D1 Grand Prix Hands-On

We get the drift in our hands-on preview of Yuke's first-ever racing game for the PlayStation 2

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If you've ever spun your car out on a patch of black ice or slippery pavement, you know, at least a little bit, what it's like to be a professional drift racer. Of course, the big difference here is that, while you were likely gripping the steering wheel with both hands as your heart went racing and you breathlessly tried to get your car back under control, a drift racer is cool as a cucumber as he effortlessly slings his car into every corner. Capturing that brand of incredible car control is the aim of the upcoming PlayStation 2 drift-racing game, D1 Drift Racing. We got our hands on a playable version of the game to see how long it took before we got the drift.

Racing for speed is so 1998. In D1 Grand Prix, drifting is king.
Racing for speed is so 1998. In D1 Grand Prix, drifting is king.

D1 Grand Prix first saw release last year in Japan, where the drift-racing scene is much more on the cultural radar than it is here in the States. In fact, the game is based on one of the biggest brand names in professional drift racing--the D1 Grand Prix series. As the series has progressed and gained in popularity, it's grown beyond its Japanese beginnings; there's even a handful of American drivers who compete in the series these days. All of the drivers and cars that appear in the real series can be found here in the game, as well as actual race circuits such as Japan's Fuji, Sugo, and Tsukuba, as well as Irwindale Speedway, which is located in California.

The game is being developed by Yuke's, a development studio known primarily for its racing games. However, company founder Yukinori Taniguchi is a big drift-racing fan; Yuke's even sponsors a car in the D1 series, and thus the creation of the game. And while D1 does feature cars competing against one another and traveling at tremendous speeds, that's about all it has in common with more traditional racers such as Gran Turismo. You see, in drift racing, it isn't always about who crosses the finish line first; instead, it's about who can cross the line with more style. How you drive is more important than how quickly you drive in most D1 races, though speed does play a part.

That's where D1's tricky driving model comes into play. The cars in the game are built to drift sideways into turns; in fact, when driving in a straight line, you can feel the cars wanting to slide one way or the other. As soon as you do commit to a turn, however, the car will slide into the turn effortlessly. How well you control the car in that midturn slide, however, determines just how good a drift racer you are. The game's controls are tricky at first, as you basically need to throw most of what you know as a video game racer away. Forget braking early and exiting fast--when you approach a corner in D1, you throw yourself into the turn using the left analog stick or directional pad for steering, jam on the handbrake with the L1 button, and hit the gas immediately to extend the drift. If you're really good, you can mix in the clutch kick with the R1 button to up your revs and really get those tires smoking. How you mix and match those controls and navigate your car around increasingly complex courses will determine how well you do in a D1 drift race.

Two-car drifting battles are at the heart of the game's D1 Series mode.
Two-car drifting battles are at the heart of the game's D1 Series mode.

When driving in the game, you've got two meters to keep track of--your standard speedometer and a drift meter in the lower left-hand corner that will give you an idea of how stylish your drifting is. If you pull off a particularly amazing slide, the meter will be surrounded in flames--if you manage to go off track, bump into a wall, or generally screw the pooch on the track, your drift meter will cool down, even to the point of being encased in ice. Better step up your game, junior, or you're sure to go down.

Because the drift scene is still fledgling here in the States, the U.S. version of D1 Grand Prix will have a handy tutorial that will teach you some of the ins and outs of drift racing. This training mode wasn't found in the Japanese version of the game and should be a good tool for not only explaining the basics of drift racing but also getting the game's rather complex controls under your fingers. When trying some of the tutorial challenges, a colored racing line dictates when you should press the gas or brake, and even when you should activate the handbrake or clutch controls. Conceivably with enough practice in this mode, you'll be able to enter almost any corner in the game with all four tires smoking.

D1 Grand Prix's game modes include quickplay and D1 series. In quickplay, you can choose to race in several different race types, including time attack; battle, for one-on-one races; survival, where you race until you lose; and an unlockable "x-treme" mode, which holds a number of different drifting minigames to play through. Our favorite of the minigames was the super valet challenges, which required you to park your car in between two closely situated vehicles by drifting at incredible speeds into the parking spot. It looks at once amazingly cool and crazily impossible. The D1 Series mode is akin to a career mode and lets you race through an entire season of real D1 events and venues, competing against real D1 drivers in bracketed tournaments to determine who is the best at getting sideways. During one-on-one battles, you're judged on not only how stylishly you drift but also how close you can get to your opponent without running into their car. The best drift races are those where both cars are riding more or less side by side for the entire length of a race, with both drivers jockeying for position at each successive corner.

We're not sure what they're doing there either. But we like the cowboy hats.
We're not sure what they're doing there either. But we like the cowboy hats.

With three different difficulty levels, multiple tuning options for creating your ultimate drift-ready whip, and a driving model that plays like practically nothing racing fans have encountered before, D1 Grand Prix certainly sets itself apart from a crowded field of PS2 racing games. While overcoming a relatively steep learning curve will be D1's major challenge, there's no denying that, in the right hands, this drift-racing game can be stylish indeed. D1 Grand Prix is scheduled for release in mid-July, and we'll have a full review of the game once it is released.

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