Some Race Games Leave Others in the Dust

From left, Grid is a tour of U.S., Japanese and European tracks; NASCAR 09 is likely best for fans of the sport; and Emergency Heroes asks you to save the day.
From left, Grid is a tour of U.S., Japanese and European tracks; NASCAR 09 is likely best for fans of the sport; and Emergency Heroes asks you to save the day. (From Left: Codemasters Via Associated Press; Ea Sports Via Associated Press; Ubisoft/
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Friday, July 18, 2008

With gasoline prices at $4 a gallon and rising, the leisurely Sunday drive is becoming a luxury. But there is an alternative: the automotive video game. And the only fuel you need is the electricity that powers your TV and game console.

Grid (Everyone; Windows PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; Codemasters) Britain's Codemasters studio gained a cult audience with its ToCA Race Driver, and it has applied the lessons from that series (as well as from last year's off-road racer Dirt) to this addictive new title. This game is an adept blend of arcade-style racing and hard-core simulation, and it's the most fun I've had behind a virtual steering wheel this year. The titular grid is a matrix of events, combining racing disciplines in a variety of U.S., European and Japanese locations, real and imagined. Courses include winding mountain roads, such famous tracks as Le Mans and Nurburgring, and such urban environments as Washington and Detroit. You can drive stock cars, muscle cars, touring cars and open-wheel cars, and compete in a demolition derby or a drifting competition. The controls feel natural, although your computer-controlled opponents can be vicious, slamming you into walls with no regrets. But the game does cut you some slack: After a smash-up, you can rewind the action and resume from a point before things went wrong. Even with these "flashbacks," though, the races are still challenging, and you'll feel like you earned every victory.

NASCAR 09 (Everyone; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; PlayStation 2, $39.99; EA Sports) Look, I get that America loves NASCAR. I understand the appeal of the feuds between its various characters. I'll even watch the end of a race -- if I'm waiting for "King of the Hill" to come on. But the real-life sport presents one huge obstacle: It's just driving in circles. And anytime it threatens to get interesting (with a crash, say, or someone spinning out), a caution flag gets raised, slowing the action to a crawl. Are NASCAR drivers really such wimps? I'm calling you out, Kurt Busch! This game does have a nice selection of "Sprint Driver Challenges" that test particular skills, such as drafting, avoiding wrecks or maintaining a certain speed. But the meat of the game is those endless, predictable races, with graphics and audio that pale in comparison to Gran Turismo or Forza. If you watch the sport on TV, you might find it entertaining; then again, if you hate Jeff Gordon, you'll hate this, because he's all over the thing.

Emergency Heroes (Everyone 10+; Wii, $39.99; Ubisoft) This open-world adventure holds the promise of a mirror version of Grand Theft Auto, in which you're stopping mayhem instead of creating it. Alas, the futuristic metropolis of San Alto is nowhere near as expansive or detailed as Liberty City, and the variety of things you can do is much more limited. You have three types of vehicles (firetrucks, ambulances and police cars) and essentially three types of missions (putting out fires, rescuing victims and chasing criminals). All the tasks within each category feel the same, however, and the attempt to add a plot, told through comic book still frames, falls flat. The driving itself isn't much better. The steering, acceleration and braking are imprecise, and the vehicles seem like they're floating. Emergency Heroes feels like a rush job that doesn't do justice to its inspirations.

-- Lou Kesten, Associated Press

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