Sprint Cars 2: Showdown at Eldora Review
While racing games have grown immensely popular over the years, the lesser known events still don't get a lot of attention. THQ has made another attempt at producing an entertaining and engaging video game based on dirt-track races, which means we get plenty of variety en route to the Showdown at Eldora. There's everything from Pro Stock and Modifieds to Sports Fantasy Cars, plus 27 different tracks, 10 different vehicle types, and multiple gameplay modes, so that should be enough...right? Well, provided Big Ant Studios provides us with a solid physics mechanic, we figured we'd be good to go. Perhaps surprisingly, Sprint Cars 2 isn't a bad title, and if you're a big fan of the dirt races, this might be worth looking into. However, there are several crucial gameplay flaws that only serve to detract from the overall fun factor, and that's an issue. Essentially, we get a functional title that can be both erratic and frustrating, but perhaps you're capable of exhibiting a great deal of patience and a good feel for the virtual wheel.
The technical aspects are by far the worst part of Showdown at Eldora, and yes, we are taking into account that this is a PS2 title. Even so, there's plenty of better-looking software for Sony's aging console, and the jaggy, unclear visuals involved make this one painful to watch. We suppose we can award points for enhancing the dark, gritty atmosphere of most dirt track race events, but they go a bit too far. Everything always seems muddy and washed-out (and that's not a pun), and while there's some decent vehicle detail, the arenas and various backdrops are generic, uninspired and drab. The spattering of mud and dirt on the screen looks okay and ramps up the realism just a bit, but there's nothing else to get excited about. What we're looking at here is a PS2 game from 2001, not one from 2008, and that's very disappointing. We realize they didn't have a big budget on this one, but is that really an excuse to sacrifice so much in the way of graphics? It's often difficult to toss out a lot of criticism when we're so used to next-gen games - we might be too used to superior visuals - but we're pretty certain this is sub-par. Yeah, dirt isn't typically conducive to dazzling graphics, but come on...
The sound is just as bad, if not worse. While we're initially greeted to some relatively fresh rock riffs, the soundtrack immediately takes a dive when we immerse ourselves in the rest of the game. The music isn't even that bad when compared to the sound effects. We have an announcer that pops up every now and then during races to say something completely lame, like "...and there's the white flag. Don't let up now!" Most of the time, you're racing around in relative silence, with absolutely no ambiance from commentators or a soundtrack; all you get is the sound of the vehicle engines and some crowd exclamations. This makes a race seem a lot like qualifying, and it doesn't help that most vehicles sound very much the same. We're positive that a pickup truck doesn't sound much like a Pro Stock car, and yet...they kinda do in this game. If any of you have ever been to one of these events, you know very well just how loud everything is, right? Well, don't expect that level of authenticity in Sprint Cars 2 because as far as the sound goes, it just ain't there.
Okay, now that we've worked through most of the bad news, let's focus on the good news for a few minutes. While the graphics and sound are less than mediocre, the gameplay really isn't too bad. Augmented by an impressive tuning system and a wonderfully deep Career mode, Showdown at Eldora will hold your attention for a very long time, especially if you can gain a firm grasp of the controls. At first, if you're too used to the likes of standard road racing titles, you're going to be very confused. Remember, many of these vehicles spend much of their time sideways on the track, and that requires a deft touch with both the steering wheel and the accelerator. Furthermore, the classes included differ greatly from one another; the Wingless Sprint cars don't control anything like the Modifieds, for instance. The former is far more prone to sliding, and if you can't find a way to curb your speed at just the right moments, those events will prove to be overly challenging. Other vehicles, like the Late Models, will boast some impressive speed and less in the way of drifting, so you'll always have to adapt.
By delving into the complex tuning, you can alter your vehicle in a variety of different ways: you can adjust the Stagger, Spacing, Travel, and Pressure of the wheels and tires, fiddle with the gears, shocks, weight, and springs, and in general, shift everything around until you've got just the right setup. Certain tracks will require a different approach when it comes to your vehicle settings, although we question just how much of an impact some of these upgrades/alterations has on the actual racing. Many times, we really didn't notice anything different after changing the settings around significantly, and that put a bit of a damper on our Career experience. They also say you should try to stick to the wetter parts of the track, just because the moist, firmer dirt offers a chance to go faster than opponents in the drier, dustier sections. This is true, of course, but again, we're not so sure that driving on wet dirt gave us the kind of advantage we should've had... It also doesn't help that the poor visuals made it challenging to spot the damp parts of the track in the first place.
