Gallop Racer 2004 Preview

We do some horse whispering with the latest entry in Tecmo's horse racing sim franchise.

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Tecmo's Gallop Racer series has been steadily finding its stride since it debuted in the US in 1999 on the PlayStation. The horse racing sim series has garnered a loyal following in Japan but hasn't quite cracked the US market yet. The game's unique mix of sim and action-oriented gameplay has continued to evolve with each entry in the series as the franchise works to perfect the balance between its different styles of gameplay. We took the latest entry in the series for a spin to see how this year's entry was coming together, and we were suitably impressed by what we saw. Gallop Racer 2004 is shaping up to be another solid evolutionary step in the series, and it builds on the previous entries in the franchise.

You can customize just about everything, including your stable, office, and training facility, in Gallop Racer 2004.
You can customize just about everything, including your stable, office, and training facility, in Gallop Racer 2004.

You'll find two main modes to choose from in the game--season and extra--when you first start. Season is the game's career mode. It lets you work your way up from a shack-owning nobody with a horse to a player in the big leagues with a sweet estate and a stable of horses. You'll start your virtual life by picking a jockey and fancy threads and then jumping in feetfirst. When you begin the game you're just a lackey for The Man, and you will be a slave to a racing schedule until you build up enough acclaim to head out and be master of yourself. This time out your experience is almost totally customizable. You'll be able to take your winnings and buy different items and training equipment to customize your home, stable, office, and training facility. You can even do your own landscaping in the new game. The biggest addition, and the best one for many, is the betting system built into season mode. The only catch is that you're not able to bet on races you participate in as a jockey. Another significant change comes in the form of the breeding mechanic, which now lets you defy nature and create a full-grown horse from two adults as opposed to getting a foal you have to raise.

The extra mode is a collection of three different submodes: free mode, TRA Academy, and battle mode. Free mode is a basic practice mode, where you can hone your racing skills for the real deal in career mode. The TRA Academy, short for Thoroughbred Racing Association Academy, is a tutorial you can access to get up to speed on the ins and outs of racing. Unlike in the previous game, you're no longer forced to go through the tutorial when you start a game. You can simply hit the TRA at your leisure if you need a hand. Finally, battle mode lets you take on friends in one of two competitions: series or party battle. Series is a two-player elimination-style tournament where you and a friend lock horses in mortal combat. Party mode has four players compete in a tournament-style competition.

The races have evolved to a more complicated mechanic and now require you to keep an eye on several different elements during competition. The most important factor to take into account when racing is your horse's personality traits, which will determine the best position for you to have your horse in during the race. The different male and female horses will now have unique quirks that you'll have to figure out in order to get the best performance out of them in a race. One such quirk is the position they prefer to be in during the course of a race. Some horses will want to be at the head; others will want to trail. While this doesn't mean your finish is predetermined, it will have an effect on how you end the race, since catering to your horse's whims will fill its happiness meter, which will directly affect your horse's effort in the final lap. Another key factor in your racing experience is the Lucky Slot, a slot machine-style display in the lower left-hand side of the screen. As you go through a race, you'll cause the slot machine to stop on various icons, and if you manage to get three 7s in a row, you'll earn a special boost that will seriously enhance your performance.

Horsies! Everybody loves horsies.
Horsies! Everybody loves horsies.

The graphics in the game are looking sharp and offer a good mix of technological upgrades and artistic flair. On the technical side, the game engine has been refined and pumps out detailed, varied environments that feature assorted weather effects. The horse animations have been beefed up some to give them a more realistic appearance. The game runs at a smooth clip, which is good since there's nothing really taxing the PlayStation 2 here. The realistic setting actually calls for a more subtle approach than most games, and Gallop Racer 2004 manages it well. At the same time the game does a surprisingly good job of blending the realistic graphics with the more anime-inspired style used for the characters and horses in the career mode. Besides, any game that can work in surly anime horses is certainly doing something right.

The audio in Gallop Racer 2004 is an understated collection of ambient sound and easygoing tunes of varying tempos. The music has the catchy gameshow-like quality prevalent in many Japanese sims and certainly fits the game well. There's a good bit of variety to the tracks to ensure that all your special moments in the game have their own unique tune. The audio is equally low-key, leaning heavily toward ambient sound and effects that help drop you into the racing experience. You'll hear plenty of track noise and more hooves pounding than you can shake a stick at during a race.

From what we've played so far, Gallop Racer 2004 is a solid entry in the series, arguably its most accessible yet, and it should appeal to longtime fans or to the horse curious. Its refined gameplay, improved graphics, and meaty content should give you plenty to sink your teeth into. Anyone looking for an engaging console game with some twists should keep an eye out for Gallop Racer 2004 when it ships later this year.

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