If you pick up Test Drive Le Mans expecting a full-blown simulation with realistic physics and a strict adherence to the motorsport's format and rules, you're likely to become very disappointed. There are no two ways about it: Test Drive Le Mans is an arcade-style racing game through and through - but the good news is that if you can look past some of the design decisions and oversights, the action is actually pretty satisfying.
Test Drive Le Mans offers three modes of play, all presumably designed to let impatient gamers jump into a GT1, GT2, or prototype vehicle and start racing with minimal muss or fuss. The arcade mode features three race types: Practice and time attack put you alone on the track, while challenge puts you at the back of an eight-car field for a five-lap race. To play for the championship, you sign up for a lowly GT2 team and try to climb your way up the ladder to the faster prototypes and GT1 divisions by finishing first at the end of the season. Finally, there's the 24 hours of Le Mans itself, which offers a time-compression feature that lets you see the transition from day to night and back again in a race as short as 12 minutes.
Regardless of which mode you choose, you'll soon see why hard-core racing-simulation fans are likely to shake their heads at Test Drive Le Mans. Only three camera views are available, including a bumper-cam, a hood-cam, and a behind-the-car perspective, so you can forget the idea of sitting inside the cockpit of your car. The game's setup options are paltry: You can modify your car's fuel amount and choose from several tire types, three generic downforce settings, and three steering-sensitivity settings, as well as toggle traction control and transmission type, though the game completely ignores gear ratios and brake bias. This grade-school garage will be your first inkling that Test Drive Le Mans doesn't model a whole lot of real-world detail - a suspicion that'll be confirmed when you see cars stick to the track like slot cars, even in the sharpest turns.
But real-world physics and cockpit views are two of the biggest drains on CPU horsepower in a racing game. And because Test Drive Le Mans isn't burdened with them, the developers were able to use those resources to create impressive car graphics and hauntingly realistic trackside scenery, and still achieve smooth frame rates even at high resolutions. Once you accept that you'll simply have to downshift or decelerate to negotiate 95 percent of the turns in Test Drive Le Mans, you'll find that its combination of drop-dead gorgeous graphics and phenomenal sensation of speed would surely make all but the most serious race fans smile.
The game features seven tracks besides Le Mans, but whether or not they're based on actual tracks is a mystery. The box copy claims the seven circuits are ACO approved, but in trying to find out more about their real-life counterparts, the best I could come up with was that some of them are named after certain sections of the Le Mans course itself. This is just one example of the carefree attitude the game and manual take as far as familiarizing us Ugly Americans with the nuances of the motorsport.Instead of providing driver bios, track histories, and other information to bring newcomers up to speed, Test Drive Le Mans is content to simply slap a picture of the circuit on the screen and list the names of the teams that are competing - some of which might as well be in Esperanto for those unfamiliar with the world of GT racing and the 24 hours of Le Mans. The game claims that the "drivers race like their real-world counterparts," which is hard to verify because you're never told who the drivers are for each team. But if the assertion is true, then the real-world counterparts have a sadistic proclivity to simply ram your car when things aren't going their way. As for car specifications, all you get is a console-style graphic bar rating each vehicle for speed, acceleration, handling, and braking.
But you can forget all these things if you simply repeat to yourself that "it's just an arcade racer" over and over again as you burn down the wonderfully rendered courses. However, you won't as easily overlook the design decision to lock so many tracks and cars, especially since the instructions on just what you need to do to unveil them are so unclear. The setup for Le Mans race is even more frustrating: Until you perform well enough in the championship mode, you're stuck in the slower GT2 cars in which the best you can hope for is to finish first in your class. You can play in amateur mode to give yourself a better chance of success, but the game will automatically turn off damage and tire wear.
You can take along minimum fuel to increase your qualifying time, but then you'll be shocked to find yourself magically transported to race day with that same amount of fuel in your tank. Someone figured no one would want to hit the garage between the qualifying race and the real race. What's more, it'd be nice to tweak the limited setup options available during a practice session before a championship race - but there's no option to practice before a championship race, so you're forced to use the time attack race in arcade mode to get used to the track. Of course, that doesn't really matter much anyway since the computer-controlled drivers tend to turn in qualifying times 20 seconds faster than yours, then fall one by one during a ten-lap championship race as you blow by them at every turn or corner.
There's also a problem with Le Mans itself. It's a drag to have to slog your way through a couple of seasons before getting to the really hot cars - but when you finally earn the right to drive a GT1, you'll be disappointed on several counts once you hit the world-famous course. Believe it or not, Le Mans itself isn't nearly as good looking as the game's other courses - the track looks grainy, and in several spots the game runs into uncharacteristic frame-rate problems. When the sun goes down, you'll be shocked to see that the headlights are practically worthless - more than once I hit the headlight button just to make sure they were even on.
Last but not least, there's an issue with saving your progress between races. You can compress time to finish the marathon event over a much shorter period of time, but if you decide to tackle the whole enchilada, then be prepared to leave your computer on for the duration. There's no way to save a game in the middle of the 24-hour classic, nor is there a computer driver (as in Sports Car GT) to take over for you while you stretch your legs.
Yet even with all its nagging problems, Test Drive Le Mans is still a kick to play. It's similar to last year's Motorhead with real-life cars but without that game's good multiplayer options. And for a retail price of under $30, Test Drive Le Mans should be more than enough to keep arcade-racing fans happy for a while at least.