The concept of converting the sport of drag racing from the physical to the electronic world receives the same, incredulous looks that fishing and dating sims endure. After all, could fishing or dating furnish the sort of experience through a computer that they do in real life? They must, because those titles sell really well. But if you can't actually smell your tires burning, is this racing sport worth it? Bethesda Softworks hopes so, as its game, Burnout: Championship Drag Racing - the first drag racing title to hit the shelves since the Atari version ten years ago - makes its debut in March.
Whether you're familiar with drag racing or not, it's important to note that this sport's not your typical drive around the track as fast as you can and beat the other guy course of action. A drag race, in simplest terms, is a point-A-to-point-B straightaway acceleration contest. Any car can do it, provided it has the proper safety gear, and really anyone with the desire to pit up against opponents on a quarter-mile or eighth-mile stretch of pavement can compete.
GameSpot asked lead designer, Brent Erickson, what Burnout brings to fans of the sport and to those who're not familiar with it in the least: "Drag racing has the largest participation base of any motor sport. TV viewership is the third largest. Drag racing is also international (as opposed to NASCAR or INDYCAR). If you go off this data, drag racing should be nearly as, if not more, successful than other games. Plus, you don't have to be a drag enthusiast to enjoy Burnout. Going fast and the thrill of one-on-one competition are universal. The overall depth of the simulation may not be appreciated by everyone, but you don't have to know anything about engines, suspensions, or tires to be competitive in bracket racing."
Bethesda's Ashley Cheng describes one of the more popular forms of drag racing - bracket racing: "Bracket racing lets any two cars race - even my wimpy two-cylinder, 10hp Honda Civic Hatchback. Basically, you enter in a dial-in time. This is the number of seconds you know (because you've done it on the test track and in practice races over and over again) that it takes your car to get to the finish line. A typical dial-in would be, say, 9.2 seconds. If you go faster than 9.2, you lose automatically. The starting tree will stagger who gets to go off the starting line depending on whoever has the faster dial-in time. Theoretically, if you don't go under your dial-in, it will be a fair race. The key to who wins will be the reaction time - that is, how fast you react to the green light."
Erickson continued that bracket racing is what sets Burnout apart from other racing games. "You can compete with any car, of any speed, and actually win. It's driver skill that wins, not how fast you make your car go. "
With all of that in mind, in single- or multiplayer mode, you select from about 20 different cars, ranging from classics to contemporary autos as featured in Hot Rod Magazine, the game's official sponsor. But what you start with is not necessarily what you end up with, as customization is key. More than 60 technical components of the vehicles, such as engine, suspension, chassis, tires, aerodynamics, and so forth, can be monitored, studied, and upgraded easily, helping you perform as you need to, to beat other drivers. And you don't have to accumulate points or funds to upgrade. Everything is available from the start; you just have to know what to do with it.
Erickson explained this process: "The main areas for players to tweak are the tires, engine, and center of gravity. If your tires don't 'hook-up,' then there's no way you can be consistent. The engine and tires go hand in hand. Increasing the power of the engine is a lot of fun, but you have to make sure your tires can handle it. The center of gravity should be adjusted so that under full acceleration, the front tires just lift off the ground. This allows the full weight of the car to be transferred to the rear tires, improving their 'grip' capabilities and also reducing the drag produced by the front tires. Of course, in heads-up racing, where the fastest car wins, engine power becomes paramount. There are so many ways to build horsepower in Burnout. You can concentrate on the induction system. You can put in a larger engine and racing cams or play with the exhaust system. Any combination of things will yield results. Building the engine is fun on its own, and you never have to get your hands dirty."
The tracks are diverse as well, each offering distinct climates and conditions that will affect the outcome of your race. There are 20 different courses in all, each modeled after renowned, national drag strips such as Indianapolis Raceway Park, Hawaii Raceway Park, Orlando Speedworld Dragway, the Texas Raceway, and the Pomona Raceway in California, to name a few. These tracks are enhanced by light sourcing, realistic weather effects (you can control the amount of cloud cover, the temperature, wind force, and so on), proper physics (the suspension works like real suspension), sound effects from actual vehicles while drag racing, fully textured backgrounds (you can also adjust the degree of detail on the buildings and in the crowd), and collision scenarios, all a product of Bethesda's proprietary 3D engine X(n)Gine. How the actual car engines work is developed by Motion Software. Burnout is also Voodoo2-ready, so it plays faster and looks better if you have this (or any) 3Dfx card, but it's not necessary to play the game.
Once in your car and on your track, you can practice, dive right into an event or a full season, or get the feel for a single race against the CPU before you take on other humans. As in real drag racing, the race is signaled by a string of lights referred to as a Christmas Tree. In pre-stage, before the race, you can opt to "burn out" manually or automatically. To burn out, hence the title, means to heat your tires up to the degree in which they grip the road better. After you burn out, the Christmas Tree indicates you need to stage, meaning move up a bit, and spend a limited amount of time preparing to actually race. If you don't do so in the time given, you lose the race. Once the race is under way, you simply control your vehicle and try to make your best elapsed time, or ET. And when you want the car to stop, obviously after you cross the finish line, you can have your parachute automatically open, or you can do it yourself. The VCR option allows you to relive and save your races through an instant replay, viewable through a few different angles.
But all of the different racing variables would be useless without some method of recording history. Perhaps with that in mind, developers have included driver/car profiles and telemetry and time card data points that continuously track performances so you can see how your vehicles and drivers measure up against others. This feature comes in handy when plotting your chances against live racers, as you would on the streets in real life.
And since drag racing was founded on neighborhood competitions that took place on closed-off highways and local streets, racing Internet opponents, albeit in a much larger "neighborhood," is a natural fit. You can race against up to 32 others on the Net, or you can compete in your own neighborhood via a LAN or modem (two-player).
Bethesda informs us it already has a sequel in the shop, perhaps preparing to take off as soon as it sees the green. Is Bethesda jumping the gun? Perhaps, but we won't know for sure until Burnout dials in this March.