Sometimes, certain games are given a ratings boost on a particular system due to lack of competition in the genre. While Top Gear Overdrive may benefit somewhat from this phenomenon, it also deserves the praise. Sure, hardcore fans of driving simulations will find nothing of interest here, but casual motorheads will appreciate Top Gear Overdrive's liberal emphasis on speed and powersliding. Just don't expect these rally cars to handle like the real thing. The fact is, Top Gear Overdrive is a fine racer for the Nintendo 64, if players are willing and can overlook a few annoyances.
There are plenty of features to admire in Top Gear Overdrive: one- to four-player championship mode, one- to four-player vs. mode, the ability to buy upgrades, hidden shortcuts, Rumble Pak support, EEPROM for saving records, the list goes on and on. There are a total of 14 cars, and they all obligingly look like cars on the street today. When players first begin, only two cars are available (the Eclipse and the '98 Beetle) for use. During the course of the championship, players collect money placed strategically on the track o purchase better vehicles. Other chassis types also include a Jeep Wrangler, a Chevrolet Camaro, the popular Dodge Viper, the oversized Hummer, and exotic cars such as a Ferrari F-40 or the McLaren F-1.
While it was easy to differentiate the performance of one car from another in Top Gear Overdrive, the line-up seemed to lack a certain distinction that gives each car a subtle flavor of its own. This may have something to do with Top Gear Overdrive's physics engine that uses jumping as a technique to securing faster lap times or a higher position. As a result, most of the cars are light and can pull pretty spectacular hang-time. Top Gear Overdrive has six tracks that are given variety by mirroring, deriving, and reversing. Since this is a rally race, the tracks are appropriately longer by design and give the game a more endurance aspect.
The biggest problem with Top Gear Rally's single or multiplayer championship mode is that players must win from track to track to unlock the other tracks. This becomes particularly annoying in multiplayer championship mode, where choosing the track you want to race is really half the fun. Since most of the AI racers drive like drones and act like fodder for your passing, four-player championships are a real blast. While there is noticeable slowdown during four-player races, the frame rate never bogs down to unplayable depths. This really helps keep the pace of the game in the vs. modes.
The heart of every racing game is how the car responds to your controls. Without a fine balance of control and physics, a driving game has already lost what it set out to accomplish. Top Gear Overdrive uses the Nintendo 64 analog stick to steer and also uses the standard button affair like most other racers (with the exception of the Z-trigger used to activate nitro for a speed boost). Unfortunately, the controls with the analog stick are horribly sensitive. New players will find themselves fighting just to stay on the road for the first 20 minutes. An option to adjust joystick sensitivity is all that's needed here. Most of Top Gear Overdrive's feeling of chaotic control stems from the fact that some of the cars are frighteningly fast (and light), giving players the sensation of skipping on asphalt. Since cars can't be controlled in the air, this equates to a significant amount of time spent wrestling with the car just to stay in the competition.
After spending some time with the controls, though, players will find Top Gear Overdrive highly playable, but lacking in refinement. Slamming your car into walls and obstacles causes damage to the vehicle. Depending on the location and force of the impact, cars will grind, spinout, or explode based on how much damage it's already sustained. Having cars take damage was a nice idea but the developers have forgotten to include the actual damage meter onscreen, so players could keep track of damage and perhaps encourage prudent driving tactics. However, lots of the initial frustrations with Top Gear Overdrive's overly sensitive controls should subside after players learn to compensate by steering conservatively. Unfortunately, for a game with this much potential, the control issue never seems to completely go away.
In the graphics department, Top Gear Overdrive excels quite comfortably. The game sports the same clean, glossy look of its predecessor Top Gear Rally. Aside from having nice track design nostalgic of the finer days of racing with games like Sega's Outrun, all the textures in the game are tasteful and transition into each other realistically. One minor quibble is that sometimes textures can run together a little too seamlessly, causing some of the motorways in the tunnel to blur into a pastiche of browns - not good to hit a wall here at speeds of up to 200 mph.
Other highlights include car models with environment mapping similar to the effects used in Gran Turismo. Cars shine and seemingly reflect light as they scream down the road, which really gives Top Gear Overdrive the sort of graphical polish a game on the Nintendo 64 is capable of. Little details like translucent windows and driver silhouettes only further the impression that Snowblind spent most of its time pushing its graphics engine.
However, the game is not without visual glitches. Specifically, there are moments when camera clipping is so bad it can be disorienting. Polygon clipping occurs when players park their car (accidentally, of course) next to a large polygon object (like a cave wall), and the camera collides with the wall, causing it to vanish. Fortunately, these instances are few if you are winning races. Snowblind also included a high-resolution mode if players use the Nintendo Ram Pak. The game already looks nice, albeit a little blurry, in low resolution; however, in high-resolution mode, you must see it in motion to believe it. For those without a Ram Pak, players can set the game in letterbox mode, which puts the game in a higher resolution, but the screen is cropped top and bottom. The frame rate with the Ram Pak is surprisingly smooth, but there is a slight hit on the incredible sense of speed Top Gear Overdrive normally achieves. With a butter smooth frame rate and virtually no pop-up, Top Gear Overdrive is a good contender for the most impressive racer on the Nintendo 64 to date.
One of the more humdrum aspects is its audio. Most of the attention has been put into the MPEGs, which Snowblind has included as soundtracks to the game. These wailing guitar-solo infested MPEGs beg to be labeled post-Seattle circa 1995, but they do impress on a technical level. The band Grindstone, which provides the sound backdrop, often carries the same vocal inflections and heavy chunk-a-chunk distorted guitar sounds found in other uninspirational bands of yesteryear. The game sounds also lack the punch you would expect after hard hitters like Gran Turismo and Ridge Racer Type 4, which use different engine sounds to give a feeling of power or torque to each car. Unfortunately in Top Gear Overdrive, there's very little variety in its sonic attributes.
In terms of overall value, Top Gear Overdrive is probably a must-buy if you have friends who love to race. The multiplayer aspect alone raises the score, but Top Gear Overdrive's rough edges really keep this game from maximizing on all Snowblind's hard work. If players can overcome the precarious analog stick controls and master powersliding on a dime, Top Gear Overdrive will be a fun game that invites multiple replays to look for hidden paths and unlock secret cars. There is no other racer on the Nintendo 64 that can reproduce Top Gear Overdrive's excessive sense of speed and momentum. Unfortunately, for a lot of gamers, control issues will still tug at them. But in their heart of hearts, they know to keep an eye on Snowblind, in hopes that its future Nintendo 64 work will be as nice as Top Gear Overdrive.