Currently scheduled for release toward the end of this month, Import Tuner Challenge is a Genki-developed street racing game set on and around Tokyo's Shuto Expressway, which incorporates the famous C1 Loop. If that description brings to mind the Tokyo Xtreme Racer (also known as Shutokou Battle) series, that's probably because this is its latest entry, albeit with an all-new North American title. Gameplay options in Import Tuner Challenge include time attack, free run, Xbox Live, versus, and the "quest" career mode that we recently had an opportunity to spend several hours with.
When you start a new career, you'll have 3 million credit points (CP) with which to purchase your first ride. You'll only be able to afford around half of the game's 18 licensed cars from Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota at this point, but as you progress through the game and unlock additional vehicles, you'll be able to amass a sizable collection. The vehicle roster certainly doesn't compare favorably with those in other racers, but one of Import Tuner Challenge's most impressive features is undoubtedly the extent to which you can customize your rides. The game's garage boasts a tuning shop where you can purchase new parts for your cars and, if you're so inclined, tweak the settings for traction control, torque balance, suspension alignment, wing angles, and such in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of performance out of them.
Fiddling around in your virtual garage to improve the performance of your car can be quite satisfying, but the real fun comes from making it look better than anything else on the road. Regardless of which model of car you opt for, you'll find that there are a number of different aesthetic options for bumpers, hoods, side skirts, spoilers, mirrors, headlights, fenders, rims, and the like. Other, more superficial options include adding neon lights, vertically opening doors, colored interiors, different seats, a new horn, or even an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror to your car. A lot of this stuff seems pointless when playing solo, but if you're planning to play online, you'll almost certainly want to make sure that your ride is distinctive and/or memorable for the right reasons.
Once you've got a car that you're happy with, you'll finally be ready to take it out onto the highway and earn some money back in illegal street races. All of the racing in Import Tuner Challenge takes place at night, at midnight, or at daybreak, which means that there's not a great deal of traffic for you to worry about. What traffic there is in the game behaves quite realistically, though, and it's certainly possible to use it to your advantage if you keep an eye out for it and can force your opponents in behind slow-moving vehicles. Honking your horn will cause other motorists to change lanes occasionally, as well, which can be a particularly satisfying way to hamper the progress of an opponent who's gaining on you from behind.
To initiate races in Import Tuner Challenge, you can either talk to other drivers in the parking area or simply cruise the highway looking for other tuners. Drivers interested in racing aren't difficult to spot on the C1 Loop because their positions are indicated on your overhead map of the area, and they each have arrows hovering above them that become visible when you get close. Once you close in on a potential opponent and have had a chance to get a look at the other ride, you can start a race simply by tucking in behind the racer and flashing your lights. At this point the CPU will assume control of your car for a few seconds as the two of you pull alongside each other and then, after a 3-2-1 countdown, the race is on.
Although traditional races over set distances are quite commonplace in Import Tuner Challenge, most of those that we've participated in have taken the form of spirit-point (SP) battles. In these battles, drivers have an SP bar (think of it as a health bar, though it actually has something to do with mental strength) that gets depleted anytime they're behind an opponent or are involved in a collision. The winner is the driver whose SP bar outlasts the opponent's, which results in some races coming to an end quite quickly, while others become real tug-of-war affairs. Import Tuner Challenge's handling is pretty forgiving, especially where collisions are concerned, but if you ride the walls on either side of the highway too much, you'll drain your SP very quickly and lose the battle, regardless of how far in front of your opponent you are.
If there's one aspect of Import Tuner Challenge that's easy to criticize it's the environment in which the game is set. Though well known to street racers the world over, Tokyo's Shuto Expressway is anything but picturesque, and the races taking place at times when your headlights are turned on by default does little to help matters. For the moment, our racing has been limited to the C1 Loop portion of this road network, but as you progress through the game, you'll unlock additional routes such as the Shinjuku Line, the Shinkanjo Circular, and the Shibuya Line. We look forward to bringing you more information on Import Tuner Challenge as soon as it becomes available.