Let's get this out of the way first: BUY THIS GAME. End of plug, on with the review. Test Drive Le Mans is the most exciting racing experiences on a home console to date, thanks to its near perfect blend of simulation and arcade style racing, perfect control, and some superb graphics. Infogrames had released a PS one version of this title earlier this year, and it was pretty well done, but the DC version is a complete overhaul that takes advantage of the power of the system, and the difference is like night and day.
Rather than go the Gran Turismo route and offer you hundreds of cars to choose and customize, TDLM has around 40, all set to race. You'll have to unlock the faster and tighter handling models, but there's so much fun in doing this that hours will fly by, laundry will go undone, pets and plants will go unfed, and your social skills will simply deteriorate to that of a paramecium. But you'll love every curve of each of the super realistically detailed tracks, and your Dreamcast controller will become your new best friend. There are 5 gameplay modes: Quick Race, Championship, Time Trial, Le Mans (24 hour), and Multiplayer, along with 9 official tracks. Part of the reason this game works so well is due to the extreme level of detail in the game, and the true feeling of speed you get as you play.
You can really blow through the game on the Amateur setting, which takes care of braking and opponent AI, but coming in first every race gets old fast, so let your little brother or sister play the game this way. Intermediate is a great starting point for those who play racing games on a regular basis, while the Advanced setting is the way to play if you want the full-on racing experience. You can start out with a couple of quick races or Time Trials to unlock faster cars to use in Championship mode, or you can try to do it the manly way, and make your way through the game using a single car. Personally, I say go for the BMW- it's lightning fast, and has ridiculously good handling. The real challenge comes when you tune the game for a long race, random weather, tire wear and fuel usage, which requires pit stops. Qualifying for races is highly recommended, as you'll get a good idea of what the actual race conditions are as well as go for a good slot on the track.
The races themselves are really amazing- up to 20 cars on a track (24 for Le Mans) each one with it's own AI routine. The cars look spectacular, and the game runs at a solid 30 frames per second. Melbourne House did a great job of using some neat shortcuts to keep things smooth. Little details abound, like skid marks that remain on the tracks, glowing brake pads (the lens flare of the new millennium), and the best fences you'll ever see in a racing game. The rain effects are great as well- sometimes there's a light sprinkling, other times it's cats and dogs, which makes tire choice a big issue. There's nothing worse than being in first place with a 20-second lead and three laps to go and all of a sudden it starts pouring buckets out of the sky. Do you try to finish the race with the rubber you have, or do you pit in and hope the guy in second place doesn't get too much of a lead? Sometimes, you'll get so caught up in racing that you'll forget to pit until your fuel tank meter is flashing red. Let's just say that on the Le Mans track, you'll be sweating a bit if this happens and you're not close to the pits. Speaking of tracks, next to Le Mans, my favorite is the Brno course with its open design and easy to navigate curves. You can practically race this track at full speed, with the right car.
Le Mans is the main attraction, and you can race the 24 hours in a number of timed challenges. The 10 and 30-minute races are fairly easy, and the 1hour version will have you taking your phone off the hook. Things get interesting with the 6 hour race- by then, you'll have the track memorized, and if you're using a favorite car, you'll be able to gauge just when you need to pit in and finish in first place. It will freak you out The 24-hour challenge is quite the monster, and you'll soon realize how much effort it takes to actually drive in one of these marathons. Fortunately, you can save your game when you pit in, but the key to winning Le Mans here is a combination of driving skill and timing your pit stops accordingly. Pit too many times, and even with a big lead, the cars you passed a few hours earlier will be blazing by you in the final laps. And when you get passed in the pits, every second counts.
Rather than go with a full simulation, the game throws a bare minimum of customization and menus at you, which is a breath of fresh air after the extreme complexity of Sega GT and Ferrari F355. This makes the game a lot more accessible to novices or those folks out there that don't like racing games (get over it). This is great in the multiplayer modes, as each driver can tailor their car as he or she likes. Here, the frame rate is just as solid as in the single player game, with a slight loss of detail. The only thing missing is online play, but I'm hoping enough people buy this game to warrant its inclusion in a sequel. Besides, you'll have friends coming over to check up on you, so you might as well have a few extra controllers handy (let them bring the snacks). You'll all be grooving to the Jump Pack's bumping and the jazzy tunes (just stay away from the "k-rock" station choice in the options screen- it's guitar rock hell).
But of course, as great as the game is, a few things aren't perfect. Thanks to the sharp details, you'll see spectators wearing the same clothes no matter what the weather is doing, car models that have no door or hood openings, the same generic dash readout onscreen and headlight effects that could be a bit more realistic. There's also the lack of an inside the car viewpoint (but this keeps the frame rate up), and the stiffness of the drivers, but you'll only notice all this if you're looking for it. Then again, this is the sort of game that you'll be playing for hours on end, so you will notice this stuff. It doesn't take away from the overall enjoyment of the game though. Anyway, these are small problems that shouldn't stop you from running out and buying this game as soon as you can. Just let your friends and families know where you are once you do- people won't be seeing you for a long time.
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