Had enough cel shading yet? It certainly seems like the graphical trend, which got its start elsewhere but was popularized by Sega's 2000 release Jet Grind Radio, has shown its cartoony face in just about every genre at this point. While there have been some fairly gimmicky implementations of cel shading over the past couple of years, Capcom's Auto Modellista brings the look to the driving genre without making it feel hackneyed or overused in any way. Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn't quite live up to its impressive visuals.
Auto Modellista is a fairly deceptive game. While it may have a crazy cartoon look, it also features licensed cars and aftermarket auto products from lots of different manufacturers. You'll find cars from Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and more, including a few Japanese concept cars. The game also gives you a fair amount of control over your car's tuning. While you won't find a Gran Turismo-like level of depth here, you can still adjust your car's suspension, tires, brakes, and weight. You'll also earn engine, computer, turbo, and muffler upgrades as you progress through the game's main mode.
The main mode in Auto Modellista is called garage life. Here you'll be able to choose one of the cars you've unlocked thus far--and the game gives you plenty to start with--and enter it in the game's various races. The garage life mode features seven levels, each of which has a different number of races. You'll need to place first in some or all of these races to proceed to the next level. When you finish first, you'll unlock new items, parts, and cars. New cars and parts have obvious purposes, but you'll also get posters, trophies, and other little items that you can use to decorate your garage. You'll be given the opportunity to save your modified cars in a sub-garage, which lets you try out all the game's different cars without having to retune your vehicle each time you change back. The sub-garage also gives you access to your tuned cars in online races, which is absolutely key to online victory.
Auto Modellista's online mode isn't perfect, but without it, the game would be over in 10 hours or less. The game supports only broadband connections, but it lets you race with up to seven opponents over the Internet. The game has a pretty standard online feature set, letting you set up an account, chat in various game lobbies using an onscreen or USB keyboard, and search for games. However, it seems like every single menu and object in the online portion of the game could have used one or more tweaks. The most obvious problem is the game's poor choice of words for various menu text, which seems more like the result of shoddy translation than anything else. Phrases like "Start the race," which pops up whenever the host launches an online game, aren't exactly the easiest to decipher when you're first getting started. Also, the game reminds you every time you try to park a car in your sub-garage that parked cars are unusable in certain modes--leading you to think that you should never actually save your cars to the sub-garage if you want to use them outside of garage life mode. Yet when playing online, you can only use unmodified cars, or cars that have been saved to your sub-garage. The game's menus are often this unclear, and a week or two with a proofreader would have made the game significantly easier to navigate, both offline and on. The game keeps track of your race results and a handful of records, but don't expect even a cursory look at where you rank among other players--only the best of the best are tracked here. Once you're in a game, things seem to work just fine, but you should expect to see some of the opposing cars jerk around the track very weirdly if someone's connection is less than perfect.
Beyond online and garage life, you can also run two-player races on a split screen, participate in time trials against ghost cars, run one-off races in arcade mode, and view replays. In a somewhat strange touch, replays can be edited with a handful of audio-visual effects that can be toggled on the fly using an interface that may unpleasantly remind you of Sega's Make Your Own Music Video games for the Sega CD. The audio-sample editing interface features an option that will bring a smile to the face of any would-be Bruce Dickinson, giving players the option to lay as much cowbell as they can handle over saved replays.
Much like Auto Modellista's deceptive feature set and tweakability, its gameplay isn't what you'd expect from such a potentially lighthearted game. The game strives for a slightly more realistic feel, going so far as to actually instruct you on real-life racing concepts, like oversteer and understeer, the proper way to take corners, and the way various engine placements affect a car's handling and performance. At the same time, the game has a fairly large drift component that asks you to whip around corners without losing much speed. While learning how to slip and slide around turns is the best way to excel against the game's best online competitors, the game's AI plays it so safely that you can win by simply building a fast car and barreling into turns at full speed. Slamming into the outside wall of a turn at the right angle lets you bounce off in the right direction without losing too much speed, making it easy to bump your way into first place, since the game doesn't let you actually damage your vehicles. It's possible to win on the game's dirt-track oval by merely posting up near the outside edge of the track, mashing the gas, and occasionally looking at the screen to make sure you're still pointing in the proper direction. Even the game's technical, turn-filled downhill tracks are a breeze due to the way the game handles collisions with the walls. Some slightly more punishing collision physics probably would have provided more of an incentive to become proficient in the game's drift techniques.
When it comes to providing a real sense of speed at the track level, Auto Modellista is unmatched. Along with its highly stylized yet still realistic car models come a series of anime-style animation techniques, such as dramatic speed lines that appear around the edges of your screen when you really start moving. This effect is perfect for making 200 miles per hour feel as dramatically fast as 200 miles per hour feels in a real car, and the way the lines compress and vanish when you slow down makes braking equally dramatic. You'll see white flashes pop off your tires when you begin to skid, which is very handy for figuring out exactly how your car is skidding and how much countersteering you need to provide to regain control. All these effects combine to make the anime style of the game more of a gameplay element than a simple gimmick, but even from a purely visual standpoint, Auto Modellista looks really fantastic.
Capcom's fighting games have been suffering from a lack of announcing talent lately, and some of them have contained music that has no business being in a fighting game. Now those problems have spread to the company's driving games. Auto Modellista's announcer makes use of the same style of announcing used in games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom vs. SNK 2--that is to say, a high-pitched male voice occasionally says "Keep rockin' baby" and "Why are you so bad?" All this is set to a collection of jazzy lounge music that fails to properly set the tone. There are some faster, more race-worthy songs on the soundtrack, but they're definitely in the minority. The engine noise, tire squeals, and other car sounds are done about as well as you could hope, though a little more variety would have been nice.
All told, Auto Modellista has a fantastic look, but its gameplay unsuccessfully tries to straddle the line between simulation-style tuning options and arcade-style handling and collision physics. The two gameplay styles don't really mix very well, and the shoddy shell surrounding the online play really gets in the way. Car fans looking for something different will find something to like here, but don't expect it to stand up to the strongest driving games on the PlayStation 2.