Evan's Opinions On Various Driving Games, er, ah Simulators

April 12, 2001

About Driving Games In General

Over the past several years I have become interested in motorsport from a participative point of view. Unfortunately, motorsport is both expensive and dangerous, and my only real action has been high-performance driving schools, parking-lot autocrosses and go-kart races.

Recent driving games for the PC, combined with a steering wheel and pedal set (many brands are available), provide an amazingly accurate simulation of the driving experience. Sure, they lack the G-forces and 360 degree visibility of a real car, but they do provide a real opportunity to practice most of the skills your need to hone if you are going to drive fast. Now force-feedback steering wheels have come on the market and some of the games even simulate such things as the steering going light as you lose grip.

In fact, the level of reality can be so good that some people prefer to use the term "driving simulator" rather than "driving game". (I haven't yet met any people who do this whose spouses would agree, however!)

The latest advances in driving games are due partly to the the availability of relatively low-cost 3-D accelerated video cards, which have enabled increased frame rates (i.e. how many times, per second, the screen is updated) as well as higher levels of detail. In simulating something like driving, where a fluid and clear display really helps you to "feel" what is happening, this has a big impact. The other big current development area in driving games is support for the aforementioned force-feedback wheels. Drive over the "turtles" (the striped rumble strips many tracks use as an excuse for curbing), and you really feel it.

First, a discussion about equipment

My current equipment is a Pentium III (866 MHz) with 256 MB of PC133 RAM, with a SoundBlaster 3D Live! sound card and an Asus V7700 video card (which uses the GeForce 2 GTS chipset and has 32 MB of video memory). I run Windows ME on this machine.

It is frustrating to try modern driving games without a sufficiently powerful computer. Especially important is the 3-D accelerator - without one, you'll have a poor looking image and/or unacceptably low frame rates.

I have both a Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback steering wheel/pedal set, and an ACT Labs Force RS steering wheel/pedal set with the optional gear shifter. Although most of the reviews I have seen rate the ACT Labs wheel as the best, I prefer, by a significant margin, to use the Microsoft wheel. Rather than basing this on a casual comparison, this is based on endless hours spent trying to learn to love the ACT Labs wheel. Not that the ACT Labs wheel is bad. It isn't - it's very good. I just think overall the MS wheel is preferable.

The Microsoft wheel has two main advantages. First, it uses the game port on the sound card, and so can be used with old DOS games which bypass Windows. In contrast, the ACT Labs wheel uses the USB port (or alternately, it can be plugged into a serial port) and absolutely requires a game written for Windows/95 at the very least. Since there is one "old" DOS game still on my "good games" list (Grand Prix II), it is nice to at least be able to drive it. On the other hand, I can use the ACT Labs wheel on my laptop, which has a USB port but no game port.

Second, the steering feel is more accurate and realistic with the Microsoft wheel. Microsoft uses an optical sensor technique for the wheel, whereas the ACT Labs wheel seems to use a more traditional potentiometer. In the Windows game controllers configuration panel, for example, you can see that the ACT Labs signal jumps around a tiny bit (as do most non-digital joysticks), while the Microsoft signal is a steady as a rock. Also, the physical sensations of turning the Microsoft wheel are smoother and less "grainy" feeling than the ACT Labs wheel. These two aspects always let me drive a bit faster with the MS wheel, as well as feeling more comfortable.

There are lots of minor differences between the two. The ACT Labs wheel has a much stronger motor, and is capable of generating much more force. However, the MS wheel has more than enough power to start my desk a-shakin'. The ACT Labs wheel looks much more high-tech and has a faux leather covering on the wheel, while the MS wheel is smaller, leaving room for my keyboard between the wheel and my monitor, and has hand grips areas which are much more comfortable (somewhat like my Momo Competition wheel on my street car), but which are covered in rubber that is not as nice to the touch as the faux leather. The ACT Labs pedals have a firmer action, which is good, but they are somewhat sticky, and so can be harder to modulate than the very progressive, but light touch, pedals of the MS wheel. Although most reviews I have read say that the MS pedals move around and the ACT Labs pedals do not, in my experience, they both move away from you in the heat of the action, and so I made a larger frame out of wood which both raises the pedals off the ground a bit (more like a car) and keeps them from moving at all. (The frame I made fits both pedal sets, so I use it regardless of which wheel I am driving with). The ACT Labs wheel has more buttons, including a D-pad, but I find the "behind the wheel" shift buttons on the MS wheel much more comfortable to use than the similar, but more awkward, shift paddles behind the ACT Labs wheel. And I have found that the software drivers for the MS wheel are much more stable than those of the ACT Labs wheel - programs crash (not car crashes!) occasionally with the ACT Labs wheel (using the latest drivers) which do not with the MS wheel. A few games do have more realistic force feedback effects with the ACT Labs wheel, although more games feel better with the MS wheel than the other way around.

Besides the ability to use the ACT Labs wheel on my laptop, the other main advantage of the ACT Labs wheel is the optional gear shifter. This is an amazing gear-shifter which you shift just like a manual transmission. It has the traditional 1st gear up to the left, 2nd down to the left, 3rd up the middle, etc., with provision for up to 7 forward gears, plus reverse (which is way to the right and down). Games which support the shifter (which are rare at the time I right this) allow you to shift, say, straight from 5th down to 2nd without having to go through 4th and 3rd like you have to with the up-shift and down-shift buttons on most games. For games which do not support the shifter, there is a cover you can put on to block most of the movement of the shifter, and you then use it in a forward/backward way to shift up and down a gear at a time, like modern touring cars with their sequential shifters. The shifter feel is really quite good, but the location of the shifter (on the desk just beside the steering wheel) is all wrong. I guess I'll have to build a little stand to sit beside my desk so that I can mount the shifter there, in a position where a car's shift lever would really be. The shifter has its own housing separate from the wheel, so this is a practical project to attempt.

