The concept of enthusiast racing games seems counterintuitive. On one hand, their appeal is inherently limited in that they focus on a specific type or brand of vehicle. But on the other hand, building a game around a strong or identifiable brand is an easy way to distinguish it from the hundreds of other racing games that crowd store shelves. More often than not, this type of game often ends up feeling like a cheap marketing ploy, like something you'd get for free with the purchase of a new set of tires. Sure, Beetle Adventure Racing was great, but it's the exception that proves the rule when it comes to the generally poor quality of brand-specific racing games. And Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano, the latest such game from Valcon Games, is no Beetle Adventure Racing.
As the title implies, this is a racing game focused entirely on vehicles from Alfa Romeo. There are 25 cars in the game, from the Alfa 147 to the 8c Competizione. The variety of cars is limited, though, as many of the 25 cars are just different versions of the same model. For example, one model will have a standard version, a racing version with some decals, and a pro version with different decals and maybe a fancy spoiler. Considering that Gran Turismo 4 has almost as many Alfa Romeos in its roster--in addition to several hundred other cars--it's difficult to get excited about the selection of cars in this game.
The underwhelming vehicle selection is compounded by the fact that the cars look pretty ugly. The vehicle models are accurate enough, and they deform nicely as you crash, but they're jagged around the edges and there's very little to distinguish one car from another. All of the standard models come in one or two plain, unnaturally glossy colors, and as you race, you'll face seven carbon copies of your own vehicle. There are lots of reflective effects on the cars, but they don't quite transition in time with the lighting changes on the course, which often results in an odd flickering effect on the surface of the cars. That said, the vehicles are still the best-looking part of the game.
There are more than 20 courses in the game, taking place on 11 different tracks. Most tracks have both a short course and a full course, so while there are technically 21 different courses to race, you'll still end up seeing the same scenery over and over again. Tracks include real-world raceways such as Laguna Seca and Donnington Park, as well as a couple circuits that have you driving on narrow city streets and winding country highways. As pleasant as that may sound, the courses don't look good at all. They all have grainy, low-res backgrounds that look horribly dated, like something out of the PlayStation era of racing games.
The physics are no better than the aesthetics in Racing Italiano. The handling of the vehicles is skewed toward the arcade style of racing, with powerslides galore and a limited need for brakes. Many of the vehicles do feel appropriately heavy and sluggish, but they still manage to make impossible turns with ease. The handling becomes even more unrealistic when you level up your handling skill.
Wait, what? Leveling up in a racing game? That's right, Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano takes role-playing conventions, such as skills and experience points, and applies them to racing. It's a fine concept, and if nothing else, it makes the lifeless racing a bit more interesting. As you race, you earn experience points based on how you perform. You get experience for passing opponents, knocking other drivers out of the race, running clean laps, setting new lap records, and so on. Your experience points are tallied at the end of each race, and once you accumulate a certain number of points, you level up. As you level up, you can allocate points to nine various skills, such as handling, acceleration, recovery, and intimidation. You'll also earn gear, such as gloves, shoes, and helmets, as you race, which you can equip to further enhance your skills.
The role-playing game influences don't end there, though. While in a race, you have hit points, which can be drained by colliding with other cars, driving off the course, or careening into walls. When your hit points reach zero, you forfeit the race. You also have an intimidation gauge. When an opponent follows closely, he'll intimidate you, and when your intimidation gauge reaches zero, your vision gets blurred for a few seconds. Turnabout is fair play, though, and you can intimidate other drivers to try to cause them to wreck. There are no magic spells in the game, but there is something called a tiger effect. The tiger effect lets you rewind time for a few seconds so you can avoid that fatal mistake that sent you flying off the road or into another car. It's not exactly an original idea, but the tiger effect can come in handy sometimes. However, you're limited to using the tiger effect only when your tiger gauge is full, and it takes awhile to recharge, so you can't abuse it too much.
As you level up in career mode, your opponents also level up. Still, it's fairly easy to dump all your skill points into handling and acceleration and leave everyone in the dust. There are five different tours in career mode, and each tour consists of 10 races that range from three to nine laps each. When you're done with that (which won't take long), you can partake in time trials or try to complete a variety of challenges. The challenges are arranged into five categories according to difficulty, with five challenges in each category. They will have you do things such as completing a race without damaging your car, staying above a certain speed in specific zones on a course, or passing an opponent before a timer runs out.
Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano isn't even worth a budget price. There are so many better racing games available that there is simply no reason to play this one. The infusion of RPG elements is an interesting idea, but it's not enough to save the dull racing and dated presentation of this game.