It's been a strange year for PC sports fans. First we get Deer Hunter, a game that's managed to become one of the year's best sellers despite pedestrian graphics and minimalist options (not to mention a subject matter that I was sure would arouse howls of protest). But before I'd even finished scratching my head at the notion of a deer-hunting sim, along comes another sim with an unlikely subject matter: Burnout: Championship Drag Racing.
I'm sure drag racing fans have been dying for a PC sim of their favorite motor sport for years, but I can honestly say I never expected anyone to simulate drag racing: As it says on Bethesda Software's Burnout web site, what kind of a racing sim can you produce when the actual race lasts only eight seconds? A pretty damn good one, it turns out. I'll be the first to admit that the game's got some problems, but sometimes a game succeeds in spite of itself - and that's definitely the case with Burnout.
If you're not a fan of drag racing or have only watched it casually, it all looks so simple: Two cars line up and when the light turns green they go tearing down a quarter-mile track hell-bent for leather. But there's a whole lot more to it than just those few seconds of incredible acceleration and raw power, and Burnout re-creates this part of the sport about as meticulously as you could hope for.
Nearly all of the game's real-life tracks are home to 1998 Winston Drag Racing events, and while it's obviously easier to render a dragway rather than ovals and road courses, the 3Dfx tracks and surroundings in Burnout are much improved over those in Bethesda's first racing sim, X-Car. (Bethesda still needs to do something about the trees beside some of the tracks, though - they look like gigantic versions of those pine-tree aerosols some folks hang in their cars.) The addition of a late-model Mustang (available as a patch at the Burnout web site) brings the total number of chassis to 22, and what a list it is. Muscle-car fans will jump for joy at getting to hop into cars like the '72 Barracuda, '55 Chevy, '34 Ford Roadster, a '71 Roadrunner, a '59 Eldorado, '66 Mustang, '72 Charger, and more, not to mention several funny cars and rail cars.
But choosing a chassis is just the start. Burnout features the same mind-boggling array of customizing options as X-Car (it also seems to use the same physics engine), and maybe a few more. It'd take all day to list everything that can be tweaked and adjusted, so I'll cut to the chase and say this is, plain and simple, a motorhead's dream. And the numbers you're fiddling about with have noticeable results on car performance, as I found out after fiddling about with my suspension and wings and finding myself getting airborne about two seconds into my run. About the only problems with the whole setup section are the tiny fonts that can make it hard to read just what you're doing to your car and the lack of more predefined car setups that would help newbies at least get pointed in the right direction.
The same sort of realistic options are found in the various play modes, too. Quick races pit you against an opponent in an unknown car, while the standard race mode lets you practice, run single heats, join a single event, and even create an entire season of events using whichever of the game's 20 tracks suits your fancy. Don't feel like sitting through all the qualifying and elimination rounds of a 64-team event? Knock it down to 16 or even lower if you like. (You can also bypass each race you're not taking part in to keep things rolling right along.) And should you find yourself kicking the computer's butt just a little too often, you can always try racing against your best time.
Sure, the races in Burnout might only last seven or eight seconds - but those are some pretty intense seconds indeed, and if you're racing with a big field there's a whole bunch of races to make up for their brevity. It's hard to put a finger on why I felt so much pride at seeing my reaction time improve, or felt like yelling when I nailed the gear shift at the perfect moment, but all I know is I did - and I kept coming back for more. And when I knew I'd blown a race, I could always swerve into my opponent to cause some of the most breathtaking smashups I've seen in a racing game: When I slammed into a '71 Roadrunner it flipped about 30 feet into the air before careening off a guard rail and crawling to a halt. Realistic? Maybe, maybe not - but it sure felt good.
It all adds up to a lot of fun and a very good game, especially when you toss in free multiplayer support on Mplayer. The only real disappointments are things that could have been corrected or improved without too much hassle. One of the sources of Burnout's little flaws is that it's a DOS-based game; it'll run in Windows 95, but not in native mode, which for me meant some pretty wacky joystick calibration routines and sound-card setup hassles. (By the way, the nature of the drag racing beast means that you won't have to worry about hooking up wheels and pedals in order to turn in a good run.) Both problems were eventually resolved, but I still found myself being forced to recalibrate my joystick about every other session or so. Another joystick anomaly that irritated me is that you can't use a joystick button for anything that requires a constant key press, such as the trans-brake or even accelerator. Personally, I much prefer squeezing a button to slam on the accelerator instead of pushing the joystick forward, but at the end of the day that was the only way I could accelerate.
Another real letdown is Burnout's VCR feature. With only five preset perspectives that can't be rotated, there's no way to get a prime look at a good bang-up, the lack of sound during a replay is a big letdown (and the engine sounds could use a little beefing up), and strangest of all is the inability to view any race except your own.
But the one thing that might keep Burnout from becoming popular among drag-racing novices is the game's manual. Oh, don't get me wrong, at various points it explains what all the strange terms mean. The problems lie in its tone and the way it's organized. After reading ten or 15 pages of this stuff, my eyes started to glaze over before I threw it down and started mucking my way through the program trying to suss it all out on my own. Just getting to the staging line can be a cumbersome process for someone unfamiliar with the sport; the first five or six times out I had a devil of a time even getting to the line in time to avoid disqualification, in part because the key I assigned to "line lock" (locking the front wheels so you can "burn out" your tires for improved traction) only worked intermittently.
And when it comes to handicapped races, I'm still trying to figure out exactly how stuff like "dial-ins" work, so much so that I gave up on it for now and am only competing in "heads up" competitions where it's just the best elapsed time that counts. What this manual screams for is a serious reorganization, so that the information is presented in the order that you're most likely to need it - you know, take me through the entire process of running a bracket race or explain the basic differences in the myriad tire types rather than simply showing their stats.
But like I said before, Burnout has such a refreshing feel and intense bursts of white-knuckled action that it's really worth sticking it out for a while. For racing fans, Burnout is one of the biggest breaths of fresh air we've had in a long time - and if Bethesda would focus on making the game Windows 95-native and sprucing up the manual, it might have an award-winning product on its hands.