We aren't too happy with the AI, either. If you hit a wall, that usually means big problems, but you will rarely see an opponent smack a barrier, and even if they do, they don't suffer quite as badly. What's that about? How come they get an advantage? Furthermore, we're not sure what's going on with the bizarre gap in racing ability between half the competitors on the track. Sometimes, there are two or three vehicles that quickly take the lead while the rest lag behind, allowing you to pass them very easily. However, it can be very difficult to catch the leaders, and if the first-place car gets too far ahead, you'll probably never track him down. This gets to be insanely frustrating later on in the game, especially in Career mode, where you need as much income as humanly possible. See, you need money to purchase new cars, gain sponsors, and hire drivers. You can create your own driver at the start of a new career or you can hire a veteran of the dirt; all kinds of recognizable names are here, including Ralph Neill, Chet Eagle, Kyle Ferris, George Edwards and Buck Hogue.
To add to the depth even more, each driver demands a certain amount of cash per race depending on his statistics. For example, Chet Eagle is a 4-star racer and he will require $1,000/race, while Ralph Neill is a 3-star driver and asks for $700/race. Each racer is judged on five different attributes: Endurance, Nerve, Reaction, Handling, and Recovery. You must factor this into your decision when it comes to purchasing vehicles, just because you'll have to make some compromises here and there to save funds. In other words, you may want to hire a top driver rather than blowing a big chunk of change on powerful new cars, just because his skill will help to override any lagging you may encounter with a slightly lesser vehicle. Each event has plenty of depth in and of itself, as you will work your way through practice, qualifying, heats and mains, all of which are more crucial than you may believe. For example, you'll want to use practice to get just the right settings for your vehicle based on that particular track, and you'll want to qualify to start at the front of the pack for the mains.
That last bit is crucial just because it can be a pain in the ass to work your way through traffic to the front of the pack. As we said before, the lead car(s) have a tendency to pull away and if you get stuck in a group, you may never catch up. Thing is, these races don't take very long to complete as most of the races are between 6 and 12 laps, with each lap taking only about 20 seconds to finish. This makes for a fast-moving game, obviously, but it also means there is very small room for error. And considering how challenging the control can be with many of these vehicles, this results in a lot of failed race attempts. This goes double for the Challenges mode, which you must attack if you plan to unlock some of the more exotic vehicles, like the Rally Car and the Police Car. There are Consistency, Accuracy, Speed and Race Challenges, and they will have you flying around the course in a variety of different vehicles. You must nail down Gold medals if you want to unlock those aforementioned cars, though, and this can be an incredible hassle. Not much about these Challenges is fun, and most of them are just plain irritating. It won't be long before most players will just bypass the Challenges and decide to kick off a Career, which is probably your best bet.
It'll take a while to advance through the game, but the good news is that the physics aren't too bad at all. The challenge is substantial, but then again, it can be a tough task to get your head around to a whole new way of racing. The speeds are low, there's a whole lot of sliding and drifting, and any sort of contact with opponents or barriers can effectively end your chances. Damage is a major part of the game, as is dirt obscuring your line of sight. This is what the Tear Offs are for; it clears your vision completely of any unwanted debris, but there's only a limited number of Tear Offs depending on the vehicle you're driving. Finally, there's a Tractor Pull, bit it seems like an unnecessary addition to the game, even though we know you can't have a game like this without a flippin' tractor pull. Lastly, if you want to see how you stack up against the best of the best, you can head on over to the game's official website to compare your top times against others. Playing with a few friends isn't a bad idea, either; the frame rate remains pretty steady and the competition is fierce.
Sprint Cars 2: Showdown at Eldora is a passable title, due entirely to the depth and relatively accurate race physics. Unfortunately, despite all the tuning and customizing you can do, the depth doesn't translate to a full-on simulation experience, especially because the physics aren't quite that realistic. The AI can be quite annoying and the Challenges range from very easy to nigh-on impossible, which probably won't appeal to any casual gamer out there. The technicals are close to atrocious and the gameplay gets a touch repetitive, but there is some good, here. Great variety, a horde of tuning options, all the car classes covered, a bunch of tracks, better-than-average control, and the ever-changing experience of driving different vehicles every few minutes; they're all bonuses. We just wish a bit more effort had been applied because this one could've been a definite must-try. As it stands, it might be worthwhile for fans, but beyond that... Gran Turismo 5: Prologue comes out next week.
4/8/2008 Ben Dutka