Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (Second Review)


Title           Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (Second Review)
Publisher       Gremlin Graphics (1990)
Game Type       Driving
Players         1-2
HD Installable  HD-patch & fix: aminet/game/patch/lotushd.lha
Compatibility   All Amigas with patch
Submission      Dennis Smith Profiled Reviewer

Review
When certain stars come to the ends of their lives, they may explode in
spectacular supernovae, leaving behind neutron stars. These are
extraordinary astronomic bodies that are made from matter that is so
densely compressed that atomic nuclei, normally surrounded by relatively
vast empty spaces, are crushed together to form a material that is
incredibly dense. One often hears bizarre facts like the assertion that a
large spoonful of this matter would weigh a billion tonnes.

And now, for the first time, you can sample first-hand the exhilarating
experience of driving one point three tonnes of high-performance eighties
sports car into a chunk of neutron star matter at 160 mph. And neutronium
isn't the only sort of exotic matter to be found on the track. But I'm
being a little unfair. Maybe I should forget astronomy and start at the
beginning.

Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge is one of the A500's best remembered
driving games. Magnetic Fields, who had given us all sorts of
fabulous games on the 8-bit computers (as "Mr Chip Software"), had
recently given us their first major 16-bit offering, Supercars, a
flashy little overhead-view racing game with an amusing haggling system.
Now came a road-level perspective racing game to rival Crazy Cars and Test
Drive. And one with a highly desirable license... The Lotus Esprit is
lovingly represented in the intro sequence, with a close up of the Lotus
badge, a mean view of the front of the car with those pop-out headlights
blinking at you, and then a swathe of stats, diagrams and blueprints.
There's even a simple 3D rendering of the car rotating - something that
was actually a little unusual at the time (how the times change).

The intro is accompanied by the sort of rock track you might expect to
hear on any respectable racing game or car-obsessed TV program, a quick
beat, solid bass line (if a little on the dinky side) and throaty guitars.
A neat little 'CD' player option screen at the beginning of each campaign
offers a choice of four in-game tracks, which make very efficient use of
the limited sound channels available to provide a range of light to
heavier rock. But you'll probably prefer to stick with sound effects --
nothing special, but the Esprit's throaty roar is very satisfactory.

Graphically, the game doesn't stand out, but does a convincing job of
conveying a sense of speed, mostly from the roadside foliage and signage.
The cars are disappointing at first -- there are just your red Lotus (and
perhaps that of a friend) and a swathe of identical white cars as
opponents. This doesn't detract from the gameplay too much, thankfully,
because once you get going it doesn't matter what the opponents look like.
The limited view isn't so hot, though. When you play with a mate, the
screen is split horizontally, naturally, but when playing alone the screen
is still split horizontally, with a (nearly) static 'pits'
picture in the lower half. You'll have to wait for the sequel to see a
full-screen racing view.

The first-person perspective is faked by running a set of widening
horizontal lines down from a decorative horizon. Add a few objects on the
sides of the roads and scale them with distance. Move the whole lot from
left to right and up and down and you'll get a surprisingly effective
impression of a racing track. It's a long-standing technique that used to
grace racing games way back to the grandfather of them all, Atari's arcade
stalwart, Night Driver, albeit the simplest example of the genre.
You may even find it, still, in Gameboy games. While 'proper' 3D racing
games existed at the time -- such as Stunt Car Racer and Hard
Drivin', these games were graphically very simple and didn't have the
best frame-rates, so it would take a few more years and advanced hardware
to make proper 3D racers popular (albeit via the intermediate stage of the
texture-mapped floors of 'mode7' racing games; XTR is the Amiga's
one main -- and brilliant -- example).

But I digress. The advantage of the faked perspective trick is that the
Amiga can do it so well -- you get a very chipper frame-rate on your A500
with no significant loss of quality even on a split-screen two-player
game. The disadvantage is that it can be very limiting on the gameplay.
There's no way you could turn the car around and drive off track. Maybe
that's an advantage. But after playing the Gran Turismos and karting games
of the contemporary market, it feels odd, very constrained, very
one-dimensional. Lotus and its contemporaries are far removed from modern
3D racers in more than just the graphical style, there's a different type
of gameplay involved too. When trying to assess the gameplay, I had to
think of Lotus as a slightly different kind of game, not so much a driving
game as a steering game. (So don't expect this to be like
Lotus Challenge on the PS2, in any respect except the name.)

But that sounds so condemnatory. And yet I haven't finished with my
quibbles.

The opponents are mindless drones. They just steer across the track from
left to right and back again, regardless of whether they're on straights
or hairpin bends. Their unblemished identical appearance turns out to be
sinisterly apt. They're not so much cars as moving obstacles to surpass.
They never crash, they never hit barriers (though they may appear to pass
through them, ghost-like), but unlike ghosts, they are uncompromisingly
solid when you hit them, being completely unmoved. They never run out of
fuel and don't seem to be slowed by hills. Then again, they are slower
than you. Maybe they just have lower gear ratios?

And those barriers. Ah, those famous barriers. It doesn't matter
what you hit, whether it's another car in the road, a roadside tree,
advertisement or chevron, frail wooden barrier or rock on the road. Every
time, your car comes almost to a complete stop (OK, actually, you drop to
about 40-50 mph, but it feels like a complete stop). I daresay that if
someone dropped a paper bag on the track, your car would bounce off it as
if it had hit the side of HMS Belfast. Hence the impression that these
obstacles are made out of some super-dense exotic matter. OK, I'll admit,
it's a lot easier to program that way, but the amount you're forced to
slow down -- especially after colliding with opponents -- is extremely
frustrating. Oil slicks on some tracks deflect your vehicle inexplicably
off to the side with a gratuitous screeching effect (obviously made of
some sort of weird anti-magentic matter) and puddles of water can also
pull your speed down appreciably. Actually, that's probably fair, but I'm
in the mood to whinge about it anyway.

So why did we love this game? And we did, and some still do: when making
notes on the game for the review, I included the significant word
'Nostalgia'. And the word 'Challenge'. It is very frustrating, and while
it walks a fine line, the frustration does lie on the right side of the
line -- just. It's a challenging game, with enough course variety to keep
you at it. And primarily, it's a great two-player game. Forget the
nineteen drone cars, get a mate and compete against him or her (and
eighteen other drone cars). The horror of seeing computer cars pass
through those nasty obstacles is made up for by the sheer delight of
seeing your pal hit one to devastating effect. The pit stops (which are
necessary to complete the majority of the courses) are frantic and must be
judged perfectly if you don't want to lose precious time. If you finish
the race in second place with more than a teaspoonful of petrol left in
your tank, then you know you've misjudged horribly and should have done
better. Take advantage of the immovable objects and decelerate into the
pits the hard way -- if you judge it just right you can hit the last
signpost at the beginning of the pit lane, come to a stop almost
immediately and be in the pits, sucking up petrol, while your mate has all
the bother of having to obey the laws of inertia to slow down.

(And while we're on the subject of the pits, what exactly are those garage
mechanics doing, crouched down behind your car?)

So, to conclude: it works, despite all its little flaws. Finely tuned
gameplay wins out once again. Yes, it's frustrating, and realism only just
about gets a look in. But at least it's consistently frustrating, and that
can and does make all the difference. Once you've learned which side of
the track to be on when you come out of each corner, you'll be laughing,
and in two-player mode it is a splendid hoot. Although it doesn't have
nearly the longevity it might have had once, thanks to improved
competition from more recent offerings, it's still well worth a bash from
time to time.


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