Every year, professional racing fanatics gather in the south of France to partake in a grueling 24-hour series of races. Affectionately known as the Le Mans 24 Hours of Racing, these races induce expert drivers to smash, thrash, and push their million-dollar vehicles to the limit - all in an effort to compete in what amounts to self-induced torture. Infogrames has released a series of games based on the Le Mans event for both the PlayStation and the PC, and now it's the Game Boy Color's turn. Strap yourself in and crank the radio, race fans - it's time for Test Drive Le Mans to hit the road.
Test Drive Le Mans is single-player only, but offers a variety of racing and vehicle options to counteract such a flaw. The game features ten real-world courses, ranging from the cities of Toronto and Detroit to the backwoods locales of Torino and Everest. You can choose from among ten real-world vehicles, such as the Nissan R390 or the BMW V12 VMR. The game even features actual roadside advertising billboards. There are three gameplay modes: Le Mans, arcade, and championship. In Le Mans, you'll partake in an endurance race across the famed Le Mans circuit. Championship mode offers ten courses to race on, and success unlocks extra cars for you to drive. One might expect the arcade mode to simply be a watered-down championship setting, but such is not the case. In arcade mode, you can race any of the game's ten vehicles on any of the game's ten courses - winning not by skill or mastery, but with oil slicks, engine upgrades, invincibility power-ups, and other entertaining amenities. As you can tell, the game has been designed to appeal to simulation and arcade fans alike.
If you've played any Game Boy Color racer, be it V-Rally, Chase HQ, or Top Gear, you're probably used to Pole Position-style gameplay by now. Although Test Drive Le Mans doesn't escape this rut entirely, it offers a number of notable exceptions. For example, while your car's position relative to the center of the screen rarely changes, there are hills and valleys to deliver horizontal aspect. While Le Mans continues the trend of placing roadside obstacles around corners in order to force the use of braking and steering, it's also the first handheld racing game in which you can actually powerslide around turns. Accelerate properly and slam on the breaks at the right time, and you'll find yourself swinging rear-end first around the hairiest of turns. Additionally, the onscreen tire and fuel gauges aren't just for looks. As your tires wear down and fuel becomes scarce, your car's handling will change. There are even mid-race accidents and yellow caution flags to watch out for. If you're a veteran of simplistic handheld racers, Test Drive Le Mans does come with a learning curve. Thankfully, though, it's supported by stellar gameplay.
Visually, what makes Le Mans stand out isn't that it does anything new but that it does everything with the same high level of quality. Each of the game's ten cars looks visibly different in terms of size, body type, and color scheme. When you select a car, you're even treated to a full-screen camera snapshot of the model you've chosen. Every track, be it the hilly Himalayan course or the urban jungle of Detroit, greatly represents the locale it's based on while never looking like a rehash of prior courses. Topping it off, the frame rate is faster than sin, and the animation during crashes and spinouts is more realistic than prior handheld racing attempts. Test Drive Le Mans may not innovate visually, but it does deliver maximum punch.
Speaking of punch, don't turn the volume down. Turn it up, way up. Unlike many handheld racing titles, Test Drive Le Mans actually has catchy in-game background music and jarring sound effects. Tires squeal, metal impacts metal, and a variety of engine noises help improve the situation. You're never going to mistake Le Mans for the real thing, but sonically, you won't complain. For those who dislike background music, the game's tunes can be disabled via an options menu.
What you get with Test Drive Le Mans is the most solid GBC racing title to date. The features are thick, the gameplay is deep, and the level of replay isn't contrived. Visually, some innovation might have been nice, but the game excels at what it does regardless. The lack of a two-player mode is a bit off-putting, but considering everything Le Mans brings to the table, such an omission isn't fatal.