Enthusia Professional Racing looks to take the racing simulator fight directly to its high-profile PlayStation 2 rival, the much-lauded Gran Turismo series. Rather than following the path of many racing games on the same platform, looking to imitate the GT franchise's approach, Enthusia takes a very different--and sometimes innovative--approach to the collectible car game. While the game's touchy driving model and overly complex career mode won't appeal to everyone, Enthusia is a worthy game for those looking for something different in the four-wheel genre.
Enthusia is a driving game that places a premium on driving skill, not necessarily tuning knowledge. Sure there are options to adjust numerous handling settings on your car, but for the most part the game wants you behind the wheel fighting it out for first place in any of the game's more than 200 available cars. What this means from a gameplay standpoint is a driving engine that is sensitive and touchy, sometimes brilliant, and often frustrating. Firstly, if you think other driving games have perfected the springy feeling of suspension before, you obviously haven't played Enthusia yet. Weight transfer into and out of corners and under heavy braking is dramatically emphasized not only through the handling of the car but visually as well; cars will lurch under heavy braking, and unless you can carry momentum through a curve in as straight a line as possible, your lap times will suffer.
Working in tandem with the bouncy nature of the driving model is Enthusia's visual gravity system, a visual representation of the forces acting upon your car, tires, and even the driver itself. There are several types of VGS displays. The first is a small car icon that indicates the direction your front tires are facing, the amount of forces acting upon them, and the general direction of G-forces acting upon the car itself. The second display is a frame that shows forces acting both on the car and your virtual driver in a sort of screen-within-a-screen fashion. When you enter a turn, the screen will slightly shift left, right, up, or down to convey the forces working against your driver's head as he pilots the car. Illuminated onscreen arrows further illustrate the direction and power of the G-forces working against your car. Honestly, while the system is cool to look at, and seems remarkably sensitive to the slightest subtle movements of your car, it doesn't really present any sort of essential information that you can't get from the overall "feel" of the car itself. Luckily you can turn the displays off altogether if you want.
From a driving standpoint, first-time Enthusia racers will find that being quick on the track is as much an exercise in restraint as it is raw horsepower. The game's mostly fictional tracks blend some nice straights with tight and twisted hairpins that never let you feel complacent with the car's handling, and therefore braking distances and controlled turns should never be taken for granted. There's no shoving your car into a turn and hoping to powerslide your way around the apex; carefully modulated throttle and restrained braking will be your best friends in this game. Rear-wheel-drive cars are especially tough to drive in Enthusia, displaying a huge tendency for oversteer and requiring incredible amounts of patience (and driving touch) to be successful in. While the game touts an incredibly realistic physics engine, it's hard to believe rear-wheel-drive cars are this twitchy in real life. As one colleague put it to us, "If rear-wheel-drive cars handled in real life the way they do in Enthusia, no one would ever buy one."
Combine this with only a moderate sense of speed (bolstered somewhat through the use of stylized blur lines at the edge of the screen at high speeds), and you have a driving model that is complex in execution but often plodding in pace. To make matters worse, the cars entered into a race tend to be from a huge spectrum of performance abilities, and on longer races, the field tends to spread out pretty quickly so that even if you're in the middle of the pack positionwise, you may not have a car either behind or in front of you that's in sight.
Enthusia has several game modes to choose from, but the real meat of the game can be found in the so-called "Enthusia life" mode, Konami's sometimes innovative, sometimes frustrating take on a career mode. You won't be dealing with money for new cars; in fact, you'll be earning practically every car found in the game through race wins, albeit in a unique manner. In Enthusia, points are the new cash, and they come in several different flavors, and how points are awarded or taken away is almost entirely dependent on your performance on the track. Races take place on a week-by-week basis in Enthusia life mode, and during each week's race you have the opportunity to gain (or lose) positions in the overall in-game ranking system, with the ultimate goal of becoming the number-one-ranked driver. Enthusia's complex point system plays a strong role in just how quickly you can make that happen.
The first and arguably most important category of points you should know about are Enthu points, and there's a maximum number you can have at the beginning of each race. Any mistake you make on the course--be it running off the asphalt, striking a roadside obstacle, or coming into contact with your opposition--will decrease your Enthu points. After a race, you'll regain a portion of your Enthu points, and the number of points you regain after a race will increase as your driver level increases. The downside is that if your Enthu points are reduced to zero, you'll be forced to sit the following week out. Because Enthusia's ranking system counts only the best nine races of the last 12 weeks toward your overall rank, taking a week off in Enthusia can have a negative effect on your global position. Ranking and skill points are used to determine your weekly ranking and your overall driver and car-tuning levels, respectively. By using an odds system that calculates your chance of winning against all the other cars in the field, the ranking system encourages you to enter underpowered cars against tougher foes to gain more ranking points and thus improve your rank. Skill points let you upgrade your driver (to raise your Enthu points ceiling and rate of recovery of Enthu points from week to week) and also give you automatic car upgrades for things like brakes and tires.
