Of all the dozens of racing titles available for the PSone, the ones created
by Codemasters are the ones I go back to more than any others. From the great multiplayer fun of Micro Machines to the sheer thrill and high challenge of Colin Mc Rae Rally, they've simply created the best out and out racing experiences for the system. Originally known in Europe as WTC (World Tour Championship), Jarrett & Labonte Stock Car Racing continues the trend of high quality and fun racing simulations. Don't let the name fool you folks, this isn't about racing 200 MPH on a banked, baking hot oval track. J&L is very similar to the TOCA (Touring Car Championship) games also by Codemasters, which feature sedan and touring car racing on a number of tough tracks like Silverstone, Laguna Seca and Suzuka.
J&L has at least 40 real licensed cars and 23 actual courses, and unlike Gran Turismo's paltry 6 cars on a track, here you get up to 14, all with realistic AI and a superb car damage model. Actually, comparing this game to the GT games is a bit like comparing apples and oranges- GT is a driving simulator with a beauty pack treatment for it's cars, while J&L is pure racing action all the way. The game has a pretty demanding learning curve (no pun intended), even more so than GT. There are no license tests or car washes here- the developers seem to have created this game strictly for veterans of racing games, and some people will no doubt be put off by the difficulty. But, one thing is definite: stick with this game, learn the cars and the courses, and you will definitely become better at racing games.
Road racing isn't so much about speed as it is about driving skills, and in J&L, having the fastest ride doesn't mean you'll finish in first place (if at all). While the car setup screens may not seem as complicated or thorough as other racers, you'll find yourself constantly tweaking settings and testing your machine against the track in many different conditions. The control in J&L is definitely up to the challenge with its multiple settings, and if you haven't experienced the challenge of driving with a wheel or both sticks on the Dual Shock, this is the game for you.
The game has four modes of play: Championship, Free Race, Time Trial, and Quick Race. My suggestion is to jump into the Free Race mode, to get accustomed to racing with the other cars. You'll find yourself finishing out of the money for a bit, as you either spin out or total your car-concentration and precision are key. But don't worry, the computer drivers screw up once in a while as well, and it's quite a thrill to see 3 or 4 cars get tangled on a turn as you safely weave through them. In Championship mode, you can choose to be either Jason Jarrett or Justin Labonte, and here the game follows slightly the Season mode in Ridge Racer 4; you join a team, test out cars, and race for the WTC title. This is one of the only drawbacks to the game- I don't really identify with Messrs. Jarrett or Labonte, but I guess it's like a RPG where you can't change the name of the hero. Anyway, the best way to enjoy Championship mode is to again, learn the courses in Free Race mode so that you'll be prepared for the rough going ahead.
Time Trial is best for learning the tracks at your leisure, and you can check out your telemetry readings here as well. This is great for when you want to see where that half hour of tweaking went (and why you'll want to spend another half hour perfecting things 'til you have the best ride possible). Finally, Quick Race gives you a random car and track and throws you into a pack of other drivers to see who's got true driving skills. This mode can be frustrating if you get bad weather and a too fast car, but it's also an incredible amount of fun and a great learning experience for those new to simulation based racing.
The game's graphics are quite well done- the car models are highly accurate from any angle, and the inside the car view is something that the GT games never had. To me, this is the best viewpoint to race from, and perfect for anyone who wants true realism in their driving games. There are also nice effects such as glowing brake pads and weather changes that force you to change your strategy somewhat. Of course, you'll see lots of cracked windshields, bumpers hanging off, and hoods flying about as you make your way through the game- if you thought NASCAR was rough on cars, you have to see one of the J&L races! It's nearly impossible to finish a race without some sort of damage, but it's great to have to fight for that first place. The tracks are pretty well done- there's very little pop-up, but once in a while, cars in the distance will simply vanish as if the drivers have cloaking devices installed. But I guess you'll just have to keep up with the pack now, right?
Complementing the graphics are commentary by the great Ned Jarrett, realistic sound effects, and a Dual Shock rumble to die for- just like in Colin Mc Rae Rally, it fits the action perfectly. One change from WTC was the inclusion of a soundtrack featuring artists such as Moby, The Offspring, Radiator, Lit, and Methods of Mayhem. I usually play racing games with the music off (especially the GT games), but for the purposes of this review, I went ahead and played it loud- and the music wasn't bad at all. I'm more of an old fogey when it comes to driving tunes (the Sammy Hagar sound-alike in Sega's Ferrari F355 drove me crazy), but what's here isn't too out of place.
There's also an up to 4-player splitscreen mode, which works well- the graphics take a tiny hit, as does the frame rate, but it's still a quick one to look at and play. It is a bit funny to see three other people who don't play racing games that much (or just play kart-racers) bash into walls and other cars during a multi-player match- until you try to lap them and get in a wreck yourself- ouch. But everyone agreed that they were going to go out and buy this game afterward, and you should too. Once again, Codemasters has created a solid racer that equals or surpasses some pretty strong competition, and hopefully they'll continue to do so with more racers for the Playstation 2 as well- I can't wait to see what they have planned next.
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