Gallop Racer Preview

We take a close look at Tecmo's horse racer.

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Fans of horse racing sims will rejoice this August when Tecmo releases Gallop Racer 2001 for the PlayStation 2, the latest entry in the Gallop Racer series. Released in Japan earlier this year, this is the fifth installment in the series, but only the second released in the US. The first domestic Gallop Racer title was released for the PlayStation in '99 and, although it wasn't a monster hit in the States, the game's moderate success and cult following encouraged Tecmo to bring over the latest installment.

Gallop Racer 2001 features several graphical improvements on its 32-bit predecessor and offers clean, fairly detailed graphics. The models for the horses push roughly 40,000 polygons and look very good, but not quite photo-realistic. The jockeys are a bit less impressive, but they get the job done. The animation for the riders and horses was a bit stiff in the preview build we played, but it didn't mar the racing experience. The jockeys--and eventually the horses--can actually have their appearances customized thanks to an editor that allows you to choose from a selection of styles and colors. The various tracks and their environments are solid enough, although somewhat plain. Trackside detail consists of a static crowd in the stands and some tress lining the track. A random weather feature offers some graphical variety with the inclusion of rain and snow. Fortunately, the conservative graphics allow for a smooth playing experience even when the onscreen action is crowded with horses and jockeys.

While its graphics may not be top-tier when compared with those of other PS2 games, Gallop Racer 2001 offers polished gameplay that has been refined over the course of the series. Gamers who played Gallop Racer on the PlayStation will be familiar with the game's selection of options and general layout. Season mode, practice mode, and versus mode are the basic choices. Season mode is the meat of the game, and it stays faithful to the setup of the previous titles, as players are challenged to rise to the top of the horseracing circuit. You start out with a budget of "points," (essentially money) which you use to acquire a horse and develop it into a champion. Initially, you'll have the option to buy or "order" a horse for your stable, and it's possible to have up to six horses at one time. Buying a horse lets you choose from a selection of ready-made animals, whereas ordering one gives you the option of customizing a beast to your liking. Game time is broken up into "weeks," like in Tecmo's Monster Rancher series, which you can skip through at your leisure. Once you've selected a horse, you can register your prize thoroughbred for a race, retire it, or even breed it. Anyone unclear on how to proceed will be helped along by Cindy, a perky virtual assistant who will cheerfully dispense information on everything from how to register your horse to race to how to perform the magic of horse breeding.

The game's horse breeding feature deserves special mention for its surreal approach toward creating life. The create-a-horse option allows you to select two retired horses, one male and one female, that have been flagged for breeding and couple them. The breeding sequence shows the two animals running side-by-side to the tune of upbeat music. After a quick fly-through by the camera they dissolve into silver sparkles, which merge into a single horse. After a quick flash, the word "birth" appears on the screen, as does a brand-new horse with the traits of its parents. Following the miracle of life, you're able to customize a good deal of the horse's appearance to your liking--just like in real life.

The game's sim aspects offer a good selection of statistics to manage without being overwhelming. When examining a horse, you'll be able to see how effective it races on dirt and turf, the best race length for it to run, and general stats on its handling. The information is essential to matching a horse with a race it has the best chance of winning. Whether or not that actually happens is entirely up to your skill at playing jockey. During a race, you take control of the jockey and must balance the animal's top speed with its mood, handling preferences, and stamina--all of which are tracked onscreen by various indicators. The control is fairly basic: Up and down on the D-pad control speed, while right and left steer. The square and circle buttons allow you to whip the horse for an added boost of speed, the triangle button toggles between three available camera angles, and the triggers allow you to look left and right during a race. While the control is basic, winning races requires careful management of the horse. Anyone hoping for a Rocky-esque comeback from the back of the pack in the last stretch of the race will be sorely disappointed as his or her exhausted horse slows to a crawl before reaching the finish line.

In addition to Gallop Racer 2001's standard modes, the game offers a new gambling mode exclusive to the US version of the game. Those familiar with betting on races will feel right at home in the game's accurate re-creation of the process. Standard win and place bets, as well as exactas and trifectas, are available to those with the urge blow some points. Anyone eager to throw a race is out of luck, as you can only watch the races in this mode. The only real downside to the mode is the inability to use points earned in it in the season mode.

While Gallop Racer 2001 isn't a game that will appeal to everyone, it's shaping up to offer a satisfying horseracing experience for those in the market for such a thing. Those eager to try their hands at it should be ready to move fast when it's released in August--Tecmo is doing a limited pressing of the game, and may only sell it at specialty stores like EB and Babbage's.

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