Viper Racing Preview

It's all Vipers, all the time in Sierra Sport's new musclebound racing sim.

If the Dodge Viper is your favorite sports car in the world, start getting excited. Not because you just won a car, but because there's a Viper racing game on the way - with nothing but Vipers. While many racing sims are modeling multiple cars in the same game these days, industry veteran Rich Garcia (cofounder of Papyrus and now president of MGI) decided instead to focus on a single car. What this allows him to do is model the Viper as accurately as possible, since his team of programmers only has to worry about getting that one car right. It also gives the team a lot more time to spend on driver AI - and it shows.

From the early build he gave us, it looks like they'll accomplish that goal. After you grab your favorite controller and set it up the way you like, you'll probably need to take a few cautious laps to get used to the raw power of the Viper. Its less-than-agreeable handling (just like the real car) will help you get a sense of why the Viper is barely street legal. Touch the gas while turning the wheel and you'll be sent spinning like Oksana Baiul (on the rink, not in her Mercedes). But once you get moving, and the 450 horses kick in from the growling 8.0-liter V-10, you'll know why this car has the bold reputation that it does.

But where the physics model in this sim really starts to grab you is when you get into your first turn at over 100mph. Come in too fast and the car pushes towards the outside of the turn, requiring you to let up on the throttle to regain control. Play it safe, and the smart computer-controlled cars will nudge your tail to impolitely move you out of the way. You're definitely going to have to push this car to the limit to compete. And when you do, this sim behaves as it should: Your tires will start to lose grip, but gradually and predictably enough that you can keep your car on the edge without losing the rear end.

The game has a variety of viewing options, from a behind-the-dash perspective to a more arcade-style chase view at different distances. The latter view allows you to see the car pitch and roll. But there's one view that really shows the physics model at work: It's a cut-away of the front tires and suspension. While you race, you can watch the shocks and the suspension bounce over the bumps in the road. Hit a bump too hard or go airborne and you might even break something, and you'll see the bent tire on the broken axle.

Another unique feature is that the sim model incorporates a clutch, which you can control manually. Although most of the driving controllers out there don't have clutches, this is probably a sign of things to come, since it adds a lot to the realism of driving sims. You can also set how much ABS, traction control, and yaw control you want your car to have (off, low, or high). Although you might think that turning it all on to the highest setting would be ideal, it will actually slow you down considerably, as automatic brakes are applied to make sure you don't go spinning through a turn.

Of course, even with such a complete physics model, you might wonder how much appeal a Dodge Viper-only simulation would have. After all, how many Viper lovers could there possibly be who also play computer games? For that matter, how many Viper owners are there in the world? Not many.

Understanding this potential problem, Garcia is also adding a career mode to entice would-be Viper owners. It will start you off with a base-model Viper that you can upgrade with the money you earn from winning races. And the computer opponents are neither pushovers nor perfect drivers, which makes them drive more like your friends - they won't hesitate to bump into you, even if that means they might spin out or crash into each other. The AI is still being tweaked, however, so they might behave a little friendlier in the final version.

It's probably an exaggeration to say only Viper lovers will enjoy this game, since it does seem to have a lot to offer any driving sim enthusiast. Its real-life physics, pretty 3D graphics, smooth controls, and a compelling career mode are being done with the insight and precision only a veteran like Garcia can offer. There will even be a paint shop so you can customize your Viper to your liking. But will that be enough to make you drive a Dodge Viper to the exclusion of all other cars? Well, it sure beats a Honda Civic.

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