Australian developer Ratbag opened more than a few eyes in 1999 with its gritty ode to off-pavement automotive competition, Dirt Track Racing. Since then, Ratbag has released a variety of sequels and semisequels without ever significantly modifying Dirt Track's fundamental presentation, a strategy that's unfortunately grown thinner and thinner as the years have rolled by. With its latest mud-flinging automotive exercise, Ratbag combines three distinct racing classes into one game but otherwise proves that complacency is not a good thing. Displaying comparable physics, comparable graphics, and, sadly, many of the same quirks that didn't seem so irritating five years ago, Saturday Night Speedway simply seems like one more kick at a can that's been booted around before. Though newcomers may well find it enjoyable, anyone who's wheeled into the Ratbag paddock before will undoubtedly feel a less-than-ecstatic sense of déjà vu all over again.
For Saturday Night Speedway, Ratbag brings us three of its past subjects--the duct-taped, old-time Pro Stock cars, the comparatively powerful and expensive Late Models, and the high-energy dune buggies known as Midgets (similar to World of Outlaws vehicles but without the massive top-mounted wings). The game offers 13 separate real-life tracks to start with and another half-dozen fantasy courses that become available as you unlock them.
This is a lot of diversity right out of the chute, but Ratbag doesn't stop here. Saturday Night Speedway gives you five flavors of racing joy, including practice, time trial, single races, championship, and the pièce de résistance, the career. One of precious few race-game developers to even offer a career, Ratbag goes the extra distance with such key elements as car repair, car upgrades, sponsorship dealings, and more. Considering its relatively affordable budget pricing, Saturday Night Speedway certainly delivers more variety than one would expect.
The most serious problem--and it's a big one--is that apart from the three car classes, we've seen most everything before. The truth is that if you've played any of its precursors, you're already very familiar with the latest game--warts and all.
Let's look at the menu system, for starters. Though it now looks and operates slightly differently than it did in last year's World of Outlaws, it remains the same convoluted, mouse-clicking, multiple-interface extravaganza it always was. The developer should be commended for going into such detail and offering so many options, but surely there was a more refined way of presenting it. Additionally, Ratbag has confused the issue even more by asking "Are You Sure?" after you've made many of your choices. This is perfectly understandable if you've just made a major decision, such as prematurely quitting a race or a season, but really, we don't need to be asked twice if our repairs are complete.
However, it's not just Saturday Night Speedway's menus that hold it back. No, it's Ratbag's seeming inability to refresh tired approaches and refurbish problem areas of the past. Whether it was insufficient funding or a lack of development time, the game simply does not address issues that needed to be addressed. Collision detection and collision reactions are two prime examples. For too long now, Ratbag games have been erratic in this regard, so you'll actually witness cars bouncing this way and that way when it appears as though they haven't even touched. Conversely, some instances of contact go completely undetected. Indeed, you may notice competitor cars actually transposing their right flanks through your left side, in essence causing body parts to merge rather than bang.
And even when you do collide, chances are you'll come away with virtually no visible damage. We took our Pro Stocker on a search-and-destroy mission over the course of several laps, ensuring that it bashed everything in sight along the way. We then stopped to inspect the vehicle and found nary a scratch. Our performance was affected but only marginally so, and our garage repair bill afterward was shockingly low. Granted, you'll kill your car by driving headfirst into two or three onrushing competitors, but even then it doesn't really look broken. You may see a little smoke here and there, and perhaps there'll be some vaguely bent metal, but there'll be nothing overly dramatic evident.
Furthermore, the integrity of wearable parts does not seem to be appropriately impacted by stress. Tires do not slowly fall apart when you drive them hard, and engines deteriorate only through extremely excessive redlining. In fact, you'll generally need to visit the repair shop only after a particularly rough race that features lots of vehicle-to-vehicle contact. And when you do, remember that you can activate the game's "Repair" command only with a keystroke. Unlike every other button in the Saturday Night Speedway world, the game won't accept input from a mouse click.
