Auto Modellista has a fantastic look, but its gameplay unsuccessfully tries to straddle the line between simulation-style tuning options and arcade-style handling and collision physics.
Capcom's cel-shaded racer Auto Modellista was originally released on the PlayStation 2 in March of 2003. Back then it had a very impressive look, but the rest of the game simply didn't stand up to the cool, anime-inspired visuals. Now, nearly a year later, Capcom has released the same game on the Xbox. Only minor tweaks have been made here, the most relevant of which is the addition of headset support for Xbox Live. The game doesn't look nearly as impressive now as it did a year ago, and it also faces stiff competition from better driving games.
Auto Modellista is a fairly deceptive game. While it may have a crazy cartoon look, it also features licensed cars and aftermarket auto products from lots of different manufacturers. You'll find cars from Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and more, including a few Japanese concept cars. The game also gives you a fair amount of control over your car's tuning. While you won't find a Gran Turismo-like level of depth here, you can still adjust your car's suspension, tires, brakes, and weight. You'll also earn engine, computer, turbo, and muffler upgrades as you progress through the game's main mode.
The main mode in Auto Modellista is called garage life. Here you'll be able to choose one of the cars you've unlocked thus far--and the game gives you plenty to start with--and you can enter it in the game's various races. The garage life mode features seven levels, each of which has a different number of races. You'll need to place first in some or all of these races to proceed to the next level. When you finish first, you'll unlock new items, parts, and cars. New cars and parts have obvious purposes, but you'll also get posters, trophies, and other little items that you can use to decorate your garage. You'll be given the opportunity to save your modified cars in a sub-garage, which lets you try out all the game's different cars without having to retune your vehicle each time you change back. The sub-garage also gives you access to your tuned cars in online races, which is absolutely key to online victory.
Auto Modellista's online mode isn't perfect, but without it, the game would be over in 10 hours or less. Provided you can find someone online to race against, which is more difficult than it sounds, the game lets you race against up to seven opponents over Xbox Live. While the game uses standard language for the Xbox Live menus, with familiar terms like "optimatch," the game's supplementary text reads like poorly translated English. The game performs pretty well online, and there's only a little bit of noticeable lag, which surfaces here and there.
Beyond online and garage life, you can also run two-player races on a split-screen, participate in time trials against ghost cars, run one-off races in arcade mode, and view replays. In a somewhat strange touch, replays can be edited with a handful of audio-visual effects that can be toggled on the fly using an interface that may unpleasantly remind you of Sega's Make Your Own Music Video games for the Sega CD. The audio-sample editing interface features an option that will bring a smile to the face of any would-be Bruce Dickinson by giving players the option to lay as much cowbell as they can handle over saved replays.
Much like Auto Modellista's deceptive feature set and tweakability, its gameplay isn't what you'd expect from such a potentially lighthearted game. The game strives for a slightly more realistic feel by going so far as to actually instruct you on real-life racing concepts, like oversteer and understeer, the proper way to take corners, and the way various engine placements affect a car's handling and performance. At the same time, the game has a fairly large drift component that asks you to whip around corners without losing much speed. While learning how to slip and slide around turns is the best way to excel against the game's best online competitors, the game's AI plays it so safely that you can win by simply building a fast car and barreling into turns at full speed. Slamming into the outside wall of a turn at the right angle lets you bounce off in the right direction without losing too much speed, thus making it easy to bump your way into first place since the game doesn't let you actually damage your vehicles. It's possible to win on the game's dirt-track oval by merely posting up near the outside edge of the track, mashing the gas, and occasionally looking at the screen to make sure you're still pointing in the proper direction. Even the game's technical, turn-filled downhill tracks are a breeze due to the way the game handles collisions with the walls. Some slightly more punishing collision physics probably would have provided more of an incentive to become proficient in the game's drift techniques.
When it comes to providing a real sense of speed at the track level, Auto Modellista performs quite well. Along with its highly stylized yet still realistic car models come a series of anime-style animation techniques, such as dramatic speed lines that appear around the edges of your screen when you really start moving. This effect is great for making 200mph feel as dramatically fast as 200mph feels in a real car, and the way the lines compress and vanish when you slow down makes braking equally dramatic. You'll see white flashes pop off your tires when you begin to skid, which is very handy for figuring out exactly how your car is skidding and how much countersteering you need to provide to regain control. All these effects combine to make the anime style of the game more of a gameplay element than a simple gimmick, but even from a purely visual standpoint, Auto Modellista's highly stylized looks are neat. The game looks a bit crisper than it did on the PS2 and GameCube, but overall, the game looks roughly identical across the board.
Capcom's fighting games have been suffering from a lack of announcing talent lately, and some of them have contained music that has no business being in a fighting game. Now these problems have spread to the company's driving games. Auto Modellista's announcer makes use of the same style of announcing used in games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom vs. SNK 2--that is to say, a high-pitched male voice occasionally says "Keep rockin' baby" and "Why are you so bad?" All this is set to a collection of jazzy lounge music that fails to properly set the tone. There are some faster, more race-worthy songs on the soundtrack, but they're definitely in the minority. The engine noise, tire squeals, and other car sounds are done about as well as you could hope, though a little more variety would have been nice.
All told, Auto Modellista has a fantastic look, but its gameplay unsuccessfully tries to straddle the line between simulation-style tuning options and arcade-style handling and collision physics. The two gameplay styles don't really mix very well at all. Car fans looking for something different will find something to like here, but with games like Project Gotham Racing 2 out there to satisfy both the realism and the online quotient, Auto Modellista simply feels out of place.