Tokyo Xtreme Racer Zero Hands-On

Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Zero for the PlayStation 2 allows you to climb the ranks of a nocturnal Japanese street-racing subculture. Check out our hands-on impressions.

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If you've lived anywhere near an urban area in past decade, chances are you've seen a Honda CRX with $500 rims, a spoiler that looks like a whale's tail, and windows half covered with stickers. While it's easy to chuckle at someone who spends $15,000 on parts to upgrade a $10,000 car, in Japan, this sort of activity has become a subculture unto itself. In Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Zero for the PlayStation 2, these car enthusiasts take their hobby to the Tokyo highways at night and prowl for some action.

When compared with the majority of console driving game franchises, the Tokyo Xtreme Racer series takes a unique approach. In Zero's main mode (the quest mode), there is just one large highway track with more than 100 virtual miles of on-ramps, straightaways, and hairpin turns to race on. Instead of competing in races that have a definitive beginning and end, you must prowl the network of highways surrounding Tokyo looking for competition. Suitable opponents are represented on radar by color-coded arrows. After you track down an opponent, a few flashes of your high beams lets him or her know that you're looking for some action. If the opponent obliges, a short real-time cinema shows the two cars line up and prepare to get it on. Winning a duel in Zero is more than just a matter of outrunning the opposition. Both cars have a meter that gradually dwindles while in second place. The closer you are to the leader, the slower the meter dissipates. The loser of each duel is determined by whoever's meter expires first. Waiting until an advantageous stretch of track lies ahead before engaging a rival can often mean the difference between victory and defeat.

You begin the quest mode with enough money to buy a car from the lowest of the three classes and a plentitude of extra parts. The engine, drivetrain, body, aerodynamics, muffler, and appearance can all be altered for a price. Before heading out to race, the handling, acceleration, brakes, and ride height can all be adjusted in the garage. As you win duels, you accumulate credits that can be spent on some of the 200 car upgrades or be used to purchase one of the 60 unlicensed cars. There are a few licensed vehicles included, and the majority of the unlicensed cars bear a striking resemblance to real production automobiles but have different names. There are dozens of spoilers, ground effects kits, stickers, and stripe jobs to add to your machine to give it that personalized touch and some street racing credibility. Choosing your first car should be done with extreme care. New cars don't come cheap, so you'll spend a great deal of time with your initial purchase. After you make easy work of a few drivers on the circuit, boss characters will approach you and challenge you to a race. Winning these races garners a great deal of credits, but if you haven't been upgrading your car regularly, they can be a humbling experience. As you complete duels, you are awarded with a battle ranking nickname based on your driving style and skill.

In addition to the quest mode, Zero includes a host of other gameplay options, in which you're allowed access to 48 of the 60 cars in the game. The quick race mode allows you to cut to the chase and jump straight into duels with a lineup of the game's bosses. The time attack mode requires that you take on four traffic-free sections of the highway system in an attempt at setting stage and lap records. The free run mode allows you to cruise around the track at your leisure and aids in learning new sections of the highway. Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Zero is the first edition of the franchise to include a multiplayer mode. However, the only multiplayer option is to race head-to-head on any of the game's highway sections.

Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Zero predominantly features arcade controls. The brakes are rarely used, and it's not out of the ordinary to get up to speeds of 200mph. There's an accelerator, a brake, a horn, and high beams. That's it. Succeeding in the game is more a matter of track memorization and luck than learning the fine nuances of drifting or drafting. That's not to say that succeeding in Zero doesn't take skill, though. Traffic will suddenly swerve in front of you, rival drivers will run you off the road, and making one wrong turn can end a duel in a draw. Making things even more challenging, one significant brush with a guardrail or vehicle can effectively end a duel. It pays to learn the characteristics of your car, which is a continual process, as most upgrades can be immediately felt in the handling.

Many of the graphical problems in the first generation of PlayStation 2 games are found in Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Zero. There is an almost complete lack of antialiasing, and "jaggies" are present on nearly every curved surface. Slight draw-in is also evident in several stretches of track. Because Zero takes place exclusively at night and there are few visible surroundings, the system of overpasses and off-ramps can become repetitive rather quickly. The frame rates manage to stay steady the majority of the time, but more than four cars are rarely onscreen at once. In the single-player mode, there are several camera angles to choose from, including a first-person mode complete with a rearview mirror, but the multiplayer mode can be played only from the cockpit view. Minus some jagged edges, the cars look great. Their glossy paint jobs accurately reflect the surroundings, and real-time lighting pours down on the cars and road from the streetlights above. While the damage from collisions is not modeled during the races, appearance upgrades are immediately obvious right down to the smallest decal. In all, Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Zero features a nice clean look, but it isn't in the same league as Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec.

Oddly enough, the same torridly commercial techno tracks you heard blaring from that Honda CRX are included in Zero's soundtrack. The sound effects seldom step past the revving of engines and squealing of tires found in most driving games. If either becomes too bothersome, the volume of the sound effects may be turned down in the options menu.

Tokyo Xtreme Racer: Zero is shaping up to be a worthy successor to the two versions that have already appeared on the Dreamcast. The dueling is exciting, the race meters add a unique twist to the competition, and the graphics are more than passable. Zero should have no problems meeting its current release date in early May, as the latest version seems nearly complete. Look for our full review soon.

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