Though the words "Death Track Racing" are written on the box, this futuristic racing game is actually the sequel to last year's Rollcage. In fact, about the only places you see the game referred to as "Death Track Racing" instead of the game's European title, "Rollcage Stage II," are on the box and in the manual. It's unclear why Take 2 Interactive opted for a name change - perhaps it's got something to do with Midway's releasing the PlayStation version with the original title. But after a few hours of play, you might suspect the new moniker is a direct result of the game's lack of enough significant new features to warrant calling it a sequel.
The developers have tried to flesh out the manic action and eye-popping graphics of the original Rollcage with a vague paragraph-long story about renegade racers who've gained fame thanks to the violence of their sport (though no one actually dies or even gets hurt during races). But no attempt has been made to explain the premise behind Death Track Racing, and it's just as well - you don't really need a reason to drive fast, shoot other cars, blow up buildings, and gaze at the impressive scenery surrounding most of the 60-plus tracks in the game.
One of the features that makes the original Rollcage so much fun is the variety of weapons and special items littered about each circuit, which you can use during races. This is also a critical component of Death Track Racing. While you can pick up more conventional items like rockets and chainguns, it's the weird items that make things really interesting. For example, the time warp slows down cars ahead of you (the further ahead, the more they slow down); leader missiles streak along the track to knock the front runner off course; the tazer ram flips any car you touch; and the wormhole creates a warp effect that propels you ahead of the car in front of you. Mastering the use of driller rockets, which bore through several targets, can move you from last to first place thanks to the points you rack up for destroying buildings, and the radius bomb blows any nearby competitors into the air. It's too bad most of these are in the original Rollcage, but they're still lots of fun to use.
What really sets Death Track Racing apart from other arcade-racing games is your car's ability to ride on any surface with little regard for gravity. Head into a tunnel, and you can blaze along just as fast on the walls and ceiling as you can on the road. Getting used to driving upside down takes practice, but it's a skill you'll have to master if you hope to unlock all the cars and race modes in the game. Vital power-ups and speed-up pads are often located in hard-to-reach places, and you can bet your joystick the computer-controlled opponents will take advantage of them if you don't.
Death Track Racing features several game types, including training and time-attack modes - but at the heart of the game are the three campaigns. These multistage series can be played in two modes. In the classic campaign, you earn league points based solely on where you finish in each race, like in Rollcage. However, in the total-racing campaign, you can come in second or third place but still win the race by blowing up as much stuff as you can. Given how difficult it is to control the cars and how often you'll find yourself getting beaten to the finish line, it's nice to be able to salvage some points by destroying everything in sight. The other game types include demolition, where you earn points for shooting or ramming objects; arcade mode, which offers single races on the track of your choice; scramble, where you race to the finish line and stop in the checkered area; survivor, in which the last-place car doesn't advance to the next race; and all-tracks mode, where you keep a cumulative time over a series of tracks.
The box describes a mode called "quirky Rubble Soccer," but it's initially locked. Actually, many of the game types - demolition, survivor, and all-tracks - are unavailable until you perform well enough in standard modes like the campaign and the arcade races. This design is unfortunate - you'd probably expect that more options would be available up front. Besides, why should the box describe a new game mode if you're going to have to jump through hoops (or rather, drive upside down) just to get to it? You might also be disappointed that a lot of the cars are initially unavailable, but because some of the higher-end vehicles drive so fast, it's probably for the best that you need to prove yourself before you can drive them. Besides, you're not really missing out on much anyway: All the cars in Death Track Racing look like little more than cigar boxes with wheels and jet engines.
Many players couldn't get used to the controls in Rollcage, and unfortunately these controls haven't changed in the sequel. The controls are nearly impossible to get used to using a joystick like the Sidewinder 3D Pro, and things aren't a lot better with a steering wheel. Your best bet is probably a gamepad, and with a little effort you'll find yourself doing pretty well in the outdoor venues. But once you're inside a tunnel or cavern, expect to be bounced around so much that you'll often just wind up driving in a loop in the same spot over and over. It's pretty frustrating, and it only gets worse the deeper you get into the game.
Of course, this would be a moot point if you were squaring off against other human opponents, but once again Death Track Racing offers very little improvement over its predecessor's lacking multiplayer options. There's a split-screen mode that lets up to four players race against each other on the same computer, though split-screen racing is usually more suitable for console games played on televisions. Death Track Racing does support LAN play (TCP/IP and IPX) as well as serial cable connections and play over the Internet via direct TCP/IP connections. However, the game has no built-in player-matching service, nor does it support any of the established online play services.
Death Track Racing doesn't have a lot of exciting new features, and the lack of substantial multiplayer support is disappointing. But the game is nearly as much fun as its predecessor. At around $19.99, Death Track Racing costs about the same as an expansion pack, and since that's basically what you're getting, it's actually a pretty fair deal.