Empire Interactive's latest venture into the world of computerized automotive competition is Total Immersion Racing. The game has an interesting combination of both driving simulation features and arcade racing features that may prove disappointing for hard-core fans of either category. If you prefer your driving to be as realistic as possible, you'll undoubtedly be frustrated by Total Immersion Racing's indestructible vehicles, less-than-realistic physics, and constant bumping. If you're a fan of frantic, high-speed races, you may not appreciate the game's generally conservative pace and complex car setup routines. However, if you play Total Immersion Racing with an open mind, you should find it to be quite appealing. The game has a variety of gorgeous real-life cars, race-long bumper-to-bumper action, and emotionally charged AI drivers--too many positive attributes to be ignored.
Like Infogrames' less-enjoyable Le Mans 24 Hours, Total Immersion Racing focuses on the close-wheeled production and purpose-built GT and prototype cars that frequent such events as the famed round-the-clock 24 Hours of Le Mans. But unlike the grueling Le Mans races, most of this game's events are over within 10 minutes. The game offers 18 vehicles spanning three classes, including such examples of advanced motorized technology as the BMX M3 GTR, Audi TT-R, Panoz Esperante GTR1, McLaren F1 GTR, and Bentley EXP Speed 8. You can race on any of 12 circuits, including real-world facilities such as Hockenheim, Monza, Rockingham, and Sebring, as well as imaginary tracks such as Springfield Raceway and Talheimring.
Total Immersion Racing features a range of gameplay modes, but rookies will want to begin by entering either a single race or a time trial; these modes should give new players an idea of the game's physics model and also let them study a given track without the pressure of the game's main career mode. Beginners may also want to try the challenge mode, which lets them compete in 30 class-specific, manufacturer, and endurance events. But it should be noted that the vast majority of Total Immersion Racing's cars and tracks aren't available at the beginning of the game and must be unlocked by either winning a challenge, moving to the more demanding professional or legend difficulty settings (and eventually the nearly impossible extreme level), or advancing several races in a career. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the game, you'll have access to a measly two cars and five tracks.
One of the first things you'll notice when you do get out on the pavement is how much effort developer Razorworks has spent on the game's appearance. The cars in particular look gorgeous--each is a heavily decaled and generally authentic replica of its real-life counterpart. Total Immersion Racing's cars feature slick motion effects on their tire rims, animated steering wheels and driver arms, and a high level of detail throughout. Each car even has a towing hook on the front. And the cars churn up particles when they venture off-track, occasionally blow off thick clouds of black smoke, and lift momentarily from the ground when stressed.
What's even more impressive about the way Total Immersion Racing's cars look is the way they react to varied lighting. In broad daylight, each car glistens and gleams. In diffused light and when blasting through the shadows of roadside vegetation, the cars' exterior surfaces react precisely as they should--not only becoming darker and brighter but doing so in waves and displaying a midlevel hue that many racing games fail to capture. And if your event is held at dusk, as many are, you'll experience some of the most realistic depictions of headlamps in any racing game. As it turns out, all of the game's tracks and areas also have excellent lighting, especially in race replays. Even though you can't edit or control your replays' speed, you can adjust each replay with a number of dramatic trackside camera angles. And even though the game offers only 12 tracks, each is unique. You'll find tight, technical sections and massive sweeping turns, hard-braking hairpins, monstrous straights, and roller-coaster hills, so you won't get bored with them for quite some time.
However, Total Immersion Racing doesn't look perfect. For instance, the game's spectators are completely two-dimensional. The game's weather cycles aren't dynamic, so if you start a race on a slick, rained-out track, you'll end on the same surface. Rain itself kicks up a healthy dose of spray, but without any visible droplets. Also, races that aren't held in direct sunlight can seem too dark, a situation that wouldn't be so irritating if the game had a gamma correction feature. Worse still, when the action is heavy or the objects you're viewing are distant, some items on the track assume an obviously pixelated, indistinct appearance reminiscent of the 2D games of old.
With one possible exception, Total Immersion Racing's audio engine is excellent. Motors growl and whine and fluctuate in pitch. Bodywork scrapes against the ground when you pass over raised curbing. Collisions generate a cacophony of visceral effects. The wind whistles by your helmet. If you own a surround speaker system, you'll undoubtedly appreciate the game's source-sensitive setup, which pans sound realistically between all four positions. However, though everything sounded great on a SoundBlaster Live sound card, we experienced frequent engine note dropouts when running the game through a Philips Acoustic Edge.
For simulation buffs and arcade veterans alike, driving a Total Immersion Racing car will be an unusual experience. Razorworks has very effectively separated and translated the power distinctions between a quasi-street-legal GT machine and a state-of-the-art high-speed prototype. It has kept the pace somewhat conservative to better reflect real-life GT racing. And the developer has factored in the effects of a wet track and the advantages of a winning mechanical setup.
But when you hit your first turn, you'll realize the game isn't a hard-core simulation. Total Immersion Racing cars tend to pivot like a pendulum rather than contact the ground through four individual points. They don't lose traction, but rather they seem to actually break free of the road and float for a split second and then grab the pavement again. Total Immersion Racing doesn't let you drift realistically through a turn. And as far as stopping power goes, you'll quickly find that your cars can drop from 100mph to a dead halt in little more than a second.
And even if you forget to brake, Total Immersion Racing's cars don't fold, spindle, or mutilate. Nor do they lose control or spin out unless you really do something drastic, like fly off the track. As such, you can rebound off barriers or other cars and emerge unscathed. This is a distinct advantage when following other drivers into a braking zone, as you can simply ignore your brake pedal, pound on their rear bumpers to decelerate, shove them out of your way, and take the turn. As a bonus, you may have propelled them completely off the racing surface or into a barrier. However, the AI drivers will actually remember what you've done to them and will find ways to exact revenge. They may get nasty with you right away or, if you're playing through career mode, they may wait for a race or two. AI drivers will also become exceedingly confident if they pull off a few good moves, and they may become more capable as a result. They'll even drive defensively in the last few turns if they're leading the pack. However, like in many other racing games, Total Immersion Racing's AI drivers will always match your level of competence--if you're having a lousy race, they won't widen the gap by beating you out, and if you've been flying along the track without a single mistake, you won't be able to substantially increase your lead.
Apart from the surprisingly complex garage area, Total Immersion Racing's career mode is rather straightforward, and its limited multiplayer play allows only split-screen racing for two drivers. However, the game's championship mode lets you compete to qualify in successive races until you hit the prototype class, which will let you get behind the wheel of the most powerful cars in the game.
Total Immersion Racing isn't complex or dangerous enough for fans of ultrarealistic motorsports, nor is it wild and crazy enough for arcade buffs. And certainly it lacks some of the perks and the longevity found in many other top-level racing products. Yet it looks and sounds excellent and delivers some tantalizingly competitive moments that will keep you glued to your steering wheel. Total Immersion Racing may not seem perfect, but it's nevertheless an innovative and at times exhilarating game.