PreviewLe Mans 24 Hours

Now that the final version of Le Mans 24H is hitting stores in Europe, the transition from the Dreamcast to the PlayStation 2 is complete. Our European correspondent took it for a spin to bring you the latest hands-on impressions.

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Every year in June, a race takes place in Le Mans, France, which is labeled as the biggest race in motor sports. The race historically takes place partly on a racetrack named Circuit de la Sarthé and partly on the surrounding public roads. The first race took place in 1906, and it spanned an unbelievable 64 miles. In 1923, the 24-hour race, as we know it, was born. Amongst the racers were mostly playboys and aristocrats who wanted the recognition that money couldn't buy. But in 1960, Ferrari entered the race with prestige as its motive and won the cup five times in a row. Other car manufacturers, such as Mercedes, Jaguar, Mazda, Peugeot, and McLaren, eventually joined in, making the races even more professionally focused. These days, the infamous race consists of three categories: GT1, GT2, and prototypes. In 1999, the GT2 class was changed to GTS, and a third GT class was included. GT2 cars are serial cars allowed in normal public traffic, and they include models such as Dodge Vipers and Porsche 911s. The GT1 cars are around 35mph faster, and they're allowed to use nonstandard brakes. Aside from this, though, the GT1 cars are street legal. The "prototypes" category consists of cars specifically built for the purpose of racing. Cars such as the BMW V12 Le Mans, Ferrari 333SP, Courage C51, and the Kremer K8 fall into this category. With each race starting at 4pm and lasting for 24 hours, this is one of the most challenging races ever for both drivers and technical teams.

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Infogrames is now bringing this race from the Dreamcast to the PlayStation 2. While the DC version wasn't without flaws, it was a highly captivating racing game that garnered very positive reviews from critics. The PS2 version is not adding much to it, but it will naturally bring the game to a much wider audience. For starters, there are 70 official cars in the game, which is a whopping 30 more than what the Dreamcast version includes. The aforementioned racing classes are split into GT and Prototypes--there are 22 GT cars and 48 prototype cars. The prototype class is split into open and closed prototypes. Some of the models included are the Audi R8, Cadillac LMP, Panoz Spyder LMP, Courage C52, Toyota GT-One, Nissan R390 GT1, GTC Competition, Panoz Esperante GTR1, Lister Storm GTL, BMW V12 LMR, Nissan R391, Riley & Scott MKIII S2, Chrysler Viper GTS-R, and the Marcos car. Plus, there are four bonus cars hidden in the disc and waiting to be unlocked. Each of the cars can be manually altered and tuned. Different parts--such as the gearbox, downforce, tires, fuel load, engine, and ABS--can be changed before each race.

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There are five modes available in Le Mans 24 Hours: quick race, championship, Le Mans, time trial, and multiplayer. The quick race mode lets you get into a race within three button pushes. Driving and steering aids help you come to grips with the controls and handling of the cars. When in quick races, each of the cars handles slightly differently in the areas of acceleration, braking, and top speed. Controls are generally more forgiving in this mode, as it's much more arcade-focused than the championship mode. You can unlock 12 additional tracks: Bugatti, Brno, Donington National, Donington Grand Prix, Catalunya National, Catalunya Grand Prix, Suzuka National, Suzuka Medium, Suzuka Grand Prix, and the legendary Le Mans track, plus the new Road Atlanta (Petit Le Mans) and Road Atlanta Grand Prix tracks. Each track is faithfully represented with photo-realistic textures, scenery, décor, and the time to complete the track. The championship mode is where the meat of the game is. Here, you unlock additional cars and are required to qualify prior to races. As you win races, you'll collect championship points that will ultimately allow you to win the season.

The Le Mans mode lets you participate in a full 24-hour race and pits you against 23 other drivers, who are controlled by the game's impressive AI. Computer drivers make realistic mistakes but will make the winning the race very challenging. The time trial mode is self-explanatory, giving you the opportunity to come to grips with a new track and optimize your lap times before you head into a race with competitors. Last but not least, there's the returning two-player mode, which no longer pits only the two human players against each other; this time around, you have the option of placing up to four computer-controlled cars into the race as well.

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Clearly, one of the goals that Infogrames wanted to achieve is the realism of the Le Mans race. Pit stop management with animated 3D mechanics, animated drivers, and random weather conditions really add to the feel of the races, as do the realistic transitions between daytime and night. The game also is more inviting now to the less die-hard racing fans, as there are three difficulty settings with three independent handling styles. During races, you can choose between four camera views: two from behind the car (far and close) and a road- and bonnet cam wrapping up the package.

Graphically, the game looks all right. Having seen Gran Turismo 3 already, it's hard to deny that Le Mans looks modest in comparison, particularly since many of the GT cars featured in the game also make an appearance in GT3. The replays after a race don't look as impressive as in GT3, but with its release still a little while off, Infogrames was clever enough to release Le Mans 24 Hours a month before GT3's arrival, giving it at least some time to make a serious impact on any racing fan's buying decisions. Anyone who likes racing will find Le Mans an appealing game, with impressive sound effects and nice light effects during nighttime or early evening races.

We'll have a full review of the game once it comes to the US. For now, the game looks quite impressive, but a lot depends on whether it will be released ahead or after GT3 in the States. This will ultimately lead you to decide between the two.

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