According to the Clockwork Games Web site, Vanishing Point sprang to life as the conversion of an arcade racer that didn't actually exist. The development team wanted to create a "for the home" racing game that retained the level of presentation usually restricted to big-budget arcade rigs. Even the game's title, Vanishing Point, implies a yearning to eliminate the line that separates compromise from extravagance. In a sense, the game succeeds at its goals, provided you don't mind a racer with an identity crisis.
Initially, Vanishing Point feels just like any other arcade-style racer. Of the game's 32 total vehicles and 13 tracks, only two cars and one solitary course are available from the outset. To unlock the rest of the game's vehicles, courses, tune-up options, and game modes, you'll need to achieve first-place finishes in the game's core activity, the tournament mode. In tournament mode, each car is presented with three heats in which to race, with a new secret unlocked after each first-place finish. Each heat is composed of two or three of the game's 12 main courses, with mirrored and reversed tracks cropping up intermittently to break the monotony. Unfortunately, since a poorly handling Ford Explorer and a tail-heavy Ford Mustang Cobra are the only two cars you have to start out with, surmounting the game's slippery handling and devastating crashes in order to achieve the requisite number of first-place finishes is an exercise in perseverance. In an interesting twist, however, success in a race doesn't depend on your ability to overtake opponent vehicles, but on your ability to beat a series of pre-established top times. Indeed, as the game's photo-realistic scenery and true-to-life cityscapes pass by at over 100 miles per hour, commuter traffic is there for one reason and one reason only - to slow you down. They're pretty good at it, too, since they're mostly immune to the same laws of physics that hinder your progress at every turn. If it sounds like a bizarre crossing of 4 Wheel Thunder, Crazy Taxi, and Daytona, that's exactly what Vanishing Point is - in the beginning, at least.
As you overcome the game's hypersensitive controls and achieve a few first-place finishes, the game slowly begins to take on the traits and nuances of high-end arcade racers or elementary driving simulations. The Ford Explorer and Mustang Cobra give way to vehicles better suited to the task at hand, such as the BMW 325i and Toyota Supra, while a series of much needed tune-up options, namely tire pressure, damping, and brake bias, give the game the sense of handling that it initially lacks. In many ways, it's as if the game's designers want you to experience the perils of a cookie-cutter arcade racer before they reward you with a game that ultimately rests somewhere between Sega GT and Test Drive Le Mans in terms of quality. If not for its airy physics, touchy control, and sadistic number of gameplay features that must be unlocked (more than 80), Vanishing Point would be the Dreamcast's finest racing game.
If you have the wherewithal to master the game's control system, the extra options you unlock aren't your only reward. Vanishing Point is the most beautiful home racing game on the market. Other than a horribly placed rear-view camera that periodically obstructs your view, everything else about the game screams perfection. Car models mimic their real-life counterparts with pinpoint accuracy, right down to the reflections in mirrors and the level of spatial distortion created by Plexiglas windshields. With a few handling touch-ups in the tune-up menu, it's truly as if you're actually driving a Ford Ranger, Mercury Sable Wagon, Dodge Viper, or any other of the game's 32 vehicles. The courses are mostly oval in nature, but they're lengthy enough to posses the kind of crafty corners and sweeping curves usually found in rally racing games. To compensate for the simplicity of the track design, Clockwork has given the game a level of environmental detail never before seen in a Dreamcast racing game. Buildings and trees fly by with a kind of fluidity that you can almost touch, while a number of active objects, such as airplanes and monorails, give the game an almost lifelike sense of existence. Better yet, the game does it all at a full 60 frames per second. If Shenmue were a racing game, it would look like Vanishing Point.
Vanishing Point further excels in the category of sound. A mixture of European- and Japanese-influenced electronic music provides the game's soundtrack, but it never becomes kitschy or garish. The faithful sampling of engine effects, skid noises, and impact reverberations for each of the game's 32 vehicles is impressive, while a number of ambient effects, such as airline exhaust and chirping cicadas, furnish the level of grounding necessary to pull off a true-to-life auditory presentation.
In the end, Vanishing Point is an excellent racing game marred by the developer's attempts to overcomplicate things. Is it an arcade game or a simulation? The truth is, it's a little of both, but the successful merger of the two genres isn't achieved until you unlock all of the game's tune-up options. According to Clockwork's own press materials, Vanishing Point's vehicle dynamics and artificial intelligence were fashioned over the course of an extensive two-year R&D period. If only the concept of playability were given the same consideration. On the upside, the game's six head-to-head and multiplayer competitions sidestep the majority of the game's balance problems, while its Internet challenge feature is sure to attract many followers. Flaws aside, Vanishing Point is one of the most original and enjoyable racing games to come along in a long time.