The original Dreamcast version of Wacky Races sure was a treat for any fan of the kart-racing genre. Impressive cel-shaded graphics and a huge number of unlockable gimmicks made this a jewel in the Dreamcast lineup. A PlayStation version soon followed, and now the team has set its sights on the PlayStation 2, hoping to deliver the first serious contender for the system's kart-racing throne.
As in the original, the PS2 version stars the same group of weird characters we all know and love from the Wacky Races cartoons. The stars are Dick Dastardly and Muttley, with Penelope Pitstop, the Gruesome Twosome, and many others who challenge them in the Wacky Races championship. You can race as any of those characters, though some will be hidden at the outset. Initially, you can choose between two game modes: the adventure mode and the all-new arcade mode. The arcade mode gets you into the racing action as fast as possible, letting you quickly gain access to the tracks and vehicles, and it also offers you a wide range of multiplayer modes, including the new bomb-tag mode.
The Dreamcast version had the tracks split into three different themed areas: Snowfall Peaks, Wild Frontier, and Redwood Pines. In the PlayStation 2 version, there will be a fourth area based in a city, with five brand-new tracks, and one new battle arena, set across environments called downtown, airport, docks and even central park. The team has also gone back to all the existing tracks and added new animations, as the power of the PlayStation 2 let them do more things within the levels while keeping the frame rate at a consistent high. So now you watch pirate ships navigate the bay, avoid trains circuiting the track, churn up flowerbeds, and watch butterflies scramble for cover. New effects have been added, and some even impact the gameplay: In one stage, falling snow covers your windscreen, slightly obscuring your vision. Also new are mirrors on the tracks. If you collect one, you can access a traditional mirrored version of the track. Other new animations include trees that throw leaves when you bounce into them, fences that rebound when you crash into them, and water that splashes as you roll over it.
One of the most criticized aspects of the Dreamcast version was its extremely high difficulty level. Given that the game was targeted toward younger players, this simply wasn't acceptable. Infogrames heeded the criticisms and has made the PS2 version a little easier. To start with, there are three difficulty settings, and you can even unlock a "Dastardly" difficulty level once you've mastered the hardest setting.
According to Steve Lycett, the game's producer, there are 20 individual race circuits within four themed areas. Each area has a dedicated battle arena (five in total). And if you take the mirrored tracks into the calculation, then that doubles up the number of tracks available. There are a number of bonus levels as well, but Infogrames didn't want to tell us yet what they are all about.
Each car or character, respectively, starts with three weapons. As you progress through the races, you can earn more weapons and abilities and unlock cheat codes or hidden vehicles. We spent a good deal of time with the preview version of the game, and it's fair to say that it looks great so far, with authentically detailed character models and a host of intricate flourishes populating the tracks. And the new city-themed tracks are a welcome addition to what would otherwise only be a straight port. Racing around the docks or through a huge football stadium is quite a treat, since the environments look like they were directly taken from a Hanna Barbera cartoon. Each track will take a while to master, but the learning curve is definitely not as steep as in the previous versions of the game.
Wacky Races definitely seems to offer enough value to be of interest on the PlayStation 2. If you don't own the Dreamcast version already, you should keep an eye out for this PS2 version, as it seems to be one of the stronger kart racers slated for release on the system. The version we played suffered only from occasional slowdown, but we fully expect that the team at Infogrames Sheffield House is currently hard at work ironing out the bugs. We're looking forward to the final version already, so we'll keep you posted.