At any rate, in my opinion, a steering wheel/pedal set is essential to the driving game experience. Microsoft, ACT Labs, Thrustmaster, Logitech and others all make fine wheels. Without one, you are not practicing the skills you use on the road, and so the thrill (which is to trigger the mental memory of real g-forces, the real thrill) is absent, not to mention any potential benefit to your real driving.

All my opinions below on the various games are based solely on how they feel with a wheel. The games I like may be undriveable by the keyboard; I wouldn't know nor do I care. I suspect some of the games I dislike may drive very well by the keyboard, based on some reviews I have read. I just don't really know what it means to drive with the keyboard. Sorry for being pedantic, but that's not driving to me. I do know that I have seen some of the games I really like be panned by reviewers who didn't have a wheel, or couldn't get their wheel configured adequately, and so I always discount reviews that didn't try the game with a wheel.

Why I Like The Games I Really Like

Before I get into the driving games I really like, first let me say that driving feel is my number one criterion for appreciating a game. If the driving feels unrealistic, I won't like it, no matter how nice the screen looks or how the gaming action works. Conversely, a game can have significant problems from a game design point of view, but if I feel that driving it can help improve my real driving, then I'll really like it. Many of the best driving games are pretty lame as "games", which is why you might see one of my favourites totally disgraced in a "traditional" gaming review.

Also, let me discuss what to many is a very sensitive topic. There is a camp of the driving game enthusiast community which seems to feel that for a driving game to be a "sim", it must be hard to drive. The harder it is to drive, the more real it must be, is the rationale, I guess. But clearly, real cars are not hard to drive at all, at least not hard to drive as long as you are taking it easy. Yes, once you turn up the wick and get close to the limits of adhesion, things can get very tricky very quickly. So one of my driving feel criteria is, "does it feel like you are well under control when you are driving well below the limit". In this sense, some of the most popular and highly respected driving games, namely those developed by Papyrus and published by Sierra (games such as Indy Car Racing II, Nascar 3, Viper Racing and even the hallowed Grand Prix Legends), fall down. These games have always been touted for their realistic physics, but there is something wrong in the "feedback loop" with all of these products, which I cannot pinpoint exactly but which does not exist with the games I do like. With the Papyrus games, you don't get a sense that you are in trouble until it is too late to take action. With the games I really like, once you are familiar with the driving feel of the game and the route on which you are driving, you can sense when you are treading the line. You know when maybe you're in over your head and might lose it at any time. That sort of feeling, which one driving instructor I had referred to "tightening of the sphincter", is absent with the Papyrus products. With the Papyrus products, you learn the limits by "going off", and you stay under the limits by driving below the speeds you discover that way. With the games I really like, you get the sense you are closing in on the limit before you reach it, and thus can either take corrective action or at least know that you are driving riskily. I can't say I can find fault with the Papyrus products' physics - it is the feeling of those physics which I find they don't give back to you. For example, in Grand Prix Legends, which is almost universally acclaimed as the most realistic driving sim available today, you really can't sense how fast you are travelling or how quickly you are braking. I don't know how or why, but with some of the other games, you do get exactly that sense. And that is one of the major things I seek in a driving game, that sense of tension as you get near the limit.

I know that I'll be criticized for the opinion stated above. When I have seen others issue the same sort of feeling, it gets shouted down in a juvenile chorus of "what a wus, can't drive a real game". The most notable was in an Internet forum, when there was a pre-release demo of Grand Prix Legends available and the developers were interested in feedback, one guy wrote in saying that he owned one of the late sixties Formula I cars modelled in the game, which he would drive at historical driving events, and that below the limit it had a really solid, connected feel, very unlike the game, where even when you are going slowly you feel as though you are skating around and can spin out with a relatively small effort. He mentioned that he was stating this so that the developers could make the game better. In response, he got messages (NOT from Papyrus) saying things like "why are you showing off that have a car like that when you abviously can't drive 'cus this is the best driving program ever, who are you trying to impress". Understandably, the fellow refrained from giving any more opinions in that forum.

Also, let me add that recent patches to GPL have added force feedback support, which vastly improves the experience. Also, my recent upgrade to a faster computer has improved some of the visual feedback, which is why GPL has snuck into my top list, even though I still wish it felt more buttoned down under the limit.

All right, now that I have gotten "the emperor has no clothes" off of my chest, lets get on with the ones I do really like.

The Games I Really Like

There are so many driving games out now that it would be more than a full-time job for anyone to adequately review them all. I keep an eye on some driving game-related web sites (Sim Racing News is my favourite) to get a sense of what seems promising. If possible, I then get a downloadable demo to try it out. In some cases I stop there, and so my "review" is based on the demo (which I clearly indicate). If I like the demo, I'll buy the real game and spend a lot of time with it. Of the games I have bought, only some do I fire up time and time again. Many sit on my desktop virtually unplayed once I have decided that others are nicer.

Here is my list of top picks:

  • Grand Prix 3 from Microprose (which is now part of the Hasbro empire). In more ways than one, Grand Prix 3 (GP3, from now on) is the granddaddy of driving games. Geoff Crammond, its creator, has a history of developing leading edge Formula I simulations, the most popular of which, Grand Prix 2, set a standard in 1996 which took other games years to approach. I am certainly not the only one who imagined that GP3, as the follow-up to GP2, would be as ultimate a driving simulator as would be possible using Y2K-era hardware. And I am certainly not the only one who is more than somewhat disappointed with the actual product, now that it is here.

    Don't get me wrong. In many ways, GP3 does restore the Crammond franchise to the top of the heap, but there are also so many areas in which it could use improvement that it is only a matter of time until it is bested by some other game. Electronic Arts' Formula I 2000, for example, is different in feel, but overall is really no worse a simulation than is GP3.

