Import Tuner Challenge does few things right and faces stiff competition from other racing games, but if you sink enough time into it, it can grow on you.
- Gives you plenty of rivals to race against
- Car upgrades and tuning make a noticeable difference in your car's handling and performance.
- Practically unplayable until you earn enough money to buy a decent car
- Online options are inadequate
- Not enough road to race on, so it gets old fast
- Weak audiovisual presentation.
Don't let the bland name fool you. Import Tuner Challenge is another game in the long-running Tokyo Xtreme Racer series. The Genki-developed racing games have been kicking around for close to a decade, but they've never attracted much of a fan base here in North America--probably because they've never been all that great. So the game that came out in Japan as Shutoku Battle X is now known as Import Tuner Challenge. But one thing that hasn't changed is how slowly this game starts. If you can make it through the first few hours, you'll find a passable, if repetitive, driving game. But those first two or three hours are such a grind that you might not bother continuing, given that there are plenty of much better racing games available on the Xbox 360.
Import Tuner Challenge isn't about import cars at all. You'll be racing Japanese cars on Japanese highways. But a game called Japanese Domestic Tuner Challenge probably would have turned even fewer heads, so let's just ignore that from here on out. The whole game takes place on a few different stretches of Tokyo highway. You'll start out on the turn-filled C1 loop, eventually unlocking routes that take you through Shibuya and Shinjuku, as well as another big loop called the Shinkanjo. Your goal on these routes is to become the fastest racer around by taking down what seems like hundreds of different rivals. The most common race is an SP (spirit points) battle. When you roll up behind an opponent and flash your headlights to challenge, the race begins. Each car then gets a life meter that loses a chunk whenever the car collides with anything or slowly drains out when the other car gains a lead. Your goal is to make sure the other guy's meter drains before yours does. The game also lets you challenge racers that hole up in parking areas along the highway, and some of these races are simple point-to-point affairs. There's also the chain battle, where you have to take out a series of opponents one after the other, or a gang battle, which is just an SP battle against multiple opponents. Each win earns you credits, which are used to purchase new cars and parts.
Each win also crosses that rival off your list. When you aren't out racing around, you can check out a rival list that shows you all of the different racing teams out on the metro, what time of day they tend to be out and about, and which part of the highway you can find them on. That may sound like a hassle, but with the exception of a large, secretive team called the Wanderers, finding your rivals is pretty easy. Once you've taken out all the members of a team, you can race against the leader of that team. And once you've taken out a number of teams on a given section of road, the champion of that road will come looking for a battle. While this all sounds like a good stage for dramatic, over-the-top voice acting, the game doesn't give the racers different personalities or anything. You can get a brief line of text from racers that you encounter in the parking areas, and the boss racers usually talk about how you remind them of a mystical racer called King Speed, but that's about it. Giving more life to every racer would have probably made the races feel a bit more special. Instead, you just buy the most powerful car and parts you can afford and blow the doors off the opposition over and over again along the same stretches of road, and it gets tedious fast. A neat little touch is that your name changes as you drive to reflect your driving style. If you quit races early a lot, you might be called a chicken. Other names include Blast Samurai, Bullet Noble, Serious Worker, and so on. Considering you'll be going up against racers like Silent Cassiopeia, Rolling Guy No.1, Snake Eyes, and Skull Bullet, the names make some sort of sense in context.
Import Tuner Challenge contains licensed cars, including the Nissan Skyline, the RX-7 and RX-8 from Mazda, a handful of Toyota-made cars including two different Supras, and more. None of the cars take any damage from collisions, though since traffic is awfully light, most of your scrapes and scratches will come from hitting the wall. Because of the small amount of money you start with, you won't be able to afford a particularly fast or maneuverable car in the beginning, but that's OK, because the first teams you encounter are pushovers. This also makes most of the early races incredibly boring. Once your winnings start to stack up, you can invest in a number of different car upgrades and begin to tweak the settings of your car. That's good, because the opposing cars get faster, but the computer-controlled cars never seem to get much better at taking corners. So once you get good at aggressive cornering, the racing gets really easy.
There's a simulation-like depth to car tuning, but the game does an awful job of explaining to you what the settings do. It'll tell you that you can purchase something called "LSD" for your car, but unless you already know what that is, you'll have to wait for the right loading screen to surface to figure out that it's talking about a limited slip differential. The manual is lengthy but offers no real information. The upgrades and car tuning may not be intuitive, but it's nice that things like lowering the ride height have a good impact on your car's ability to grip the road, as they do in real life. But regardless of how many settings you tweak, the game never feels like a simulation. The steering and drifting seem to straddle the line between simulation and arcade, and the result probably won't please fans of either style of racing.
In addition to playing the quest mode to take on rivals, you can go into time attack mode and try to set records on various stretches of road. There are two time attack modes, one for offline play and one that will compare your times against the rest of the Import Tuner Challenge-playing world. The more interesting online mode pits you against another player in an SP battle, but it's pretty tough. Until you play all the way through quest mode and build out something close to the fastest car in the game, you're not going to have much fun online. It seems that almost all of the people bothering to play online have extremely built cars, and attempting to search for games close to your rank when you're first getting started usually gives you an "unable to find a session" message. While the fastest car should probably always win, some sort of handicap function or car class matching would have probably made for a more interesting online experience.
The visuals in Import Tuner Challenge are drab and are definitely a clear step or two below where the Xbox 360's other driving games are. The car models are passable, with plenty of visual customizations available, but unimpressive overall. The sense of speed only really works when you get into the game's faster cars, making most of the game seem sluggish. The scenery isn't too impressive, and the road itself looks mediocre. Of course, Tokyo's highways aren't the most interesting things to look at in real life, either, but it's still clear that this game isn't anywhere close to games like Project Gotham Racing 3. The audio is a real throwback to the generic car racing game noise of the original PlayStation. The menus and in-game action are accompanied by a series of very generic tunes, and the exhaust notes and sounds of racing are underwhelming.
If you can force your way through the early part of the game and get to where the cars don't seem so sluggish anymore, and if you can handle the limited amount of road you'll have to race on, Import Tuner Challenge is a game that grows on you. It may not offer personality, but there's a certain thrill to taking out all of these other racing teams, upgrading your car, and moving on to the next batch of teams. But it's still a repetitive and often tedious game, and considering its full $59.99 price and the many better driving games available for the Xbox 360, Import Tuner Challenge is very difficult to recommend.