Le Mans? C'est Magnifique.
First, a little background. Le Mans is a race challenge in France that involves racing around a single track for a full 24 hours. 24 hours! One entire freakin' day! Sounds more like some kind of grueling torture that requires industrial strength No-Doz than a car race. The very idea of sleepy eyed drivers in ultra fast cars...at any given moment, one of 'em will nod off and careen right into bleachers of fans.
And at the end of it all, whomever completes the most laps within that period of time is considered the grand poobah and will surely be awarded a nap. Indeed, these 24 hours are a total test of stamina, speed, and endurance.
If you wanted to enter the actual Le Mans you must plan in advance some 18 months. There will be more than 400 other possible candidates out for a chance to race. And don't forget the multi-million dollar racecar you'll need. However, Dreamcast owners can now opt for the much easier and considerably saner route: Test Drive Le Mans, a game that has managed to translate and capture the experience of this marathon race.
The principle mode of the game is a re-creation of the actual Le Mans. You select from a range of authentic racecars from a range of car companies, including Audi and Jaguar. If you are an actual Le Mans fanatic, it's worth noting that Porsche is missing from the list of credits. Porsche has consistently create the most winning cars of Le Mans (16 triumphs, compared to second-place Ferrari with 9). Most (but not every) actual participating company is there.
The dynamics of these racecars are different than their street legal counterparts. Test Drive Le Mans takes more of a simulation approach to racing. Some corners simply can't be taken at top speeds despite what an arcade-bent racer would let you "drift" to believe. These true-to-life physics make the learning curve a little steeper, but at least the Amateur level offers some brake assisting to ease you in.
We have yet to see a console racing game that accurately translates real life crashes. It'll be a fine day when you can wrap your digital DeLorean around a telephone pole. Well, you won't find real crashes, but the game's physics for spinouts and car collisions are done well. There's something very satisfying about smacking your opponents into the side rail. If you strike with enough force, the opponent's car will tip vertical and ride the rail. Not wholly realistic, but still nice. Opponents do have good AI, and will try to give you a bump as well.
Prior to the race, you can adjust your fuel level, what tires you will use, and the level of downforce. Less fuel and less weight means more speed, and these workshop items add to the realism of the game.
Eventually, you head off for your 24-hour race. I don't know how many out there would truly race for a full 24 hours; only a true purist (i.e. sicko) would even attempt an uninterrupted session. However, if you need to perhaps go outside to your school/job/real world and have to interrupt your 24 hours, you can save your current standings when you make a pit stop.
Most of you would probably puke at the idea of 24 hours on the same track, so the game offers a compressed-time version of the Le Mans. 24 hours can be converted into anything from the full and complete day-long affair to as brief as 10 minutes.
In these compressed time races, time and gas usage will pass by at an increased rate. It's a nice way to get the real Le Mans in an easy-to-swallow dosage. Of course, true compression would mean the cars would be faster by the same ratio - which would mean they'd be impossible to control.
One irksome side effect of the compressed time is that your pit stops still take the normal amount of time. While you get your gas and change those tires, the computer will take your lead. As far as I can tell, the computer-controlled cars do take pit stops, which at least seemingly keeps things fair.
When you grow tired of the Le Mans track, there's a championship mode that will take you onto other circuits. Victory in the individual circuits will net you new cars. Still, among all these tracks, Le Mans is clearly the showcase. These other tracks will test you with a variety of turn scenarios, but none have been treated with the same care.
All of the racetracks are full of life, despite the reuse of similar graphical elements. For example, a ferris-wheel (a la Virtua Racing) can be found in the background of several different tracks. But it's not a big deal.
Since the Le Mans is a 24-hour race, every hour of the day has to be captured and translated graphically - and it is, in splendid glory. The sun shimmers and casts the sky in vibrant colors, from the red and purple hues that comes after the sun dips under the mountains to the bright blues of midday. During night races, lights glow and flicker appropriately in the darkness.
The attention to detail is just very impressive. Your car will leave persistent skid marks and dirt marks; as you round your umpteenth lap, those marks will still be there. Your racecar will reflect the many shades of the day and cast a realistic shadow. It's all there.
Some graphical edges on the road are a mite jaggy, similar to Ridge Racer V, and the background's resolution could be a touch sharper, but with all the other beauty and detail, these faults are easy to overlook. This is a pretty game.
The sound effects are captured nicely, but the music somewhat generic. But what do you want out of a racing game?
Le Mans is purported to be the world's most famous race. Maybe I don't go out to the French countryside enough, but I never really heard of it until this game. But after some research into Le Mans and taking on the challenge, I believe Test Drive Le Mans truly captures this race. If you have been a fan of Le Mans than you should definitely get the game.
For the rest of you, the closed European racetracks are a refreshing change of pace from the 'left turn only' American Nascar equivalent. The graphics are definitely beautiful and it controls sweetly. And bonus - I've started to see this game discounted at stores. So go ahead and torture yourself - you'll be surprised how much you might turn to like it.