The original Ultim@te Race from Kalisto was a fantastic-looking arcade racing game that unfortunately few gamers got the opportunity to see. After all, the game was only available with OEM bundles of PowerVR accelerators. Now, MicroProse has teamed up with Kalisto to bring a bigger, better Ultim@te Race Pro to the masses. The result is a top-tier racing game with spectacular visuals, solid gameplay, and a surprisingly good multiplayer mode. It's not perfect by any stretch, but it is a lot of fun.
Ultim@te Race Pro offers the standard variety of racing gameplay options. You can play alone, against the computer, or against other players via modem, null-modem, IPX LAN, and Internet links. Ultim@te Race Pro will also be available on MPlayer someday, but like most new games boasting online service support, this one hit the streets before the online service was ready to support it. This is too bad, because until the Mplayer support comes online, finding and joining a game on the Internet means going to Kalisto's Ultimate Race site and using a very shaky Java chat applet. I ran into numerous delays while trying to connect to games in this way and occasionally had trouble simply connecting to the chat server.
The game allows as many as 16 players in IPX and IP sessions. The game also lets you choose from 16 different cars, each with varying speed, acceleration, grip, and armor characteristics. The variety of cars is somewhat deceiving, however, as you can alter the settings of every car to your heart's content. Also, the cars all sport the same body, so the only real difference lies in the paint job. While the cars are sufficiently cool looking, with their vaguely muscle-car design and their incredibly wide tires, I couldn't help thinking that the game would be even better if Kalisto had thrown in just one or two additional body designs.
On a related note, the game boasts of offering 18 different tracks, but this is even more misleading than the number of available cars. In truth, there are only six tracks. Two of these, the Training Track and the Ultim@te Arena, are special cases and have only one variation each. The other four are the basic road-racing tracks, each of which has four variations. You can choose to run on these tracks during a day race, a night race, a rainy race, or a storm race. As you might guess, each selection offers a slightly different time of day and different weather conditions - and each is more challenging than the last. To be fair, the actual path of the race through each variation also varies slightly, but not enough that it should be considered an entirely different track.
The Training Track is a simple, almost-oval affair that's good for learning the game's basic controls and for sheer, flat-out speed runs. Actually, the game could stand a few more tracks with basic layouts like this one - they often make for interesting multiplayer courses. Speaking of which, the Ultim@te Arena is available only in multiplayer mode and is the setting for the game's Destruction Derby 2-style bash-em-up game mode. Besides the chance to smash into your friend's car at high speeds, this mode offers a few additional gameplay options, such as team play and power-ups.
When playing against the computer, you can configure the game's difficulty level by adjusting the skill of the AI-driven cars. Against easy opponents, you can practically bump and skid your way to victory with very little driving skill - not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. The medium and hard opponents, however, will offer tougher challenges. In order to win on these levels, you'll have to know the tracks, and (more importantly) you'll have to stay on the tracks.
Ultim@te Race Pro's strongest feature is its amazing graphics engine. Easily at the upper echelon of racing games, if not at the very top, Ultim@te Race Pro offers a dazzling array of 3D-accelerated features. Basics like lens flare, reflective glass, and fogging are augmented by slick weather effects, a very cool headlight feature, and impressive time-of-day changes. Dirt kicks up on the off-road segments while skid marks highlight the tight curves (and the game has many, many tight curves). The game supports 3Dfx, PowerVR, and Direct3D cards and also offers an unaccelerated mode for those gamers who have steadfastly managed to acquire none of these. If you're looking for a good-looking arcade racer, this is clearly one of the very best.
Fortunately, these visuals do not come at the expense of gameplay, because Ultim@te Race Pro is also a lot of fun to play. Multiplayer mode is a particular treat. On the other hand, the game could clearly use a few more tracks and some additional car designs. Also, the game loads and moves between menus very slowly, and I quickly tired of the ever-present "Please Wait" bitmap. Also, the game gets a little flaky with Voodoo2 cards, though that seems to be the fault of the 3Dfx drivers, not the game. Finally, I think it was a mistake to limit the Arena track to multiplayer only. Sure, that's where it's most fun, but why not include a "skirmish" mode for players who like to hone their skills against the AI before going online?
Still, these are minor gripes. Ultim@te Race Pro is a solid addition to the arcade racing genre. PC drivers with 3D cards and a penchant for multiplayer action should definitely give this one a test-drive.