Unlike most racers, POD: Speedzone is a racer with a story. An alien bacterium with a penchant for infecting machinery has invaded the planet. As it infects a machine, it begins to mutate that machine into a new form. You must race for your car's life as you attempt to avoid the bacteria and bring down the checkered flag.
Each of POD's six tracks gush with life, as off-track events take place around every bend. Not only has the POD virus infected the cars, but the tracks have been overcome as well. There are several points where large tentacles crash down from above or strange fairylike creatures flitter down to the track to disrupt your progress. While there are only six tracks, each one contains countless shortcuts that will send your car careening into the air or flying across chasms into inlets carved into the side of large cliff faces. There are several points in each track where you are forced to navigate elevated track areas with no guardrails on either side. The amount of shortcuts included is staggering. Some take you along a longer route but give you a straightaway to gain some serious speed, while others shorten the track but force you to negotiate trackside obstacles. The sense of freedom while playing POD is exceptional, as you may stick to the beaten path or forge your own way off-road, looking for an elusive shortcut.
POD: Speedzone is aptly named, as its most impressive aspect is its sense of speed. Your car comes stock with a set amount of turbo that may be used at your whim. Learning each track so that you know when to intelligently employ the turbo boost generally translates into cutting into your best lap time. To keep things interesting, Ubi Soft has decided to include weapons and power-ups this time around, and each one has its own strategic advantage. You may place mines in sneaky places, send electron clouds skirting down the track in search of victims, or replenish your turbo reserves.
To say that each of the six cars looks futuristic would be putting it lightly. Most appear to be a cross between an animal and an automobile. Ubi Soft claims the cars will mutate as you rack up the laps, but we have not been able to detect this feature thus far. Each car has its own specific characteristics for acceleration, brakes, shields, handling, boost, and speed. Sticking with the usual arcade racing conventions, POD doesn't allow you to tweak the attributes in any way. The controls take some getting used to. While the steering is arcade influenced, using your brakes is almost always a necessity, even while driving the cars with pumped-up handling characteristics
POD's graphics are shaping up nicely. The futuristic tracks are incredibly large, and the colorful textures are crisp and clear. The game engine impressively manages to handle both transparencies and particle effects, while large alien life-forms are animated off-track. The draw-in distance is probably one of the best on the Dreamcast to date, as pop-up is almost impossible to notice, even if you're looking for it. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of POD's visuals is the fact that, despite all these processor intensive operations, the frame rates stay silky smooth. This even holds true while five cars are onscreen at once.
POD: Speedzone's emphasis is clearly on multiplayer racing. The one-player mode is very basic, as it seems to exist solely for the purpose of sharpening your driving skills for hitting SegaNet's online circuit. Once online, you may race against up to three opponents, and new tracks and cars become available for selection. Before joining a race you may chat with other players. The PC version of the original POD allowed you to download new tracks and cars, but Ubi Soft has remained silent on whether these features will make the cut for Speedzone.
As one of Dreamcast's first online racing games, POD: Speedzone seems to be getting most things right. If you're the type of person who likes to log in serious hours running through the championship circuit in racing games, you might want to look somewhere else, as the one-player experience is fairly limited. But with its impressive graphics, lightning quick gameplay, high-flying antics, and smooth frame rates, POD is looking like an exciting online racing experience. Look for more on POD: Speedzone as its late November release date approaches.