Never get out of the car.
Before I write one word about Interstate '76: Arsenal, there's something you should know. Unlike those other game reviewers drooling over Wing Commander: Prophecy, Quake 2and Jedi Knight, my pick for 1997 has to be Arsenal's predecessor, Interstate '76. Though I actually clocked more hours on several other games last year, none came close to generating the pure gaming bliss that was the much-too-short experience of Activision's masterpiece. The setting, cars, guns, music, and characters all found a place in my heart. It gives me warm fuzzies even today. I'm the guy who owns the game's soundtrack on CD. I'm the guy who laid down $100 for a Thrustmaster T2 wheel just to enhance the experience. I'm the guy who still has Jade, Groove and Taurus wallpaper on his Windows 95 desktop. The only reason you don't see me wearing Auto-Vigilante embossed bell bottoms is because they're all sold out. You get the point, right? I'm biased.
To my mind, there was only one significant flaw in the original Interstate '76: it was over too soon! An expansion pack, then, was more than just welcome news. Like all fans of the game, I had been greatly anticipating the rumored sequel, Interstate '77. Alas, this did turn out to be only a rumor. The latest word is that the sequel will be released in 1999 and will be called Interstate '82. So what's this new thing called Arsenal? And what's that other thing called the Nitro Pack? I know it's confusing.
Here's the deal: Arsenal includes both an enhanced Gold Edition of the original game and a completely new twenty-mission add-on called the Nitro Pack. This means that if you already own I-76, you have two options: 1. Buy the complete Arsenal package ($40) and send in your original CD for a rebate ($15), or 2. Buy the Nitro Pack separately ($20) and download the insanely large Gold Edition for free at www.activision.com. If you don't already own the original, the process is simple: go buy Arsenal now!
I mean it. Interstate '76 rocks, and with Arsenal, it's twice the fun. Surprisingly the Gold Edition really does improve the graphics and increase the frame rate, just as Activision claims it does. The Nitro Pack missions are cool as well - new sounds, tunes and terrain (snow and grass!) all add to the experience and it's a real treat to drive as Groove Champion's sister Jade and his buddies Taurus and Skeeter. Unlike the original, the Nitro Pack is not connected by a linear story, but it does reveal more about the themes explored in I-76. You'll come to better understand the vigilantes, the gasoline conspiracy, the interesting Jade/Taurus relationship, heck, you'll even learn more about Mondo Burgers.
The in-game banter and mini-movies are just as stylish and entertaining as the original and if any of you were worried (as I was) that Activision might do something silly like hire new voice actors (witness the disappointing Lara replacement in Tomb Raider II), rest assured that Greg Eagles, Lisa Picotte and Tom Kane are once again on-board and do a fine job of reprising their roles. In addition to the trio of heroes, a secret character is waiting for those with enough skill to unlock him, and the new multiplayer scenarios include racing tracks, capture the flag games, password protection, and weapons limitations. The handful of added weapons and cars are nothing to write home about, but do supplement the variety of the already-strong car setup screen.
On the downside, there are some things that could make this a better game: there's still no mid-mission save feature, cooperative multiplayer, or pre-multiplayer chat room, the graphic textures and scenery still tend to pop in and out in unrealistic and distracting ways and even with new customizable difficulty levels, some missions are still insanely hard. But the biggest problem is that it's still too short! This game is just too good to be over so quick, all we can do now is wait for Interstate '82.
I'm rarely impressed by add-on packs. Though an occasional winner comes down the pike (i.e., Scourge of Armagon, the single-player mission pack for Quake) most don't offer much bang for the buck (The Grand National Series add-on for Nascar Racing 2, comes to mind). At $20, the Nitro Pack is a steal. If you've never played the original, then $40 for Arsenal will be some of best gaming dollars you ever spent. Though the single-player game ends too soon, this doesn't substantively detract from the pure fun to be found in the hours of play it does provide. I'd recommend this stylish piece of game art to anyone seeking a top-notch action game.