Snowmobile racing hasn't exactly taken the video game world by storm, but a few quality releases, such as EA's Sled Storm and Vatical's Polaris Snocross, have given PlayStation and Nintendo 64 owners something to sink their mittens into. Thanks to a quick port from the PlayStation, the Dreamcast now has its own snowmobile racer, Crave's Sno-Cross Championship Racing. Unfortunately, being first doesn't always translate into being the best, which Sno-Cross ultimately proves.
From boot-up, everything about Sno-Cross Championship Racing seems OK. There are single-race, championship, and time-trial modes. If you're up for some two-player action, the single-race selection will meet your needs, while the championship mode serves as the game's main attraction. Offering three tiers of racing - 500cc, 600cc, and 700cc - the championship mode is where you'll battle to unlock all of the game's 12 Yamaha sleds and ten realistic courses. Should ten tracks prove inadequate, Sno-Cross also offers an easy-to-use, albeit limited, track editor. From a selection of 40 tiles, you can create any number of custom courses, which you can then try out alone or with a friend, but in a freakish twist that can only be chalked up to rushed programming, CPU opponents can't race on custom-made courses.
As far as gameplay is concerned, playing Sno-Cross is a lot like playing Sega Rally on ice, which is to say it's fun and slippery. A snowmobile is fully capable of reaching a speed of 120mph, but in snowy environments, turning is less of a planned endeavor than it is a nail-biting series of powerslides. As such, the sensation of bobbing up and down and weaving about on a careening sled is certainly more exciting than what you'd find in your average racing game. Jumps and hills make things even more exhilarating, as catching air and performing tricks while hurtling through the air is nothing short of liberating. The sleds in the Dreamcast version of Sno-Cross Championship are much easier to control than those in the PlayStation version when you're going around turns and over small hills. Sno-Cross has the same excellent physics model, which means you'll have to work hard to compensate for slippery ice patches, slushy puddles, and rocks. From a pure racing standpoint, Sno-Cross Championship Racing takes no prisoners.
Unfortunately, if you want to unlock all of the game's tracks, options, and sleds, you need to play through all three levels of the championship mode, an undesirable task for one major reason: poor CPU AI. Supposedly you'll be racing against three other hardened opponents en route to championships in the 500cc, 600cc, and 700cc categories. In reality, though, CPU opponents are sickeningly benign, seemingly lobotomized in their inability to put up anything resembling a competitive experience. Once you witness your computer-controlled opponents driving into rails, spinning in circles, or constantly falling from their snowmobiles, you'll quickly come to realize that your real opponents in Sno-Cross are the courses themselves and the game's unforgiving damage model. Thankfully Sno-Cross' damage model is great. When you crash into walls, plow into rocks, or spill into trees, your skis, suspension, and engine will suffer, which can then cause you to veer all over the place or lose acceleration. Between races you'll have the opportunity to use your winnings and trick bonuses to repair the damaged parts of your snowmobile or even purchase upgrades, such as new skis and engines.
Although poorly coded artificial intelligence is a notable shortcoming, Sno-Cross' ultimate failing lies in the visual realm. Somehow Crave and UDS managed to bring the same pulse-pounding music and bone-crunching sound effects from the PlayStation version of Sno-Cross to the Dreamcast, but they weren't so successful with the game's graphics. The Dreamcast release has a much smoother look overall, but the game's textures are definitely blockier and more pixelated than those found in other Dreamcast racing games. On the plus side, dusk, night, and daytime lighting effects have been greatly improved, and weather effects, such as blowing rain and snow, look gorgeous. On the negative side, though, the game now slows down at the drop of a hat. If you use headlights at night, choppiness ensues. If it rains or snows, choppiness ensues. You don't even want to know what happens when you're racing at night in the rain with headlights on. A random 15fps is just not pretty. The game also exhibits quite a bit of texture seaming and polygon dropout, which is most glaring when you're approaching buildings or hitting the big air. To be fair, Sno-Cross Championship Racing isn't an ugly game, but it looks nowhere near as nice as Rippin' Riders or Sega Rally, both of which are more than a year old.
After playing the likes of Test Drive Le Mans, Sega GT, and Wacky Races, racing fans know exactly what to expect from the Dreamcast's hardware. Although Sno-Cross Championship Racing was a valiant effort on the PlayStation, on the Dreamcast it falls far short of standards and expectations. Why only three CPU opponents? Why only support for two human players? Why can't the CPU race on custom tracks? The Dreamcast could have done better.