    What is wrong with GP3? All those who spent a lot of time with GP2 (and I count myself among them - see my old GP2 page) will, when first firing up GP3, wonder what Mr. Crammond did those 4 long years between GP2 and GP3 - it feels, and even looks, so close to its predecessor. At least GP3 is a native Windows program - GP2 was the last of the driving games that was a DOS program - now that DOS support, particularly for gaming hardware, is steadily disappearing. Unfortunately, GP3 retains the awkward parts of GP2's menuing system, while having lost some of the latter's more convenient aspects. For example, there is a very annoying mix of keyboard, mouse and joystick movement necessary to navigate the menus, when ideally you should be able to navigate everywhere with just any one of those three input devices. The worst part of the graphics, which was GP2's insistence on using a fixed frame rate (so that if the computer cannot keep up with the computational demands, the action goes into a weird, slo-mo, surreal state, rather than just getting a bit choppy like virtually every other driving game) is, unbelievably, still there in GP3, and is, in my opinion, its most serious flaw.

    Even though the 3-D graphics are now hardware accelerated (GP2 was the last of the non-3-D-accelerated games), and do look better than GP2, it is all too easy for the action to bog down in crowded turns, and the general appearance is not as good as the competition (except for two things: the tires on the cars and the wet weather effects). You need to turn down the display detail, and suffer low detail, and under-utilization of the CPU and display hardware, 95% of the time, just to maintain realistic feel and responses through the other 5%.

    A patch is available which fixes some problems with force-feedback effects and improves the game in some other ways. Consider the patch (available from the game's website link above) mandatory.

    There is a long list of things I could go on complaining about. But rather, let me start to justify the game's existence in the top tier of my list.

    There are some things GP3 does better than any other game. The feeling of solidity you have when driving is superior to everything else. GP3 is the only simulation that really captures the feeling of the tires suddenly regaining grip after a minor slide. For example, when driving over the curbing, sometimes you may unsettle the back end, which will start coming around. But a quick counter-steer may catch it, and you really sense the regaining of traction. Similarly, the feeling of understeer, as you plow through a corner a little too fast, is better than anything else. In general the skiding sounds are the best, and most useful, of any game. The sound your car makes when you bop something, and break off a piece of your car, sounds so much more real than other games.

    I haven't done a lot of wet weather driving yet in GP3, but what little I have done has shown me where Mr. Crammond must have spent a lot of his time. You see puddles, and the traction varies at different spots. Some parts of the track may be dry, while others are wet. Once I learn to drive GP3 properly in the dry, I'll likely be spending a lot of time driving in the wet - something that generally hasn't been too interesting in other games.

    All in all, nothing is better than GP3 in terms of overall driving feel. But that is not to say that the other good games are worse than it. They all feel different, and reflect different aspects of reality. So far, no one game is a complete simulation of reality, even though some of us hoped that GP3 would be just that. GP3's feel is sufficiently different from any other game, particularly in its sense of solidity, that it belongs in the collection of anyone who is interested in driving games.

  • F1 2000, published by EA Sports, along with its immediate successor, F1 2000 Championship Season. [If you bought F1 2000, save your money and don't upgrade. F1 2000 CS adds an interesting "F1 Driving School" feature, but most of the driving is very very similar to F1 2K with the most recent patches applied. Most of my comments below are directed at F1 2000, rather than the Championship Season release, but the comments pretty well apply to both].

    I had heard some good things about this Formula I simulation, but when I got it home and ran it, I was initially disappointed. The frame rate was terrible, the steering was really twitchy and the other cars kept knocking me off the road, which I couldn't see because the cockpit takes up most of the screen. I continued to hear good things about it, so I spent some time configuring it, and sure enough, it is definitely one of the best "simulators" out their right now.

    On a pedestrian machine like mine (well, a year ago it was a really good machine!), the important things I must do are: turn off pit-side objects (who cares), turn off rearview mirrors (unfortunate), turn off the radio conversations (which get really annoying anyway) and turn some of the detail levels to medium. For the controller sensitivity, a setting of 15% (out of 100%!) seems just right for the MS wheel, and I go as low as 10% (the minimum) with the ACT Labs wheel.

    (I also did a couple of things I'd heard about on the Web - the configuration files are just text files, and so you can edit them with, say, Notepad. Config.ini, which is created when you install, had set my SystemRating value to 3, but I'd heard that resetting it to 5 might help a machine like mine, and it probably did. Also, cutting down the number of competitors in the races helped. Although the original game doesn't let you change this, there are settings for this in files that end with .PLR and begin with the player's name, in aa subdirectory named for the player in the SAVE subdirectory of the game. Finally, an "unofficial" patch to version 1.06 makes the "robot" drivers much less prone to hitting you, in addition to giving you control over the number of competitors and some other tweaks not available in the original version of the game).

    Now, you shouldn't have to fuss so much to get a game to work properly, and most of the bad press F12K (as it is nicknamed) has gotten is due to the poor initial setup, and lack of user control over obvious things. Image Space, Inc., the developers of F12K, who also have made one of my other favourite games (Sports Car GT) may have the best "driving engine" these days, but they really aren't very good at the general game setup. However, given my priorities for driving games stated above, this one falls at the top of my list simply because of the driving dynamics, and the chance to get intimate with all the tracks that will be used in the 2000 F1 season.

    Amazingly enough, the game has all the drivers and tracks for the 2000 Formula I season. (When the game came out, magazines being sold on the newsstand were still speculating who the BMW Williams second driver and mysterious title sponsor would be, but the game accurately had Jensen Button in the car and Compaq on the outside). You have control over the typical car adjustments, such as wing settings (to play with the trade-off between wind resistance - hence top speed - and downforce - hence cornering speed), spring rates, ride height, gearing and so on, and these settings do seem to have accurate effects. To be honest, futzing with these things is not my cup of tea - I'd rather just drive - but I must admit that it is very educational to have to set up the car for the different tracks (which you will need to do to be competitive).

