSP came out in Australia and I suspect that many people, just like me, went out and purchased one because they knew or thought that Gran Turismo Mobile was going to be released soon after. So we waited... and waited, and waited some more, until 3 PSP hardware revisions later that Gran Turismo for the PSP was finally released.

But was it worth the wait?

The first thing you notice when you start up Gran Turismo is the complete lack of the standard Gran Turismo mode. Instead the game consists of a Single Player, Ad-Hoc Multiplayer and Challenge modes.

The Single Player mode just consists of a list of all the tracks in the game and you have to complete each one several times, both forwards and reverse as applicable from Rank D up to Rank S. You can pretty much complete all the tracks with any car, though only certain cars can be used for the dirt and ice tracks, and you'll need some of the high-end cars to be able to access Rank S. The only real difference between ranks themselves are the difficulty of the 3 AI drivers, with the cars they drive being based on the car you're driving as well as your settings. If you pick a powerful car with race tyres, they'll all of powerful cars with race tyres, regardless of what Rank you're playing.

Now the major difference between the cars in this version of Gran Turismo and the previous games is that you're only able access 4 dealerships at a time with the choice of dealerships changing every 2 in-game days. A little bit inconvenient, but hardly deal breaking. What may be deal breaking is the fact that YOU CANNOT UPGRADE THE CARS AT ALL! Seriously, this is one of the main reasons I play the Gran Turismo games and they've completely left it out. Sure you can tune the cars to a certain extent, it's just not the same.

If you get bored of grinding race tracks you can change from Single Race mode into either Time Trial or Drift Trial modes. The Time Trial mode is your standard racing game affair, attempting to set the best lap time on a track. The Drift Trial mode comes from the Gran Turismo HD tech demo, where you go around the track as normal, but at certain corners you attempt to pull off the best drift.

When it comes to the Challenge mode you start to think that Polyphony Digital couldn't really make up their minds about what kind of racing game they wanted to make. I say this mainly because it seems they've spent most of their effort into developing the Challenge mode and sort of threw the Single Player mode together at the last moment.

If you've played any of the other Gran Turismo games then you would be familiar with the License Test system, which are a compulsory series of challenges to determine whether or not you have the required skills needed to race effectively in the later stages of the game. On the PSP they've gotten rid of the compulsory element and have expanded the number and depth of the challenges as well as throwing in some of the Special Missions from GT4.

At the start of the game there are 9 groups of challenges, A through I, with each group containing 6 challenges relating to a certain theme, Basic Driving, Get to Know Your Cars and Notorious Corners from World Circuits just to name a few.

I was surprised when the games credits started to role after I had only completed 8 of the 9 groups. The credits also included a sort of teaser trailer for Gran Turismo 5 that left me very jaded after I saw it. Mainly because I thought I had been ripped off if that was all that was in the game, nearly 5 years for a glorified tech demo. But my anger was immediately turned into confusion as the game offered up another 8 groups of challenges...

In the US version of the game the race starts/finishes and guides for each challenge are narrated by car enthusiast/talk show host Jay Leno. In the European release he only does the Start/Finishes, while the main narration has been replaced by some British woman, possibly Vicki Butler-Henderson of Fifth Gear fame, and who provided a similar narration in Gran Turismo 4.

It's hard to tell as the recording of the narration was done poorly, the audio sounds like it hasn't had any work done to it all, while in what little you do hear of Jay Leno, you can definately hear all the work and processing they've put into it.

The game has multiplayer, but it's Ad-Hoc. Which means you and up to 3 friends need to be in the same room to be able to race against each other as well as trade and share cars.

Overall I found the game quite disappointing, it's a shame that Polyphony Digital has put out such a mediocre title after such a long wait.

See You Space Cowboy

Next week Mutsuki will be taking a look at some spooky titles for Halloween. We thought a trip through one of the lesser known franchises within the horror genre would be fun in time for halloween. Be prepared to be spooked one way or the other...

And it's also the last week for you to put your entries in for our competition. We need a name and we'd like a new one quite badly!

All we need for you to do is send us your suggestion for what we should name our column to [email protected] (jon at and if we choose your submission we'll give you your choice of either two games reviewed in our opening column OR any one game reviewed between then and this week.

Think about it, an opportunity to drive home with one of the games we test drove today, all for a little suggestion to help us along...

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