Lotus Challenge Preview

Kuju's Lotus Challenge is a legitimate plot-driven racer. Expect a variety of high-speed racing challenges, a prestigious car license, and, hopefully, a script a few notches above those of Speed Racer.

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Things that are prohibitively priced generally provoke our desire. Take, for example, the average Joe's fascination with exorbitantly priced foreign automobiles. What else tempts our fancy more than a supremely powerful roadster, whose cost doubles the mortgage on a duplex and demands the maintenance budget NASA devotes to its space shuttles? Not much, but that only partially explains why racing games have always been one of consoles' most popular genres. Also, the gameplay has been refined to a tried-and-true formula: twitch gameplay, stiff competition, and the occasional thrill of victory at the end of it all. It's natural, then, to see why putting exotic and otherwise untouchable cars on the racetrack is the perfect marriage in the eyes of many developers. Kuju Entertainment's upcoming Lotus Challenge is one such entry into the crowded racing field. While in many respects it's just another racing game, but a dramatic plot linking together the stunts, races, and missions, coupled with Lotus' active participation in the design, gives it a distinctive push to the outside of the me-too fray.

Lotus Challenge features more than 40 licensed Lotus racers, including the famous Esprit and 340R. Also, Kuju will include Formula One models dating back to 1962 and at least five concept cars. There are twenty-five courses in all - fifteen speed tracks and ten stunt courses, specifically. The game features several gameplay modes: arcade, championship, and challenge. The arcade mode is just like what you'd see in any other racing game, while the championship mode lets you race for points that unlock cars and tracks à la Gran Turismo. The challenge mode is where Lotus Challenge's story and gameplay begin to get interesting.

In the challenge mode, you choose to play as either a man or woman (both have a unique set of missions) who enters the world of challenge racing as a wannabe stunt racer. You start with no name, no money, and an underequipped car; however, if you can successfully pass a rigorous assortment of missions without busting your wheels, this can quickly change. Your first, modest goal will be to buy yourself a better car. Accomplishing this, you'll then concern yourself with forming a team of drivers who can race (and make money) for you. Once you've established your cadre of loyal racers, you'll be able to compete for the big paychecks - stunt movie contracts. The stunt movie contracts are the game's payoff since you're assigned some bombastic, death-defying missions that are always captured cinematic-style through the director's lens for you to watch later. Kuju promises that an interesting plot will be developed in cutscenes between missions around each of these three "quests." Also, "surprise" missions, like racing an injured teammate to the hospital or racing a rival in city traffic will spice up the dramatic action.

Kuju and Lotus have maintained an unusually intimate relationship during the development of Lotus Challenge. Not only have Lotus designers given Kuju full access to their entire catalog of automobiles, but they have also divulged each car's true handling and relationship with the road. Thanks to Lotus' help, Kuju intends for the game's physics to respond extremely realistically. Lotus has further assisted in the realism regard by allowing their cars to take and show damage (a rarity with auto makers). Damage will vary from nicks and scrapes that will only affect the texture maps, to fender benders that deform the model and decrease your turning and speed; even total wrecks are possible if you're going too fast and lose control.

Next to control, racing games live and die by the amount of graphical detail they can cram into the background of a car cruising down a long lane of asphalt. Lotus Challenge doesn't exceed expectations, here, but it's not a total disappointment, either. The cars look good, and they are purportedly made up of at least 5,000 polys each. The tracks are detailed too, each comprising several hundred thousand polygons with bitmapped backgrounds. Kuju is using advanced bezier UV mapping to round jagged angles and alpha painting to enhance the textures. Lighting, however, remains drab and unconvincing. Also, despite the developer's efforts, textures still aren't very crisp and appear low-res. Of course, there's time to rectify these minor eyesores before the game ships.

The average Joe may have a fascination with the finer things in life - especially when they're on four wheels. Unfortunately, that won't help Lotus Challenge much when gamers are forced to choose between a dozen look-alike, sound-alike racing games all promising tons of tracks, modes, and cars to choose from. No, for Lotus Challenge to succeed, Kuju will have to hope that their concept of a plot-driven racer will be strong enough for gamers to care about the main character, their driving team, and missions at least as much as they care about unlocking the next car or track. Kuju made good moves by working with Lotus designers on the cars' physics as well as securing the rights to render damage. These unique features, at least, make Lotus Challenge worthy of a look when it comes to the PlayStation 2 this summer.

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