We take an almost-finished North American version of Konami's upcoming racing simulation for an extended test-drive.
Already available in Japan and currently scheduled for release in North America on May 3, Enthusia Professional Racing is a PlayStation 2-exclusive racing game that, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for a Gran Turismo clone. Since we recently spent some quality time with an almost-finished version of Konami's game, however, we can report that the two are actually very different. We can also report that Enthusia offers some of the most enjoyable and challenging races we've played in a long time, thanks to both its realistic car handling and the mostly believable behavior of the CPU drivers you'll be competing against.
The gameplay mode in Enthusia Professional Racing you'll undoubtedly be spending the most time with is the "Enthusia life" career mode, which challenges you to take your driver ranking from 1,000 to number 1. You'll start out with a collection of 12 less-than-mediocre cars with which to achieve this goal, and you'll stand a good chance of adding another car from the game's roster of more than 200 to your collection every time you compete. If you drive well, meaning that you don't spend your time bouncing off other cars and using walls to get around corners, you'll also earn skill points that, not unlike experience points in most role-playing games, let you and your current ride "level up." When you, as the driver, level up, you'll notice that a number of your attributes (none of which affects your actual performance on the track) are improved. When one of your cars levels up, it'll receive a performance boost in the form of a weight reduction, a power increase, or better tires. Cars start out at level one and max out at level 10, by which time the improvements made will be quite noticeable.
Enthusia, then, is a game that takes simplifying the process of car tuning to a whole new level, even if earning the points necessary to improve your cars can be very challenging. Enthusia's points systems (plural) are actually quite complex. So if you feel like skipping the remainder of this paragraph, the one thing you really need to know is that Enthusia punishes you for driving like an idiot, even if you end up being first across the finish line. There are three types of points in the Enthusia life mode: Enthu points, ranking points, and skill points. Enthu points are comparable to a health meter that takes a hit every time you make contact with another vehicle or trackside object or when you even just stray off the circuit for a second. Your upper Enthu points limit, and the rate at which you recover points between races, will be determined by your current level. And if your Enthu points ever reach zero, you'll be forced to miss your next race. Ranking points, unsurprisingly, are used to calculate your current ranking, which can be anywhere from one to 1,000. Your ranking is always based on the best nine races you've had in the last 12 weeks, and the ranking points you earn for each race are determined not only by your result, but also by the difficulty of the race, according to the game's odds system. Skill points are essentially a combination of Enthu and ranking points, since the number you're awarded after a race is determined by subtracting points for collisions and such from a number that's based on your race result and difficulty.
The upshot of the various points systems is that the only way you're ever going to earn yourself a number one ranking is to win races that, on paper, you have no business even entering with an inferior car. However, you've got to win these races without making any mistakes. Winning a race behind the wheel of the most powerful car on the starting grid, for example, might net you a couple hundred points if you're lucky, while beating bona fide racecars in an underpowered compact will almost certainly earn you more than a thousand points. The odds system is ingenious in that it encourages you to make the races challenging for yourself (unlike Gran Turismo, which challenges you to make the races easy for yourself), but it's also frustrating because it basically means that climbing into the best car in your collection is a bad idea as far as your career progression is concerned. The Enthusia life mode even forces you to miss a race if you decide to switch cars, which, given the nature of the aforementioned ranking system and the fact that you never really know which races you'll be offered from one week to the next, seems a bit harsh. Despite having a number of desirable sports cars in our Enthusia life collection, we've actually spent most of our time thus far racing in an old Mini Cooper that was available right from the start, simply because the potential rewards are much greater when your car is the least powerful one in the race.