Endurance racing is easily one of the sickest human activities available. Le Mans - the lord of endurance races - challenges its competitors to endure 24 hours of encasement within powerful, destructive machines, while guiding their lithe hulls through the streets of an otherwise tranquil French town. The subject of Test Drive Le Mans, Infogrames and Eutechnyx's latest racing game, is perhaps too much for the digital realm to contain. But it's not due to a lack of effort.
Hands down, Test Drive Le Mans' most extraordinary aspect is the option that lets you play an actual chronologically correct simulation of Le Mans - meaning 24 hours of racing on your PlayStation, for better or worse, with all the physical, technical, and social ramifications. Though other, more accessible options are available for the races - anywhere from 12 minutes to two hours' worth of racing can be had - Le Mans main attractionis its rather daunting primary application.
Regardless of the length of the race you're down for, Le Mans will deliver a solid, functional, if aesthetically bare experience. The game provides the mandatory list of licenses - not only the Le Mans license, but also those of the circuit's teams and their custom cars (which number 24 and 50, respectively). The actual vehicles are divided into three classes: GT1, GT2, and prototype. Unlike in other tournaments, all vehicle classes race simultaneously in Le Mans. Thus, the type of car you end up driving depends wholly on the selection that the team you allied yourself with has available.
The cars handle well, and there is a definite distinction between the classes, makes, and models. While those preferring a hard-core simulation might find something lacking in the game's physics model - some of the cars actually clock in at over 200mph and should thusly be that much more difficult to harness - the game is generally geared toward those seeking something a bit more demanding than the usual Test Drive-fare. So while an arcade mode is available, the game's focus definitely isn't on its no-frills take on the sport. Generally, with the difficulty setting on professional, you can expect Test Drive Le Mans' learning curve to be as steep as that of a typical borderline driving-sim. Even then, all manner of assists can be set during the race configuration, including transmission adjustment, traction control, and brake assists. Setting the transmission to auto and enabling both handling assists should ensure that any race will be a relatively simple thing to deal with. Given Le Mans' nature, wear and tear is something to be expected in the competing cars. Sure enough, during the span of a 24-hour race, various pit stops will be made. Test Drive Le Mans re-creates this aspect of the race by causing certain systems within the vehicles to gradually degenerate. Oil and fuel levels fluctuate realistically, and, in the professional mode, not taking care of your tires (read: racing on gravel) will cause damage - all worthy pit stop reasons, to be sure. Occurring in real time, the pit stops let you quickly tinker with your car's settings, as well as refuel it and allow it to cool. Time squandered at the pits will result in fork-tongued comments from the race's announcer, whose voice gets less utilitarian and more empty as the hours whiz by. Not to bash the sound - it's definitely functional, if mundane. It's just that the announcer's voice begins to spew snide nonsense after the first ten seconds of the race.
The races themselves, as you'd imagine, are a mixed bag, with everything depending on the time-of-day setting selected. Whichever way you take it, you can expect to witness tangible environmental changes, from time of day/amount of relative light, to actual weather conditions. Though my main complaint about this is that the levels of darkness were way too severe, especially during those inky dusks, the way in which light levels change depending on your angle relative to the sun or moon is quite impressive. The game is no big deal graphically (the cars and environments seem rather rough-edged, especially when compared with the visual polish present in blue-ribbon racers), but this very neat trick earns it some visual points.
Aside from the single-race and championship modes, Test Drive Le Mans features an arcade and a two-player mode. Filled with the standard features, they both take an easy second seat to the potentially fatal 24-hour possibility found in the more immersive modes.
And what a possibility for immersion! While I agree that the game's main draw is definitely its crass challenge to endure the 24-hour spin, I have to admit that there's a totally decent racer dwelling in the disc's confines, as playable as the best of them. Racing aficionados should definitely check this out, if only to win bet money from their friends who don't think the driver will be able to go a whole day without a toilet break.