4 Wheel Thunder Preview

No company was as quick to jump on the Dreamcast bandwagon as Midway. In retrospect, this should not be a surprise, as the company did the same with the N64, with similar results. Such a strategy is, however, fraught with danger, because if you pick the wrong platform, it can be a long year or two. Fortunately for Midway, the Dreamcast has roared out of the gate, and so have its games, such as Ready 2 Rumble and the surprise hit Hydro Thunder. Midway's other trend is to take a brand or style of game and run with it. There is an obvious lineage from such extreme sports games as NBA Jam through NFL Blitz to Ready 2 Rumble.

Now, Midway has taken advantage of the Hydro Thunder success by creating a Thunder line as part of the upcoming second round of products. The first installment to see the light of day will be 4 Wheel Thunder, developed by the France-based developer Kalisto. Founded in Bordeaux by Nicolas Gaume in 1990, Kalisto has development offices around the world, and its stock is publicly traded on the Paris stock exchange. This is not a small thing, as it is the money from this exchange that lets both Infogrames and Havas make such inroads into the US market via developer acquisitions. It also provides enough capital for developers like Kalisto to build the style of projects they wish, and then, once deep into the development process, have discussions with publishers. Such is the case here with 4 Wheel Thunder. After a strong showing of the title at the ECTS this past summer, the game is now part of the Midway Thunder series, as Midway attempts to expand on its very successful Dreamcast launch.

In a positive switch, the game is planned for the Dreamcast and will then have a PC version that follows. It makes a nice difference from all the talk of ports moving in the other direction. Speaking of ports, this isn't a port of the Midway arcade title Off-Road Thunder. Kalisto has had previous experience with the Ultimate Race series in its native Europe, and a number of the team members are alumni of those games.

When questioned about the Thunder series, Kalisto product manager Stephanie Rolland said, "Following the brand Thunder does not represent a constraint for us, since we do not have straight requirements. On the contrary, it is a great opportunity to follow a successful game such as Hydro Thunder or the coin-op game Off-Road Thunder and to offer gamers an arcade racing-oriented game based on strong driving sensations on Dreamcast."

The team was pleased with the Dreamcast specs and started the game engine from scratch. "We started 4 Wheel Thunder from scratch," the team said, "because we wanted to fully utilize the Dreamcast technical features. For the very first time it was possible to develop a game on console like it has been for PC games." To view the action, Kalisto has developed an interface with three camera views. There are two different camera views that follow behind the rider, while the third is described as a subjective (first-person) view. The developers have also smartly built the engine with future products in mind, generating a new physics/dynamics model that delivers a claimed 60fps and 500,000 polygons per second onscreen.When asked to discuss other game influences, the 23-person team referred to other off-road driving and regular driving games, noting both Sega Rally 2 and Buggy Heat. They're a pretty passionate bunch when it comes to their creation. "Words do not replace gaming," they commented, "and playing 4 Wheel Thunder is the best way to feel the blend between simulation and arcade that we have developed. We've also implemented money management, bets, power-ups, and many funny game modes for more depth of gameplay. Full driving entertainment is a concept we want as many people as possible to share on Dreamcast, from hard-core gamers to casuals."

To achieve this goal, 4 Wheel Thunder features 12 tracks in 6 real-world locations. These include both outdoor and indoor locations, and an "electro music oriented" sound track has been composed to draw you into the game. Says Rolland, "We the game to offer the player a combination of beautiful graphics and dynamic driving challenges. The outdoor tracks provide room to breathe with panoramic views and exhilarating races through rugged terrains from all around the world. the indoor tracks provide highly charged atmospheres with packed crowds in small arenas." Ironically, Rolland may be understating the goals of the team. This is, by all accounts, a beautiful game to look at. The game features various modes including championship mode and a two-player split-screen option.

After starting with a base vehicle, you will win money to upgrade your current vehicle or to purchase a new car. Within the game there are four categories of vehicles. These are monster trucks, buggies, jeeps, and quads. All of them will feature unique vehicle physics, along with four-wheel independent suspensions.

While a number of hands-on copies are starting to float around, the game is far from polished. An MPEG opening cinematic is still in the works, along with some of the in-track cinematics. The team has also set up some focus testing for the holiday season to get player input. The team feels confident it can, based on these sessions, make tweaks to the game based on input received, and still meet its deadline at the end of January for submission to Sega. 4 Wheel Thunder is due for release in May 2000.

With 16 artists, this is a project with a lot of emphasis on creating a beautiful spectacle. Early reports are glowing regarding the graphics. But then, the French have always made pretty games. It's something about the French psyche that requires this emphasis that has always been in stark contrast to say, the English, where gameplay is everything. Occasionally, a French game adds superb gameplay, and it is this factor, upon which 4 Wheel Thunder's success lies.

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