    Even though I've gone on at length about the importance of "ease of driving", a neophyte will find driving these cars to be a handful. But once you get used to the reactions of the car, and you learn the tracks, you can't remember why it seemed so difficult at first. Still, for those times when you want to show your neophyte friends what a great game this is, there are all sorts of driving aids (such as braking help and steering help) which make it ridiculously easy to drive around without crashing. When you turn off all the driving aids, you have all the challenges facing you which a real driver needs to contend with. Press the brakes too hard and you can easily lock up one or more wheels. Go into a corner too fast and you'll understeer right off. Put too much power on too soon in a corner, and you'll spin. Don't give the other drivers the room they need, and you'll collide, likely doing serious damage (which is well modelled) to one or both of you. You learn the tracks the traditional way: start out by braking way too early for each corner, and as you do more laps and learn to anticipate each different corner, try braking later and later until you start to mess up the corner - at that point you've figured out your ideal braking point.

    Finally, let me do the inevitable comparison of F12K to GP3: the view out of the cockpit is better in GP3, as near objects seem bigger. Driving-feel-wise, F12K is easier to slide through turns, while GP3 feels more solid - which is more realistic I don't know, never having driven a real F1 car - but they both feel good in their own ways. The big advantage of F12K is that has all the 2000 tracks, while GP3 is mired in 1998. F1 fanatics will want both games. If I had to pick just one, I guess I'd pick GP3 if driving dynamics were my main interest, and I'd pick F12K if following the F1 season was my main interest. Thankfully, in reality, I don't need to make this decision - I can afford both.

  • Sports Car GT from Electronic Arts. This game was developed for Electronic Arts by Image Space, Inc., the same group that later made F12K (discussed above) for the EA Sports branch of Electronic Arts. You drive various GT Sports Cars (GT-3, GT-2 and GT-1 from the now defunct PSCA, which in real life has mutated into various series including ALMS at the top end and the Speedvision Cup at the lower ends). At the GT-3 and GT-2 levels, the cars are based on stock cars such as the BMW M3 and Porsche 911, while the GT-1 cars are "prototype" style cars. One of the highlights for me is the presence of Mosport (a track on which I get to drive a couple of times a year) among the available tracks, not to mention the M3 on the box. (It was actually the picture of the M3 that called to me in the store - I bought this game before having heard about it because of that picture. Whose says that packaging doesn't matter?)

    There are many annoying features of this game, such as the need to win a series of races to unlock some of the tracks or cars, and the way that if you are engaged in a race series, once you reach the halfway point in the race you are not allowed to bail out (e.g. in case the phone rings) without losing the race and therefore probably making it impossible to win the series, at which point you have to start the series all over again. (This wouldn't be so bad if you didn't need to win in order to unlock cars and tracks). Also, the default setup for the steering must be optimized for joysticks or something, because it feels very awkward. (At least there are a couple of sensitivity adjustments you can make which cures this).

    But annoyances aside, the graphics and sound are as good as anything out there. The driving feel is very realistic. Force feedback is well implemented. Trailbraking, tucking the nose in by lifting off the throttle, keeping the tail nailed by staying on the power,...these are all things you can do with this game. In the prototype cars, with their big wings, you actually feel the turbulance when you drive down a straight behind someone. You can knock over cones which then fly away (they make a satisfying thwack when you hit them), or bend over plastic barrier poles (which also thwack) which then pop back up into position. Dropping a wheel off the road can cause you to spin or not, depending on the surface and how you hit it. You can get white clouds of tire smoke by sliding, or brown puffs of dust if your wheel catches a dusty spot. Wow.

    There is a slight imperfection in the experience related to damage. If you collide with something, you will do damage to your car which will affect its driveability. It may just reduce its top speed a bit, or it may make the car pull to one side, or any number of things. This is good. But the damage does not show, if you view the car from the outside. This really bugs some people, but it doesn't bother me. I always use a "driver's eye" view, so I wouldn't be able to see the damage anyway.

    Also imperfect are the competitors. They just don't understand the "blue flag" concept that lapped drivers should make it easy for the race leaders to get by. Also, they seem awfully quick, way too quick, about getting back on the road when they go off, and don't seemed to get damaged by the experience. But the good thing about them is that they do occassionally make mistakes, which always keeps it interesting.

    But the imperfections of this game are imperfections compared to reality, not to other driving games. This is as good as it gets. I just can't figure out why there hasn't been much fanfare about this game.

  • TOCA 2, from Codemasters. (I bought this as an import from England, but it has subsequently been officially released in North America as "Touring Car Challenge"). This is a simulation of the British Touring Car Championship, but is also so much more. In addition to the front-wheel drive sedans which comprise the BTCC, this game also has races with other sorts of cars, like small, open-wheel Formula cars, and other types of front- and rear-wheel drive cars. There is a distinct difference in feel, and in technique required, between the front and read drivers, and each different make of car has a unique balance of acceleration, top speed, braking and cornering.

    Force feedback is used to the best effect of any game yet (slightly better than Sports Car GT), and a 3D accelerator is a must. This game has a lot of rough and tumble, paint-scraping racing action on the race tracks used by the BTCC, and is probably the best driving game, period. There is even a parking lot with cones set up, where you can practice your driving technique.

    Finally, a game has the driving quality of a real car: easy when you are going slowly, but treacherous at the limit. (Just about all the other games are either a bear to drive even when you are going slowly, or else have very fake things happen when you are at the limit). The feel is very similar to Sports Car GT - I'd be hard pressed to decide which is better. Mind you, it is not perfect: you can smash the car up pretty well, yet keep on driving with no loss of speed (surely a smashed windshield and a smoking engine should cause you to slow down), and you can bang someone pretty hard without skipping much of a beat. But overall, TOCA 2 is the good compromise between realistic physics and the limitations of trying to drive with no G-forces and a small view of the world.

    There are only two really negative things I have to say about TOCA 2 - the cockpit views are not great (big blocky pixelated edges - the outside objects are fine, however), and Codemasters has the silly idea that you need to earn your way through the game (or else call their pay-per-minute cheat lines in England!). Only when you have achieved certain things do you get more cars or tracks or better competition. My beef with this is that, because of the nature of Windoze, if you ever mess up your computer and have to re-install everything all over again, you have to earn everything back, too. I think the cheat codes (to bypass earning stuff) should be, at the very least, in an envelope in the game package, to prevent this frustration when Windoze commits suicide.

