Sifting through the video game retailer bargain bin can at times unearth a hidden jewel or two. Ford Racing, from Empire Interactive isn't quite that elusive diamond in the rough, but it is certainly a decent game at the $9.99 suggested retail price. As the name suggests, Ford Racing lets you compete in progressively difficult racing seasons with access to virtually the entire line of Ford automobiles. Everything from the Fiesta, Taurus, F-150, and Explorer to the Mustang and the GT90 racing model are in the game. Despite strong control mechanics and an advanced physics engine, the game has many flaws keeping it from being a truly appealing product. However, fans of Ford's line of small cars, family sedans, SUVs and trucks, and sports coupes may find some novelty value in Ford Racing at its bargain price.
At the game's onset, you are given three choices: quick-race, career, and head-to-head modes. In most other racing games, the quick-race option gives you quick access to several of the nicer car models and tracks--not Ford Racing. Only the dull and slow-moving car models are available out of the box. Most of the faster Ford automobiles and the cool tracks need to be unlocked in the career mode first. The head-to-head races present a similar scenario--it's hard to find any form of excitement when racing your friend's Escort against your Fiesta. So, naturally the meat of the gameplay is in the career mode.
The career mode is made up of several racing seasons, each featuring a specific model from Ford's line of vehicles and each progressively more difficult. You must compete in several races that take place within variations of the five major courses, and you must earn points based on the position of finish--very much like the NASCAR Winston Cup series--in order to advance to the next level. It takes a slightly masochistic player to endure the entry-level models and family sedans before you're allowed to take the wheel of relatively more fun and performance-oriented models such as the Mustang and the GT90 racecar. The first several seasons, using such vehicles as the Ka, Fiesta, Escort, and Puma, can almost feel like a chore, as you are forced to drive with and against those low-powered vehicles. The only real saving grace in these early races is the game's tight controls and realistic physics engine.
Ford Racing does a nice job of melding realistic handling and physics with responsive controls. Taking an Explorer or F-150 through hairpins feels like it should in real life, with massive amounts of body roll and deliberate acceleration coming out of the turn. In similar fashion, relatively nimble models like the Mustang and Escort are more forgiving, allowing more room to make and subsequently correct steering mistakes. The game's lone race-aspirated model, the Ford GT90, exhibits realistic torque-steer and launch characteristics. In general, Ford Racing presents forgiving, arcade-style controls complemented by realistic physics that result in a nice gameplay balance. Other categories aside, the handling and controls should appeal to most racing fans.
However, all is not well in the gameplay department. The AI is overly simplistic. The computer-controlled drivers follow preset racing lines, regardless of situation. If for some reason you find yourself in their racing line--this happens frequently--the AI driver will simply push you out of the way, often pushing you off the track altogether. Simply stated, the gameplay in Ford Racing becomes about mastering the intuitively designed tracks rather than competing against the other drivers in the race.
The graphics in Ford Racing follow the same routine as the gameplay setting in the career mode: You'll have to suffer through truly appalling environmental graphics in the early courses, before you get to see some nice eye candy in and around the latter tracks. Impressive textures on stone sidewalls and subtle details such as tire barriers shine in a few of the latter courses. However, these are few and far between, as most of the game is bland visually, with sparse 3D environments superimposed over ugly 2D backdrops. The cars are modeled well enough so that they are easily recognizable, but the textures, such as paint and decals, blend together to create a tortuous mess.
The music in Ford Racing is typical racing game fare, and to a discerning ear it may sound a bit like the soundtrack in the original Gran Turismo. Low-profile drumbeats hum quietly in the background and are usually ignored or turned off altogether. However, it never gets to the point where the music is poor enough to detract from the overall gameplay experience.
Ford Racing exhibits impressive handling and control characteristics, and it can be fun to drive the game's twisty tracks. However, the poor AI and the limitations presented by the sole Ford license in particular keep it from being a truly entertaining game overall. But as mentioned in the opening, if you're into Ford's line of family sedans and sports coupes, you may find Ford Racing an appealing buy, particularly at its low retail price.