The most hard-core race car drivers in the world congregate every June in Le Mans France to engage in what is definitely one of the most insane human pursuits around--the race known as 24 Heures du Mans. The race challenges participants to engage in a 24-hour run through the scenic French town. Seeing the excitement intrinsic to the experience, Infogrames has brought a digitized version of it to almost every conceivable console except the N64. While the original PlayStation version didn't make too many waves, last year's Dreamcast version made a sufficient splash--it was received very well universally and even garnered GameSpot's Racing Game of the Year award in 2000. The PlayStation 2 port (and the dropping of the Test Drive moniker) was inevitable, and it's now complete. It features more cars, tracks, and an updated team roster, and its graphical presentation has naturally mutated in the transition. Now, textures are sharper, light sources more prominent, and effects more plentiful all around. Conversely, colors seem a bit more washed out. The core of the game, however, has changed little--Le Mans 24 Hours is just as meaty an experience as its predecessors.
Like its predecessors, Le Mans 24 Hours is composed of five basic play modes: quick race, championship, Le Mans, time trial, and multiplayer. Though most are self-explanatory, they do serve secondary purposes. As you progress through the quick race circuits, for example, you unlock tracks for use in time trials and multiplayer races. The championship mode provides the typical race-circuit experience; in each of the car classes, you're made to race through a series of courses, and you're rewarded with both progression and extras cars for racing well. The Le Mans mode, though, definitely provides the game's defining experience. It's a full-scale simulation of the brutal race that lets you either compress the experience (making it last, in effect, anywhere from 10 minutes to 240 minutes) or sit through it full on (in a legitimate 24-hour race). While it's highly unlikely that very many people would opt for the latter, Infogrames' inclusion of the mode is pretty meaningful, not to mention surreal. Finally, the time trial and multiplayer modes let you take practice runs through the tracks you've unlocked and tool around with a friend, respectively. It bears note that, unlike the Dreamcast version, Le Mans 24 Hours will allow for up to four AI racers to join the fray.
Infogrames has brought a number of updates to this year's revision of the game. First, this PS2 version includes 30 new cars, bringing the total of official vehicles up to 70. Split into street-legal GT and racing-specific prototype classes, these cars range from the familiar (modified Dodge Vipers and Porsche 911s) to the exotic (from firms such as Panoz and Lister). Accompanying the new cars is a pair of new tracks--the Road Atlanta (or petit Le Mans) and the Road Atlanta Grand Prix. As with the others, these can be unlocked in the quick race mode for use in the time trials and multiplayer games, though they can be raced from the get-go in the championship and Le Mans modes.
In regard to game mechanics, Le Mans 24 Hours is the same brilliant game it was before. The game certainly focuses on its sim-driven aspect, making it a bit difficult for beginners to come to grips with it. It's logical, though, that there would be a learning curve--some of the prototype vehicles can often clock in at more than 200 miles per hour. To lessen the brunt of this a bit, the game features a handful of racing aids that can be activated prior to races. At their highest level, they'll enable driving aids and automatic braking, allowing beginners to enjoy the speedy treks with much fewer spills. The expert setting, though, disables both of these, making the races truly a test of mettle. In truth, there are few driving games that feel as smooth as Le Mans. The Dreamcast version's magnificent sensation of speed has returned, easily making this the most brisk PS2 game in a good while. The cars handle wonderfully as well, and they respond especially well to oversteering. When using a manual transmission, the shift in gears is marvelously tangible, thanks to the audio cue, which really adds to the experience.
The graphical presentation is where Infogrames has done the least with the game. Though the textures are rendered at a sharper resolution, the fact that they weren't significantly redrawn makes their blemishes--however small--ever more apparent. And while some in-track elements were remodeled (the walls in the Le Mans course, for instance), none of the vehicles or major environmental elements were altered in any way. Some enhanced effects are evident, though--when you're racing on the dirt, the resulting dust clouds are much more prominent, oftentimes filling the screen. Light sources as well seem to have benefited from the hardware-- they seem fuller and brighter, especially on night tracks, and their hazy properties are much more defined than previously. One nice addition is the polygonal pit crew that Infogrames has added to the tracks. Rather than having your car's systems tweaked by phantoms, a fully modeled crew in appropriate garb now does the job.
Not that a shiny new pit crew warrants your checking this game, if you're not already inclined to do so. While it is a top-notch racing game in every respect, its release a week after Gran Turismo 3's launch makes it victim to either fortuity or poor planning on Infogrames' part. While these games might not appeal to the same exact quotient of the market, they're close enough in composition to effectively neutralize each other. Still, Le Mans 24 is a damn good game, and no Gran Turismo can change that.