    By all means, if you like driving games and you have decent gaming hardware, TOCA 2 is a must have.

  • Colin McRae Rally 2.0, also from Codemasters. This is a simulation of FIA rally racing, where the courses are point-to-point (rather than laps of a circuit), with a mix of road and off-road conditions. You have a co-driver in the car with you, telling you about the direction and severity of the upcoming turns. (In real life, the co-driver sits there, reading from a notebook. In this game, you just hear the co-driver).

    This game's predecessor, Colin McRae Rally, had an amazing feature - a rally school, where Colin McRae himself (a top rally driver in real life) trained you using a parking lot with cones and a short rally course. Your actual driving in the training exercises determined the comments that Colin made, in his cute Scottish accent, as well as the marks he gave you on a report card. Sadly, this feature didn't make it into the sequel. Instead, however, you get an "arcade mode" where you drive head-to-head against several other cars, pushing each other out of the way, which gives a very different experience from the rest of the games realistic rally stages (where one driver is on the course at a time).

    The driving action is wild, with tail-out power slides, mud sprays and frequent leaps into the air. While it may seem arcade-like, just watch a rally race on TV sometime: this game seems pretty accurate. The graphics of CMR 2.0 are vastly improved over the original CMR, and, like its predecessor, CMP 2.0 has a driving feel, particularly when setting up for a corner and when powering through it, which surpasses the other available rally games, in my opinion.

    Car setup options are kept to a minimum, so that you can concentrate on driving. Each driver does the stages of a rally on a solo, time-trial basis, so one thing you don't have to worry about is colliding with the other racers.

    Force feedback and 3D acceleration are supported, but this game makes large demands on your hardware, so make sure you have good equipment if you want to play it. Another drawback is that you must succeed at some parts of the game to get other parts. For example, you must win a world championship at the intermediate level before you are allowed to use expert mode. I suppose if you search the web, you can find codes to unlock these features without the work, but I don't really understand why you need to go through all this when you've paid your money. Nonetheless, this game rates a definite "Wow".

  • Need For Speed - Porsche Unleashed from Electronic Arts. The games in the Need For Speed series have long been my favourite arcade-style driving games. Porsche Unleashed advances the state of the arcade art far enough for it to cross over into the territory of "real" driving games. You can still drive head on into a wall and still be able to continue, the primary arcade element which remains, but at least your car will be significantly damaged and you may have trouble being competitive after the collision.

    Porsche Unleashed has only Porsches available for you to drive, and the cars you can try span the entire history of the marque. If you find it odd that a BMW enthusiast would like this game, keep in mind that most BMW enthusiasts like BMWs because they handle almost as well as Porsches yet have usable back seats. Plus the fact that used BMWs cost way less than used Porsches in similar condition.

    The game has three modes - the classic NFS races and tournaments, Evolution mode and Factory Driver mode. In the "normal" mode you pick your car and the sorts of cars against which you are going to run. There are single races where you pick the track, and tournaments (most points wins) and knockouts (last place is dropped in each succeeding race until there is only the winner left).

    In Evolution Mode, you must go through many series of races, spanning the history of Porsche from oldest to newest. You win prize money from these races which you can use to fix up damage you incurred during the race, or to soup up your car, or to buy new cars. Many of the races are restricted to specific models, so you need to do a lot of buying and selling. As you progress, the need to spend some money on upgrades for the cars becomes more and more important. You'll need to spend your money wisely so that you can afford to keep the cars you really like, since the cars you own in Evolution mode are available (modifications and all) in the normal mode as well. (The standard cars available in normal mode are a subset of those you have the chance to buy in Evolution mode).

    In Factory Driver Mode, you are supposed to be a prospective junior test driver and you need to prove yourself worthly to move up the ranks to become the Chief Test Driver. You are assigned many different tasks, each with a different car. Some of the tasks involve driving a road route within a certain time limit, others involve racing the other test drivers, and the most interesting, to me at least, are the parking lot exercises, where you have to traverse specific routes around cones within a tight time limit and without knocking over any of the cones.

    In a few of these parking lot exercises, you need to master a 360 degree spin. There is a trick to it with these cars, and it had me stumped until I read about it in an on-line forum. Here is how you do it: you need to start the 360 at a high speed (2nd gear in the first car you'll need to do this in). As you crank the wheel over to start to turn, you MUST hit the handbrake (you can't do it with the foot brake), which will start the car to snap around. Just when you get to 180 degrees, spin the wheel fully the other direction, which will cause the car to snap back around, completing the 360 as long as you still have enough momentum going for you. It takes a bit of practice, but looks awesome in the replay when you finally achieve it. Later on, you'll need to refine your technique even more, when you'll be required to to a 180, travel in reverse, using your rearview mirror for guidance, and then do another 180 at a proscribed spot to get going forward again. Yes, these stunts take practice, but it is quite satisfying to finally get them right.

    Most of the time with games, it really irritates me to have to do certain things to get to drive specific cars or drive on certain tracks, but NFSPU is the first game where I think the modes in which you have to go step by step to progress are the heart of the experience. Without the Evolution mode, for example, you wouldn't experience the progression Porsches made from tail-happy under-powered machines which don't "go" (but are fun to toss into a corner, as long as you don't lift), to modern super-powered monsters with grip to match. Sure, without Evolution mode you still could try the old cars, but because of the lack of power and grip, you likely wouldn't spend enough time with them to appreciate them. Similarly, without the Factory Driver mode, you would never properly master some important aspects of high-performance driving, such as the handbrake-induced 180s and 360s.

