What the f**k is this? I asked myself the same question when I saw the game a week ago. Needless to say my curiousity got the best of me and I bought it. Here’s how it turned out.
Speed Challenge: Jacques Villeneuve’s Racing Vision is a simulation racing game set in the year 2027 where racing drivers don’t actually drive real cars. The premise involves drivers sitting in a simulator where the tracks can be anywhere since they aren’t real. It pushes the fact that drivers can “take more risks” because there’s no risk of physical harm if they crash. Apparently drivers in the future are sissies, no wonder Captain Falcon dominates so easily.
The game controls very well, it uses the cube controller’s triggers for a pressure sensitive throttle and brake, which is something I’ve craved in GameCube racers since the beginning. The C stick changes the camera, but be careful: while driving you can actually switch the camera to another car in live gameplay. This makes it a bit awkward when you switch back to your car and it’s facing the wrong way accelerating into a wall. X acts as a “target” button, it places a circle around another car on track and gives you information about their highest speed and best lap time.
The handling is where the game falls apart – it feels like you’re driving on ice. Steering feels awkward and too responsive; there’s a very small line between veering slightly to the left and rapidly jolting there. It feels more like a dpad than an analog stick. There’s almost no control at all through corners, it’s like you have to make a preset path and position your car into the corner and then watch what happens. It’s really frustrating and when you go off the race track it gets even worse. Simple curbs around the edge of the track force you to cease all control of the car, you’ll plow straight ahead until you can come to an almost complete stop. If you try and adjust anything, you’ll end up in a spin. It’s brutal. You’d think cars in 2027 would be able to navigate these things considering F1 cars have been going over curbs for decades before this game was released (2002). Even when you nail a corner perfectly there’s no satisfaction.
The damage system in the game is somewhat interesting. It uses the whole Virtual Reality racing concept to its advantage and features cars that heal themselves. Smash your front wheels into a wall and you’ll be unable to turn for about 15 seconds until the damage icon on that part of your car disappears. Hit another car or wall and your car can start to veer to the left or right, indicating bent steering. This also fixes itself. You can actually see the car slowly transform back into its original self after a crash breaks something. The future doesn’t need a pit lane.
The garage is the heart of the game. You can tune about 15 different things in your car, and they all make a noticeable difference. This is where the mediocre handling of the game turns into a fun experiment. Unlike most driving simulators, there’s a core stats graph for your car, showing acceleration, braking, rear and front grip and top speed. These stats will change in real time as you modify things on the car, like removing front wing from 30 to 28 will show the top speed bar move up slightly. It’s a very user friendly way to understand what every part of the car does without having to drive it out on the track and guess.
The tracks are wildly different and this is why tuning your car is so important. You can gain as much as 10 seconds per lap by tuning your car for a fast circuit or short one. There are some default tuning settings that allow you to be competitive anywhere, but if you want to flex your stuff you’ve got to adapt the car. Sure, all simulation racers are like that, but this game exaggerates it to a whole new level – the difference between setups is enormous. The fastest top speed setup will make the car not even turn at all.
The tracks go around the world to “real locations” and are hugely exaggerated, from an Egyptian level with pyramids and sphinx statues to a Tokyo level with bright neon lights around the track. There’s even an Australian track with nothing but huge red rocks and desert, with gum trees growing abnormally out of the sides of the rocks (some are dead with no leaves) and giant aboriginal artworks in the tunnels. It’s just like my local karting track. The layouts of the tracks are quite cool, packed full of corners you don’t see in modern day race tracks, hairpins all over the place and some really fast corners that go for about 20 seconds. There’s an option to race at night or in the rain but I haven’t noticed the rain affecting handling. It looks a bit crap too; it feels more like glitchy white spears are falling from the sky.
The game modes are specifically tailored around the different ways to set up the car. There are events with “no traction control”, “oversteer”, “no ABS” and all sorts of gimmicks which spices up the action a lot. Being handicapped in a game with poor handling is definitely a “challenge”. There’s an absolute f*ckload of content in the game. The season mode consists of about 12 different events, in January alone. It goes for 12 months. Then you get another year. I haven’t dared to try and finish it, not solely for lack of enthusiasm but also due to the ridiculous save file taking up 52 blocks. That’s almost an entire memory card from launch day, only Animal Crossing earned that right. In 2011, all my GameCube real estate is taken up. I’m not deleting my Pikmin 2 saves for this.
Overall Speed Challenge is a game with HUGE ambitions – if they pulled off everything in this game successfully it would have been the best racer ever. Ex Formula One World Champion Jacques Villeneuve apparently took part in all stages of the games development, and from that I can guess how it went. I can imagine him saying, “Put this in, do this! Make it faster! Now do this! Wouldn’t THIS be cool!” and it just feels like the development team couldn’t keep up. Bruno Senna’s role in developing Ferrari Challenge seems a lot less intrusive in comparison and that worked out much better.
Speed Challenge is still a decent effort and the game is packed with some nice things, but the the poor driving physics ultimately make the experience rather dull. That said, it’s the best racing game Ubisoft has ever made.