Vanishing Point Hands-On

With sharp graphics, 32 licensed cars, a realistic physics engine, 12 driving environments, and an excellent sense of speed, Vanishing Point is looking like a racing game that will appeal to almost anyone.

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Clockwork is developing both the Dreamcast and PlayStation versions of Vanishing Point, and interestingly enough, the two versions are heading in slightly different directions. While the PlayStation version has exaggerated physics that make for some insane crashes, the Dreamcast version more closely resembles a simulation-style racer. Gone are the spiraling crashes of the PlayStation version, and in their place is a more realistic take on the racing genre.

Most will want to begin their Vanishing Point experience in the tournament mode. After choosing one of the two cars available at boot up, it's time to hit the circuit. Circuits consist of several multiple-lap races on one of eight tracks. The overall point leader at the end of the circuit takes the crown. Each race begins with a rolling start, and instead of attempting to outrun other cars to the finish line, it's a race against the clock, and the winner is the driver who nets the top times from checkpoint to checkpoint. Knocking down each circuit unlocks new cars and gameplay options. There are 32 licensed cars in the game, and the chance to tame the power of Audi's and BMW's finest is only a few circuit wins away. If a car is underperforming, a quick jump to the tune-up shop is in order, where 12 separate attributes may be adjusted. In the early circuits, it's easy to place first, and the difficulty steps up in such minimal increments that most players will find it easy to jump right in and start unlocking new features.

In addition to the tournament mode, Vanishing Point also includes a multiplayer mode for up to four players. With three different options, including a "winner stays" mode for when friends are over, this is just the tip of VP's replay iceberg. In the stunt mode, 13 events are waiting to be conquered. Some require you to zigzag through hairpin turns as fast as possible, while others have you catching air and attempting to bust balloons. Like most current-generation Dreamcast games, VP also includes an online component. Acclaim's servers were not connecting with the 75-percent complete burn we received, but an online challenge mode is available that asks the player to perform certain directives. Players may also post scores on the Vanishing Point Web site for ranking.

The visuals in Vanishing Point are very clear and the attention to detail is excruciating. The car models feature high polygon counts and smooth edges, and they mimic their real-life counterparts with pinpoint accuracy. Whether it's a Lotus or a Ford Bronco, Clockwork has taken the time to get each one right. The variety of vehicles is startling, and it goes a long way toward making the game believable. Each of the eight tracks is clogged with common automobiles like minivans, compacts, and SUVs. The tracks themselves are tremendously long, yet textures are rarely repeated and there are plenty of landmarks to jog the memory. Off-track events, like jets flying overhead and trains weaving their way around the track, take place regularly. The Dreamcast and PlayStation versions of Vanishing Point are the only console racers available that have absolutely no draw-in. Even massive buildings far off in the distance can be seen once the line of sight is clear. Real-time lighting is abundant, and small touches like skid marks, window reflections, and sparks kicked up during wrecks help keep the immersion levels high. Like most racing games with licensed cars, though, the vehicles sustain no visible damage, even after end-over-end escapades. It's already apparent that Vanishing Point's game engine is a work of art. Despite dozens of cars packed into the two-mile-long tracks, effects, and incredible AI all firing at once, the frame rates never pause. Consequently, the sense of speed is impeccable.

Although the gameplay of the Dreamcast version of VP is more realistic than that of the PlayStation version, it still walks a fine line between sim and arcade. The cars are much easier to keep on the road in the Dreamcast iteration. The analog stick is extremely sensitive, so jamming it from one side to another is a sure way to end up spinning out. If slight pressure is applied, it's easy to slowly carve around turns, testing the breaking point of the tire treads. The cars react to collisions with the utmost accuracy, thanks to a 501-point physics system, which, as Acclaim is quick to point out, took several physicists a couple of years to develop. Instead of cars constantly going airborne during crashes as they do in the PlayStation version, they tend to react more accurately here, as rollovers and barrel rolls rarely occur. The AI can be surprisingly adept. Domestic cars will try to get out of your way, while the sports cars rev up during an attempted pass.

The sound in Vanishing Point wraps the package up tightly. Each car has its own specific engine sounds, and the moody progressive trance soundtrack has some tunes worthy of a vinyl press. The soundtrack doesn't seem to fit the style of the game very well, but it does establish a contemporary feel.

Vanishing Point is shaping up to be yet another quality Dreamcast racer. The realistic physics and adjustable car attributes complement the arcade control quite well, resulting in a game that will appeal to pundits from both camps. Helping to ease the situation a bit, the learning curve is gradual, and coming to grips with the controls isn't a problem. The graphics are on par with or better than the majority of those of other Dreamcast racing games, and a plethora of playable modes ensures long-lasting replay value. Since the version of the game we received is 75-percent complete, there is still some time for Clockwork to make some last-minute changes before Vanishing Point's mid-December release date arrives. But in truth, this game is already shipshape.

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