    My video card (Asus V7700) has a 3-D glasses option where you put on 3-D glasses (with too short a cable, alas) which use invisible shutters which open and close 60 times a second to provide each eye with a different image, thereby creating a true 3-D effect. While this works with most of the driving games (GP3 is an exception - it won't work with that because of some tricks that game uses), it seems to work best of all with NFS-PU. With this game, the 3-D glasses create a phenominal experience.

  • Dirt Track Racing from Ratbag Games. This is a surprise underdog game. The developers just wanted to do a basic but authentic simulation of dirt track racing, and produced a game that doesn't have a lot of fancy flourishes, but hits its mark straight on. And they priced it about half of what the typical new game costs.

    Now, I am not a fan of oval racing. Nahscour in particular just leaves me cold. I need gear changes, braking points, and right as well as left hand turns. But a few laps with Dirt Track Racing, with the rear end hanging out and you jiggling the steering to keep it going in just about the right direction, and you'll start thinking about where you can find real dirt track racing nearby so you can give it a try. This game made me reconsider oval racing, and even made me go back to give Nascar 3 a second look, but to me, now, Dirt is where it is at if you're talking ovals.

    Ratbag has a good downloadable demo which lets you try two or three of the over thirty tracks in the real game. In the full game, besides more tracks (they are so much the same and, at the same time, all so different), you get the ability to adjust all sorts of suspension adjustments. I haven't gotten into it very seriously, I must admit, but when you have only a few minutes to do some "driving", there are few kicks like a 6 lap Dirt Track Racing competition.

  • Sierra's Grand Prix Legends. This is a simulation of 1967 vintage Formula I racing. These older-style racing cars feel much more like modern passenger cars than the cars in Grand Prix 3, and it has the Mosport track (which is located north of Bowmanville, Ontario) as one of its featured venues. (Mosport is one of the few real tracks I have had a chance to drive on). Since it was originally released, Sierra has released a patch which adds force feedback effects and support for a few more graphics accelerators. (The original release only supported Voodoo and Rendition accelerators).

    The driving feel is pretty good but it feels a bit greasy to me. By "greasy", I mean that when you are well under "the limit", car control is still a bit tricky. I've already discussed this game quite a bit in my preamble above. Suffice it to say that while I can see room for improvement, many people consider it to be the ultimate simulation. GPL comes with a fascinating and educational book discussing car setup and high-speed driving. Definitely, don't steal this game; buy a copy so that you get the book!

    Good Games Which I Just Don't Like Quite As Much As Those Above

  • Microsoft's Monster Truck Madness 2. I tried the original Monster Truck Madness and didn't become too enthused, but version 2 is on a whole other level. The graphics are amazing (if you have a good 3D card), force-feedback is well implemented, and the "tail-out, throttle-on" way you have to drive if you want to go fast is loads of fun.

  • Electronic Arts' Need For Speed III - Hot Pursuit and Need For Speed - High Stakes. As I mentioned with NFSPU, the Need For Speed series represent the best of the "arcade" driving games. Sure, you can drive into a wall and keep on going (which is very fakey), but to get truly fast times, you need to "drive clean". The tracks are cute and incredibly detailed (like leaves blowing over a road with grass growing through the cracks), and the program keeps the competitors near you whether you are fast or slow. The real challenge with thess game is to break the so-called track records, because once you learn the routes well enough you can always outrun the robot drivers. It is not worth buying both of these versions. High Stakes essentially contains Hot Pursuit (much to the annoyance of those of us who bought both), so if you are considering buying both, get High Stakes. However, the graphics engine evolved a bit between the two releases, and I believe that the older Hot Pursuit runs just a little bit faster on slower computers.

  • Mobil I Rally Championship from Electronic Arts , also called Rally Championship 2000 in Europe. This game is currently the most photogenic of rally games. Besides its stunning graphics, it has a unique feature in that many of the stages are quite long, approaching 20 minutes, rather than the more typical 3-5 minute stages of other rally games. Also, this game supports the ACT Labs Shifter, for shifting directly into specific gears rather than having to go sequentially though the gears.

    I really want to like this game a lot. It looks far better than Colin McRae Rally, and some of the sounds are better too, but cornering just doesn't feel right to me, and putting a wheel off the road dramatically slows you down (but oddly enough doesn't make you spin), in an artificial attempt to force you to keep to the path. Also, if you do hit an obstacle, such as a tree or a hay bale, you simply stop dead in your tracks, even if it was an offset collision. The cockpit view, is the best "hands on the wheel and shifting the gears" of any game with that sort of view, except that the turning of the wheel doesn't necessarily reflect the way the wheel is currently turned. There are so many ways this game almost got things right but blew the details that I can't help but recommend Colin McRae over this one, unless visuals are more important to you than feel.

  • Eidos' Formula I World Grand Prix. I'll probably get in trouble for liking this simulation of the 1999 F1 season, which has been almost univerisally panned by the sim-driving community. But I think that no one has given it a chance, since its precedessors were quite lame. I tried the demo out after a weekend of [real, not simulated] driving on the track and noticed two realistic sensations in F1WGP which I have never felt in any other game: 1. the steering wheel is always wriggling about in your hands as you drive, because no road is smooth, and 2. if your line in a corner is not quite right, and you are under control, the feel as you coax it into line is just right.

    There is a big problem with F1WGP, and that is that when you exceed the traction limits, traction goes suddenly and will not come back. You can't start to understeer, and scrub off speed to regain traction - you just keep understeering through the whole corner. I have seen a number of complaints that the spins in F1WGP are "canned" (preprogrammed, so that they always happen the same way), but this is not true. I have, on the odd occasion, caught a spin on my way straight off the track. I think that the sudden and unrecoverable loss of traction just makes the likelihood of a 180-degree spin ALMOST inevitable if you have an "off" - I don't think the spin itself is preprogrammed.

    Somehow Lankhor (the game's developer) has managed good looking graphics with complex sounds in a way that runs on reasonable hardware. Unlike F12K or GP3, where you have to turn features off unless you have a machine that hasn't been built yet, you can leave most everything on in F1WGP and still get smooth framerates with a realtively modest, though 3D-accelerated, computer.

