If you carefully examine the retail packaging of Bethesda Softworks' IHRA Drag Racing, you'll probably notice something missing: the name of the game. The only instance that it's actually called IHRA Drag Racing is in the tiny text on the back of the box; everywhere else, it simply reads "IHRA Motorsports." Maybe the absence of the game's title on the box isn't necessarily that big of a deal. But in this case, the omission is emblematic of the entire game, which is too unpolished and incomplete to be suitable for anyone besides the most patient and most serious racing enthusiasts.
Bethesda Softworks promised a lot of enhancements for IHRA Drag Racing, but in the shipping version of the game, far too many of these are completely left out; or they don't work as they're supposed to. And though it's been three years since Bethesda published Burnout, the first drag racing simulation for the PC, the company's latest drag racing simulation suffers from many of the same problems that kept the first game from being entirely successful.
Drag racing might seem like a simple sport, but there's much more to it than meets the eye. As in Burnout, the list of engine and chassis modifications in IHRA Drag Racing can be enough to make your head swim - there are so many variables that it makes tweaking an engine in a complex racing sim like Grand Prix Legends seem like child's play by comparison. With so many things to adjust, you'd expect a manual that's clearly organized - one that gives you some guidance as to which areas are most critical to optimizing performance. Instead, the IHRA Drag Racing manual throws a lot of information at you in a matter-of-fact style that's sure to leave less mechanically inclined players reeling.
If the manual had offered a basic tutorial that explained some of the possible mechanical adjustments, it would have gone a long way toward easing the game's very steep learning curve. But all you get is four pages of generic setup information and a few tips on how to improve your chances of winning bracket races, in which the dragsters leave the start line at different times. What's most surprising of all is that the table of contents page is blank, and since there's no index either, it can be mighty difficult to find a vital piece of information, like where you set your dial-in time.
Fine-tuning your engine, transmission, suspension, chassis, and other components makes up a large part of the challenge in drag racing - you'll probably spend more time in the garage than actually running races. Fortunately, once you figure out the major stuff, it's actually pretty fun to make changes and then head out for a practice run to see how much acceleration you've gained or if your top-end speed improved. However, in the garage, there are a couple of quirks that might leave you confused. The manual claims that you can sort chassis types with filters - so that you can choose to look only at rails, funny cars, classics, and so forth - but it doesn't work. You have to scroll through all chassis types regardless of the type you selected. Since there are more than 50 chassis types to choose from, this can be frustrating. What's even worse is that certain chassis stats, such as total weights and corner weights, don't change when you select a new chassis; instead, you have to select a new chassis and then hit a "reset all" button to see the correct information.
IHRA Drag Racing features 10 of the 11 tracks that make up the 2001 IHRA Summit Drag Racing Series, as well as the cars of 20 IHRA racers from various categories. The box claims you'll race against these IHRA luminaries, but instead you get fictional drivers sitting in the cars of the stars. Otherwise, you'd expect at least a little background info on the 20 real-life drivers whose cars are featured in the game, especially since they aren't household names - but the game just assumes you already know all about them, so it doesn't offer any biographical data.
The game claims to model full weather dynamics at the 10 tracks, but this also doesn't work as you'd expect - namely, setting the weather conditions to "random" doesn't result in random weather. We were shocked when the random-weather option made for a 109-degree scorcher - at night - in Cordova, Illinois, and we were even more surprised when the weather remained unchanged when we moved on to the next event in Darlington. And once a season begins, there's no way to alter the environmental conditions. There's no point in modeling full weather dynamics if you can only change the setting before single events or single races.
The actual racing in IHRA Drag Racing is enjoyable, though the car graphics are merely fair and the flame effects coming from the sides of the cars look terrible. The game doesn't let you do much with the appearance of your car, although you can use a third-party paint program to customize your car's appearance. But since the game doesn't give any guidance on this process, it can take a lot of work just to get your own logo on a car in a way that it can actually be read. Also, since drag racing is all about sheer power, it's only fair to expect good force feedback support from a game like this - especially since force feedback is one of the features touted on the game's Web site. However, force feedback support isn't actually available in the game, and neither is a full-screen VCR mode - you have to watch replays in a tiny box that takes up about an eighth of the screen.
Bethesda did release a patch very soon after IHRA Drag Racing shipped. But the sheer number of issues it fixed or addressed - more than 20 bugs, along with important added features like engine damage - is enough evidence to make you suspect that the game might have been released before it was totally tested so that it would hit shelves before Christmas. One of the biggest changes the patch delivered was built-in GameSpy support for Internet play, but we found no opponents online on Bethesda's IHRA server.
If you devote a lot of time and patience to the game, there's certainly some fun to be had in IHRA Drag Racing. Unfortunately, because of all the game's problems, it seems likely that not many players will stick with it long enough to enjoy it.