Arcade racing fans looking for a change of pace may very well be intrigued by VR Sports' new Powerboat Racing. After all, most games in the racing genre plop you behind the wheel of a landlocked car while this game lets you take on a series of complex canal-like racecourses in a sleek, offshore racing watercraft. Unfortunately, the game suffers from so many flaws that it barely stays afloat.
Like any decent arcade racer, Powerboat Racing offers a variety of gameplay modes. Arcade mode is your basic run around the course against human or AI opponents, while championship mode offers a string of arcade runs that form a "season." Shootout is an elimination tournament in which the last place finisher is booted after every race (until only one racer remains), and challenge is a one-on-one, two-lap race. The game also offers practice, time trial, and slalom modes, each of which can help you learn the controls and the tracks - and believe me you'll need this practice time if you hope to do well in the game.
Powerboat Racing can be controlled with the keyboard, joystick, gamepad, or steering wheel. VR Sports recommends the steering wheel, and I would have to agree. Every other control option is pure lunacy. A gamepad, which is any sport and driving game fan's "old standby" controller, is far too sensitive for this game, and you'll be bashing your boat into the walls all too often if you use one. Joysticks are worse, as they are simply ill suited for controlling a boat and are often more sensitive than the gamepads. If you're one of the many gamers not yet fortunate enough to own a nice steering wheel rig, the keyboard is your best bet. But even the keyboard is a royal pain, as the steering is extremely sensitive. Oversteering is common, and that leads to overcorrecting, and so on, and so on.
Worse yet, these controls are not configurable. You can't adjust the sensitivity and you can't modify the functions assigned to any buttons or keys. This was just plain irksome, especially for those gamers (like me) who prefer the "push a button to accelerate" method over the game's default "push forward to accelerate, push left and right to steer" control setup.
As if the controls themselves weren't difficult enough to master, the game also throws a series of extremely challenging courses in your face. Considered in a vacuum, the complex courses in Powerboat Racing would be a plus - we all appreciate a challenging game, after all. In fact, many of the courses have shortcuts, mobile obstacles, and other objects (like larger boats and multiple jumps) that really liven up the action. But if you're not yet an absolute master of the game's heinous controls, the courses will only prove incredibly difficult and frustrating.
On top of this, you'll find that the game's AI is very good - too good, in fact. Unlike MicroProse's Ultim@te Race Pro, which offers a great range of AI skill levels, Powerboat Racing starts off at hard and gets progressively harder. In most cases, the AI boats all leap off the starting line and leave you in the dust. In a normal game, this wouldn't be a problem as you could gradually work your way back to the front of the pack. In Powerboat Racing, however, falling behind early means that you have little chance of seeing those other boats again (until they lap you, that is).
The game's graphics engine is decent, but not nearly as good as it thinks it is. Despite some impressive effects for water transparency and surface reflection, the graphics in Powerboat Racing are decidedly average. The rise and fall of the water is pretty weak when compared with a game like Psygnosis' Shipwreckers, for example. The 3D "weather" seems to be limited to intense fog effects, which in turn seem to be used to hide the less-than-stellar landscapes surrounding each course. Also, the boats throw cheesy splash bitmaps when they turn - a far cry from some of the cooler 3D rain and water effects we've seen in games like Ubisoft's F1 Racing Simulation and others.
The game has a number of other annoying flaws, including the archaic name-entry system that you must go through before each and every race: Names are limited to three characters and are entered using a scrolling, arcade-style alphabet. Hey, this is a $2,000 PC guys - it has a keyboard and it can handle names with four, five, even (gasp!) six characters at times.
Powerboat Racing supports IPX for multiplayer races and allows up to six players to participate. You can also have four players racing on the same PC, using a split-screen mode. This might be fun for those gamers with four daisy-chained gamepads, but only if they have a huge monitor.
But first you have to find three other people willing to suffer through this game's poor controls and uninspiring gameplay. If you really need your water-racing fix, you'd be better off with the hybrid Jet Ski thrills of Jet Moto. Otherwise, stick to one of the upper-tier car-racing games and just imagine it taking place at sea... at least until a better boat racer comes along.