    It is too bad about the game's sudden traction loss problem, because if that were fixed, this would be a top-tier simulator up there with GP3 and F12K.

  • Ubisoft's Monaco Grand Prix Racing Simulation 2. This is a "unofficial" Formula I simulation, which is almost identical to the "official" Formula I Racing Simulation, of which it is the update. I guess Ubisoft didn't feel that the FIA license to produce an "official" product was worth the cost, so this most recent version doesn't have names like Schumacher or Ferrari in it.

    But the tracks are the same, and the driving feel is an improvement over F1RS. If you want the real Formula I team names, you just have to enter them all yourself (it is configurable that way). MCGPRS2 makes good use of force feedback and has stunning 3D acceleration, yet for some reason you just don't get the sensation of speed, acceleration and deceleration that you do with the the best games.

  • Microsoft's CART Precision Racing. This simulation of the CART series (essentially the former Indy Car circuit) also takes advantage of the latest 3D accelerators. The graphics are faster than Grand Prix II, though not quite as good as GP Legends, and the driving feel is very good, though quite "greasy" like GP Legends, forcing you to be very gentle with the controls. If you follow CART racing, this game is good for learning the tracks; such knowledge makes watching the real races more involving.

  • Johnny Herbert's Grand Prix World Champions (Intense Entertainment) - this program is another Formula I simulation. The graphics are as good as Ubisoft's MGPRS2, with a wider (nicer) field of view. Its driving feel is in some ways better than MGPRS2 (throttle on and off seems much more natural, as does grip in the corners), and in other ways worse (you stop awfully quickly when you drive off the track, spinning the car around intentionally is harder to do).

  • Microsoft's Midtown Madness - this game has an interesting premise: Downtown Chicago is all laid out, with stop-lights, traffic, cops, the whole deal. There are racing challenges, but you can drive anywhere you like (even on the sidewalk if you want to watch the pedestrians jump out of the way), and you don't have to race if you don't want to. There has been much fanfare about the realism of this game, but the at-the-limit feel of the cars is not, in my opinion, realistic at all. That makes this potentially hyper-realistic game no more than an arcade game, which I find unfulfilling, although it is fun for a while.

  • Sierra's Viper Racing. This game lets you drive a Dodge Viper on various courses, both on roads and race tracks. The field of view is nice and wide, and the car's dynamics have lots of heft and solidity. The dreaded Papyrus lack of sensation that you are going to lose it is present in this release as well, which it the major reason it is not in my top list.

  • Papyrus' IndyCar Racing II (now re-released as CART Racing from Sierra, I believe) - this one predates Grand Prix 2, and is the grandaddy of simulators. I always found it a bit too "greasy" - I'd expect slipping at high speeds, but this one slips around even at very slow speeds. The graphics are more configurable than most, so this one is a good bet if you have old hardware. But in every way, I prefer CART Precision Racing. Both this program and Precision Racing have many tracks in common, and it is a testament to how good they are that these tracks are VERY similar in the two games.

    And The Rest...

    I have tried so many games, that I'd thought I'd give my opinions of all those I can remember. In many cases, I tried the demo and elected to save my money. In those cases, "[based on demo]" follows the name of the game.