Indeed, the more time you spend with the game, the more you realize how little it is has evolved from Dirt Track Racing. The sponsorship element, for example--once a real feather in Ratbag's cap simply because so few other games even offered such a thing--now seems superfluous. Yes, you can secure sponsorship, but it doesn't take a very good driver to find it. Additionally, there really isn't much to the procedure. You merely make sure you don't get trapped into a long deal at low dollars while other sponsors are sniffing around, and that's it. There really is no other work required on your part, aside from securing good results.
Ratbag could also do with an upgraded physics model. To be sure, Saturday Night Speedway features a solid vehicle model that makes turns and dirt track racing, in general, a very fascinating place to be. It adequately portrays the slippin' and slidin' world of dirt and mud competition and makes clear and logical distinctions between each class. That each of the three distinctive classes delivers such a unique ride is testament to the fact that the developer knows its automobiles. Moreover, upgraded items purchased in the parts shop do make a rational difference, as do worn parts and fresh repairs. And each track is cleverly crafted to deliver a distinct experience that requires driving modifications. This is all fine and dandy, but so little has changed from Dirt Track Racing that you could run the two back-to-back and experience little difference. If Ratbag could do it so well back then, it should be that much farther ahead now.
Furthermore, the game is just too easy. If you're at all familiar with racing simulations--as opposed to arcade racers--you'll have little trouble advancing deep into the career mode. We found that we could virtually ignore the game's impressive and very comprehensive garage facility for much of the time, relying instead on upgraded parts and patient, smooth driving. If you can learn to tame your aggressiveness, back off the accelerator earlier than you would on pavement, and relax the death grip on the joystick or wheel, you're more than halfway there.
Game graphics are above average for the driving genre, but again, they're not appreciably advanced from Ratbag's previous racing games. The cars themselves are quite acceptable--from a distance. All the right stuff appears to be in all the right places, including roll bars, appropriate decaling (which smartly adapts to your current sponsor), a touch of light shading and pseudoreflections, and sporadic bursts of unburned fuel. However, things look a bit different up close. Here, you'll see that each car seems primitive when compared to those of other games. Critical items, such as headlights, taillights, and exhausts, are merely drawn onto the car body rather than being rendered as isolated 3D elements. Body panels all but evaporate when viewed from the side, indicating two dimensions rather than three. Mild but noticeable clipping is evident from most perspectives. And overall, the cars look somewhat rough, with sharp, angular edges and corners and coarse details.
Worse still, each vehicle tends to warp when the viewing perspective changes. This is most noticeable from the exterior camera in the game's replay suite, where you might see two cars side-by-side but one appears noticeably shorter or substantially more compact than the other. Inside the cockpit, the game delivers a hardworking, authentically-beaten dashboard, operational gauges, and an active steering wheel--but no driver hands. Moreover, Ratbag has neglected to add a rearview mirror, opting instead for the more cumbersome "look-back" key.
Far more realistically, the game once again features flying hunks of mud. As each race progresses, these little dirt blobs inevitably find their way onto your visor and slowly but surely obscure your vision. But that's what tear-off strips are for. By merely clicking a button, your visor is instantly clean. Remember though, you're limited to just a handful of these strips, so it's best to use them sparingly.
Multiplayer racing is only fair. The game offers two modes--split-screen and network/Internet. The first mode supports two players on a single computer who share a horizontally-divided screen. Human participants do not actually race together until the final heat of the day, where they'll soon notice that the skewed perspectives of the single-player game are amplified on the split-screen. What was a minor irritant becomes that much more so when competing head-to-head.
The other multiplayer mode, network/Internet, offers mixed results. The big problem is finding other racers. If you have a home network and an interested party, you're OK. Furthermore, if you use the server browser from within the game--and are lucky enough to find someone else who's raring to play--you're also good to go. Fortunately, Saturday Night Speedway functions pretty well over the Internet, though it does sport some jumpiness that may cause you to incur a few accidental collisions. However, this jumpiness does not make the game unplayable.
In summation, the game is disappointing in that it clearly isn't all it could or should be given what has preceded it. Though gamers new to Ratbag will undoubtedly have a good time exploring Saturday Night Speedway's many intriguing facets and its convincing, high energy dirt track world, veterans of prior Ratbag efforts will quite probably wonder why so little has been done to modernize, repair, and enhance a game model that's now been kicking around for far too many years.