It's lonely on the open road.
It seems like console racing aficionados fall into two camps- either you prefer a sleek, fast racer unmarred by messy crashes or you would rather barrel down the road causing mayhem and destruction to vehicles, pedestrians, and unwary road-crossing creatures. Acclaim's new racer Vanishing Point manages to abstain from joining either camp. Sometimes it's good to be different. Then again, sometimes different isn't any fun.
Vanishing Point boasts smoke, skid marks, sparks, environment mapping, dynamic lighting and zero popup. The vehicles are well-rendered and backgrounds are nicely done, though a bit dull. Aesthetically speaking, the game looks fairly good.
Plus, vehicles are weighted and balanced with nice suspension and the ability to powerslide or fishtail depending on your driving kung-fu and the general characteristics of the car. The control isn't exactly intuitive, but there are always learning curves in racers. Vanishing Point's curve isn't steep and the control is configurable to help you along. And you will very quickly figure out which of the vehicles are driveable and which aren't, although you'll need to drive all of them if you want to finish this game.
So far, Vanishing Point seems like an average racer. But who are you racing? This is the question that players will be pondering as they plow around lap after lap of simulated asphalt. The answer isn't very clear.
Presumably you are racing a clock, although there are other "opponents" on the road. Yet these so-called "opponents" all have different starting times and probably aren't on the same lap. They, too, are racing clocks.
This little difference takes all the fun out of what could have been a decent racer for the Playstation. There is no thrill in cutting off an opponent just before the finish line for the final lap if it's only my final lap and he's just started out on his first lap.
There are civilian vehicles on the road as well. Apparently, these poor guys don't know they're on a track and are driving around constantly looking for an exit that never materializes. They serve as moving obstacles for opponent cars to nudge you into just before you complete your final lap. The result of these friendly taps are gratuitous displays of suddenly weightless flip-flopping and spinning which invariably results in your car facing the wrong way on a narrow strip of road. Turning these babies around is like trying to pull a three-point turn in a school bus on a footpath. Of course, there's always the handy 'reset' feature they've so thoughtfully included which drops you a new car at a dead stop and gives you a time-penalty to boot, and remember, you are racing against time.
Oh, and don't expect damage modeling for any of that crashing action.
The game features a yawner of a two-player mode where you and a friend can race around on empty roads. There are two other multiplayer modes requiring upwards of three players.
Then there's Stunt Driver mode, which is possibly the best in the game. In Stunt Driver, the player is provided a particular vehicle and asked to perform prescribed stunts within a certain period of time. Stunts include barrel rolls, slalom driving, jumps, and...bubble busting. Although this is as interesting as the game gets, there aren't enough events in this mode to carry the entire game.
It's very hard to take a game seriously as a racer when they start off by offering you only two vehicles: a Ford Mustang and a Ford Explorer. There are plenty of unlockable vehicles, like the pickup truck and the VW van…like whoopity-do, man. If I wanted to drive along with vehicles like that I could get in my own modest jalopy and hang around on the freeway.
There are other cars to unlock, like the Dodge Viper, etc. but are players truly ready for the commitment to frustration it takes to unlock them? I'd say no, not unless they were stuck on a barren desert island with only a Playstation and Vanishing Point and they've finished counting all the sand.
Vanishing Point also features some elements of gameplay seemingly designed to assure the player of a generally disappointing experience. For example, races begin with your car already in motion with an Auto Drive that allows you to take over control after a number of seconds. When the race ends, your car is still in motion and the screen irises to black. This plays as if someone handed you a controller mid-race and then unplugged the Playstation before you've finished. Not only is this lame, it nullifies any possibility of intensity.
As you race, your position is monitored at three points on the track. If your position changes between points you won't know about it until you hit the next point...and it doesn't take much for your position to change. So not only can you not mark your progress within a race by noting how many vehicles you've passed, you can't count on your on-screen display, either.
Dual Shock function is so poorly supported that vibration only kicks in when you hit a curb or collide with an object and adds nothing to the game. For the most part it only serves as a reminder that it could have been utilized much better.
Believe it or not, the Tune-up Shop is an unlockable feature, so it isn't available when you start. This leaves new players to struggle with vehicles that serpentine erratically down the road like runaway horses after sucking down troughs of Night Train. The Tune-up Shop should have been available from the start. Making players labor to unlock what might help them gain some control over their vehicles is unforgivably cheap.
Vanishing Point suffers from fatal conceptual flaws. Complete reliance on unlockable features, limited choices of starting vehicles and tracks, and staggered opponent start times have taken what could have been a good game and ruined it.