  • Sierra's NASCAR Racing 3 [based on demo] - the lastest in what I believe is the most popular driving game series. I frankly can't fathom this any more than I can fathom the fanactical following NASCAR engenders. (Mind you, those same people can't fathom Formula I, so I guess we're even). The driving dynamics are quite good, as are the graphics, but there is the usual Papyrus lack of feedback that you are in trouble. Driving this does give you a clear sense of the feeling of travelling in a huge pack, and gives me the feeling that most of the effort NASCAR drivers expend is to avoid hitting someone else and to avoid being hit. Almost all passing opportunities are in the midst of traffic trying to do the same thing. Because of the feedback issue, you don't really know someone is hitting you until it is too late to do anything about it, which, for me, makes it frustrating. On the other hand, if you are a NASCAR fan, this is probably a must have game. I'll stick to TOCA 2 for when I want to rub paint, or Dirt Track Racing for when I want to drive ovals.
  • EA Sports' NASCAR 2000 [based on demo] - I found this demo to be very similar to NASCAR Racing 3, and in some ways I actually preferred the feel of NASCAR 2000 (more feedback when traction goes), although NASCAR Racing 3 does have better graphics. Other than that, my feelings about NASCAR 2000 pretty well mirror my feeling for NASCAR Racing 3.
  • Broadsword Interactive's Spirit of Speed 1937 [based on demo] - this game tries to recreate the racing cars of the 30s, and is mostly successful. Drifts through the corners feel good, although they sound bad, and the graphics are a bit choppy even though it uses 3D acceleration, some issues that cause it to be lost in a sea of driving games.
  • SEGA Rally 2 [based on demo] - This rally game has both looks and driving which are a bit worse than Colin McRae Rally, which is not necessarily bad. In many ways it drives better than most of the other rally games out there, but CMR tops it in every way.
  • Interactive Entertainment's Super 1 Karting [based on demo] - this go-kart racing simulation in many ways seems pretty good except that it's force feedback implementation ruins everything. Go-kart steering is heavy but quick and smooth, and with this game it feels like steering through heavy oil. If they can fix the force feedback issue (I tried playing around quite a bit with the settings provided by the demo, but couldn't get a realistic FF setup), they could have a winner.
  • Mercedes Benz Truck Racing from THQ [based on demo]. This German game simulates European-style truck racing, which is quite different from the NASCAR style truck racing in the U.S. The Euro trucks are the high-cab, semi-trailer style of truck, and they run on road courses rather than ovals. This game has a good driving feel, and gives you the sense of driving a heavy behemoth ready to roll over at any moment. If I wanted to buy a truck racing game, I think this one would be it, but for me playing with the demo is enough.
  • STCC from Digital Illusions [based on demo] - this is a simulation of the Swedish Touring Car Championships, similar to TOCA 2's BTCC. The graphics are a bit nicer than TOCA, but the driving feel is not on the same level. The cars have a lot of predictable lift-throttle oversteer, and you can easily beat the robot drivers by coming up to a corner too fast and then lifting just a bit to turn the car, while they are all wasting time braking. It is sort of fun, but just doesn't feel right to me. In TOCA 2 you still use lift-throttle oversteer to turn the cars, but there it feels much more correct.
  • Infogrames' Beetle Buggin' [based on demo]. This arcade-style racing game lets you race VW Beetles and other vehicles based on the Beetle platform (including dune buggies and monster trucks), in various venues. It has reasonable driving feel, and the variety of race and vehicle styles means it would probably be a reasonably fun way to while away some hours, if I didn't have a zillion other driving games to play. The demo itself is fun.
  • Rally Masters from Infogrames [based on demo] - this rally game looks better than Colin McRae Rally, but doesn't drive as well as Mobil I Rally Championship. (Keep in mind that CMR has the feel and M1RC has the looks). It sounds better than either. I have tried tweaking the steering wheel settings every which way, but I cannot get rid of an overly eager tendency for lift-throttle oversteer, which makes it almost undriveable. Digital Illusions, who also did STCC, made this game, and seem to have turned up, rather than toned down, the lift-throttle problem.
  • Eidos' Official Formula I Racing [based on demo] - yet another Formula I simulation, and the first one from Eidos that feels like real driving, for the most part. The brakes work far too well, and the things that happen when you put a wheel off still are a bit fake, but it is a big improvement over previous Eidos F1 efforts.
  • Re-Volt from Acclaim [based on demo] - this is a game where you drive RC (remote control) cars, although you drive them like a car (in car view) rather than standing off in the distance. The sounds are neat (just like real RC cars) and the driving is interesting. These cars swap ends with little provocation, and this game is good training for learning how to handle a rear-happy vehicle: keep your foot in it through the corners, because if you lift, you're a goner. Added to this is a lot of nonsense about firing firecrackers and other assorted weapons at the other drivers, making this a totally arcade, but still interesting, experience.
  • Lucas Art's Star Wars Episode 1 Racer [based on demo] - OK, so it's not a car racing game, but it almost feels like it. If you like driving games and you liked the race scene from Star Wars Episode 1, then this should be a good bit of fun.
  • Ubisoft's Pod - pure arcade set in a Sci-Fi future. The driving feel is not bad, actually, and the premise is cute. This was the first program to support MMX, and now has a 3Dfx version. Not to be repetitious, but the overall impression I have is: cute.
  • EA Sports' Andretti Racing - this program is billed as a CART/IndyCar simulator, but the driving action is vastly oversimplified, and the tracks themselves are ficticious (even the ones that are supposed to be real are inaccurate). As a simulator, is it a total bust. As an arcade game, however, it is OK, and is better than many. Voodoo card users get a neat "sun spot" effect when making turns into the sun. I can't believe I paid full price for this one, though. (Hey, I'd just bought my first Voodoo card, and it was the only Voodoo accelerated driving game in the store at the time).
  • Test Drive Le Mans from Infogrames [based on a demo] - this Le Mans simulation looks good, has some really neat effects (such as the realistic, crackling flame when a competitor's car blows up), but ultimately suffers from a somewhat wooden driving feel. Definitely, the driving feel is the best of anything I've tried with the "Test Drive" label, but it is still not as good as the best games.
  • GT Interactive's Driver [based on demo] - this mission based driving game has you running from the cops, and purports to be everything that Microsoft's Midtown Madness was not in terms of the sense of virtual reality. (Like Midtown Madness, you have free rein to drive anywhere you like). But I find Midtown Madness more realistic and more fun.
  • Activision's Interstate 82 [based on demo] - the driving action is incidental to this mission-based shoot-em-up game. Consequently, it doesn't interest me much as the driving is very much in the arcade motif.
  • Fiendish Games' Hot Chix 'n' Gear Stix [based on demo] - I was hoping that despite the juvenile name, there might be something good here (driving 70s muscle cars is the theme), but it seems to be arcade racing on the level of the older Need For Speed games - not bad, a bit of fun, but nothing special either. One interesting thing about this is that once you have downloaded the demo, you can order the full game on-line, where you'll get a code which instantly unlocks the full game that is buried inside the demo. I wonder how many purchases they got...
  • Europress's International Rally Championship [based on demo] - yet another rally game with a less than convincing driving feel. The look is good. I suspect this was a precursor to Mobil 1 Rally Championship, since the same developer (Magnetic Fields) was involved.
  • V-Rally from Infogrames [based on demo] - one more nice looking but unconvincing rally game.
  • Test Drive 6 from Infogrames [based on demo] - very much like the Need For Speed series (pre-Porsche Unleased), except that the driving response just doesn't feel realistic. It looks nice, but is more frustrating than fun to drive with a wheel. (Some people who use a joystick have told me they like the Test Drive series).
  • Infogrames' Test Drive Off Road 3 [based on demo] - a dreadful off-road driving game. Besides poor driving dynamics, it also looks bad. Go for Monster Truck Madness II instead.
  • Psygnosis' Formula I [based on demo] - very nice Voodoo graphics, but the driving action is pure arcade game, not simulation. Interestingly, there are two modes, simulation and arcade, and the arcade mode feels more like real driving. Go figure. I am not impressed.
  • Eidos' Power F1 (impressions based on a demo) - another Formula I so-called simulator. Driving feel is about the same as the Psygnosis one above (i.e. pure arcade, not a simulator at all), and graphics are almost as good (but this one doesn't use a Voodoo card). I am not impressed.

    Lest you think that the demos are why something is lowly rated, keep in mind that most of the games I have bought, I have bought after extensively testing the demos, so I do get favourable impressions from demos. And by the way, a good source of driving game demos is www.gamespot.com.

    If you want to share your opinions, let me know!