If this points system sounds confusing, that's because it is. After each race you'll watch in bemusement as hordes of formulas flash before your eyes, going through the rigmarole of calculating your weekly results. All it really boils down to, though, is that you want to win races and you want to do so in as cleanly and efficiently a manner as possible, causing as little on-track mayhem as you can. One of the system's most unfortunate flaws, however, is that the game is wholly unforgiving when it comes to contact. Even if you are struck from behind by a rival car, or have a clean pass on the inside line and are suddenly cut off by an overly aggressive AI driver, you will be charged Enthu points. Therefore, each race becomes an exercise in relative judgment, as you find yourself weighing the pros of making aggressive and daring passes to gain race positions, against the cons of losing valuable skill points that you can use to gain levels. Even simple choices, such as choosing which car to take onto the track, become a risk-vs.-reward scenario, as changing cars in Enthusia life mode removes you from a week's worth of competition, thus potentially affecting your overall rank.
Though the game's effort to support sane driving techniques without the benefit of a damage model is laudable, it also encourages you to stick with underpowered cars for longer than you might wish. You probably won't want to necessarily abandon a car you've worked hard to level up, and the game's ranking system rewards you for running underperforming cars; if you can find a way to hold on until the end, you'll earn far more ranking points than you could in a car of higher performance. Finally, the game's raffle system for unlocking new cars, which lets you earn a car in a random system that resembles a casino slot machine, is interesting but can be frustrating, especially if you go five or more races without unlocking a single car, which happens.
As far as Enthusia's other modes go, standard time attack, versus racing, and free racing modes are joined by a challenge mode called driving revolution. Here you'll be racing solo on tracks such as downtown cityscapes and ocean bridges. While on track, you'll be running through color-coded slalom gates placed along the road. You're expected to cross through each of these gates at a certain speed, and some gates will change color to let you know when it's time to hit the brakes or slam on the gas. You'll be rated, Dance Dance Revolution-style, at each gate, so if you hit a gate at the correct speed you might see a "perfect" or "great" rating; while if you miss it altogether, your rating will adjust accordingly. At the end of the stage, the game calculates your overall performance and assigns you a letter grade, and then it's off to the next stage or level. While driving revolution is an interesting concept, and certainly holds some challenge on tracks featuring more powerful cars, it didn't keep our attention very long.
Graphically, Enthusia holds its own in terms of the car models, which across the board look fantastic; they don't display too much unrealistic sheen, and the slightly muted color palette, which is also reflected in the game's environments, serves to enhance the realistic look rather than detract from it. When bright colors are used in the environments, such as in brilliant red and yellow autumnal trees, the effect really stands out against the overall muted feel of most of the courses. There's also a lot to be said about the actual design of the tracks themselves, which often feature interesting background elements, such as underground cave sections where shafts of light pour in from overhead or attractive waterfalls that dot some outdoor courses. A few real-life tracks make cameos as well, including Japan's Tsukuba and the legendary Nurburgring, and both come across passable, especially the wet-asphalt Tsukuba, which is an especially challenging variant on a track that is normally pretty boring. Still, an overall lack of clarity on some of the background environments and some ugly aliasing make it appear that the balance of the graphical work was put into the cars themselves.
On the sound front, Enthusia's upbeat jazzy soundtrack sets the right tone for the game with tunes that may not be that memorable but certainly don't get in the way. The audio of the cars themselves seems fine in terms of things like engine sounds and tire screeching but is lackluster when it comes to conveying different surface types or car impacts. This may be due in part to the game's lack of a damage model, but the dull thud of collision sounds in Enthusia seems especially lacking.
If the game could use a makeover on any one specific facet of its surface qualities, however, we'd vote for the overall presentation, which is a mass of unattractive menus and user-unfriendly dialog boxes. The game's presentation actually has some good ideas--including minitutorials on prerace screens that explain the game's ranking and odds system and a handy search tool that lets you quickly filter through your ever-growing garage of cars via criteria such as drivetrain, manufacturer, horsepower, and country of origin--but the design of these concepts seems half finished and unattractive nearly across the board.
If you're tired of the "tune to win" racing model found in the Gran Turismo series, Enthusia offers a fresh take on the driving genre, albeit one that requires patience and persistence to fully enjoy. If you're new to console driving simulations and are looking for an approachable introduction to the genre, Enthusia is certainly not the best place to start.