Autmotive combat games have historically relied on action elements to deliver their visceral thrills. Games like GameTek's Quarantine and the soon-to-be-released Carmageddon from Sales Curve have followed the precedent set by first-person shooters - make it fast and make it violent. Interstate '76 presents automotive combat as a Pinto of a different color. Combining a great premise with an excellent physics engine, this may be the most realistically exciting vehicular violence since Steve McQueen blazed through the streets of San Francisco as Frank Bullitt.
The game is set in the American southwest, in an alternate 1976 where the fuel shortage is out of control. Vigilantes cruise the tarmac, trying to protect the last gas stations from destruction by power hungry oil companies. The player assumes the role of Groove Champion - a tow-headed ex-racer with one helluva mustache - who becomes a vigilante to avenge his sister's death. Under the tutelage of Taurus - who drives a big sedan, sports a magnificent polygonal 'fro, and acts exactly like Jim Kelly from Enter the Dragon - Groove must single-handedly thwart Antonio Malochio, the dastardly villain behind the terrorist attacks.
The premise is clever, but mostly it just sets the stage for the cosmetic elements - souped-up muscle cars laden with firepower and a soundtrack thick with slap-bass and wah-peddled guitars. The soundtrack is brilliant - recalling alternately the theme from Starsky and Hutch and the danger music from Charlie's Angels (though Groove looks more like a man who would have Black Sabbath blaring from his ride). In fact, the whole package sounds and looks authentic. The environments and vehicles, even on the lowest detail settings, are strikingly realistic. And the dialogue is, for the most part, great - with the one exception being the protagonist's comments during combat, which sound strangely out of place and get a bit repetitive.
Beneath all of this eye and ear candy lies a finely-tuned automobile simulation. The superb suspension models, and the way your car handles off-road and under the strain of varying damage types, are frightening realistic (especially with the aid of Thrustmaster's Formula T2 or a similar steering wheel-pedal combo). Ramming an enemy car and then jamming into reverse and blasting away while he struggles for control is truly exhilarating, and using the handbrake to spin 180 and take out some chump behind you is enough to make you cry in your tranny fluid.
The game can be played in a straightforward, 17 mission campaign (labeled "The Trip"), or a series of individual scenarios. The missions themselves are great and really diverse: some follow a straightforward, "kill 'em all" directive; some require you to race opponents (usually followed by killing everyone you were racing against); and others simply require you to drive, under heavy opposition, from point A to point B with your vehicle in some semblance of shape. The missions evolve organically, with your goals sometimes changing dramatically in mid-course due to some unforeseen event. The maps are enormous, and you can drive for what seems like miles off the main course and still see buildings and other cars driving on the roads.
The Trip campaign suffers the game's only notable flaws. The first is that you only have access to one car (Groove's Picard Pirannah), with the last mission providing the only exception. There are dozens of vehicles in the game (all of which can be driven in the individual mission or in multiplayer skirmishes), and it would have been great to try different cars in different settings. The second major problem is the wildly fluctuating difficulty levels. Some missions will be easily completed in one try; others will require days upon days of unsuccessful attempts. Not that the challenge is insurmountable, but it seems somewhat misguided for Activision not to have included difficulty levels - or at least some options to make the game easier (there are built-in cheats, but you are not allowed to progress to the next mission if they are activated).
Interstate '76 is an incredible gaming experience and offers countless hours of enjoyment for those who are willing to face up to its challenge. Less hardy gamers will undoubtedly spend a few dozen frustrated hours behind the wheel, but the rewards are well worth the effort.