Total Immersion Racing attempts to live up to its name by offering players an opportunity to build a career driving one of 18 licensed GT cars. Five authentic and five fictional courses are available, with real-world venues taking place in Hockenheim, Monza, Sebring, and Rockingham, as players challenge a series of ten computer AI rivals programmed to exhibit distinct driving styles and personalities. Opponents will remember how drivers react to them on various courses as the season progresses, and may retaliate late in the game while vying for the championship. As players attempt to improve their ranking, they can rely on engineers and managers on their team for tips and advice on how to break away from the pack. Total Immersion Racing also features a number of visual effects, including sun flare, fogging, variable weather, and heat distortion.
Total Immersion: the holy grail of every racing sim fan. Someone decided that would be a great name for a racing title, and I agree. The folks at Empire Interactive don't have a stellar history with racing titles (the awful, awful Grand Touring comes to mind). This is not one copy I anxiously tore open to review. Its promises of more human-like AI were tantalizing, but I've been burned with this one countless times before.
The game installs and configures easily enough, and the load times are not bad at all. My force feedback wheel was detected and configured properly, so I held my breath and did a quick race.
The graphics, I must say, are quite nice. The cars are highly detailed with visible interiors, nice reflection mapping, and dynamic suspensions. A proper cockpit view exists, and is unique to each type of vehicle. I've found that most games are either over-filtered, making the scenery and graphics appear slightly blurred, or under-filtered, making the objects on screen shimmer and sparkle as you move around on them. Total Immersion falls into the latter category, which truthfully I prefer. I've spent far too much time trying to sharpen other games' graphics. The frame rate seems pretty smooth for a game of this kind. There is access to a working mirror overhead, and it features the first of several innovative features.
On either side of the mirror is a vertical black bar. It fills up red or green, and represents the degree of overlap with another car on your left or right, and fills or empties as your amount of side overlap increases or decreases. This can help you when turning into a corner, as you'd want to know whether it's safe to turn in or not. It's the visual equivalent of that spotter in NASCAR telling you : "Car high...still there...clear high!". Perhaps it's not realistic to have these visual bars there, but then again, not being able to turn your head in a PC sim is not realistic, either, so I have no gripes with it, and in fact I think it's a nice visual aid, especially for beginners who lack good environmental awareness.
The other visual representation, and the most touted, is the button-activated display of the "mood" of the opponents you are racing against. Inverted triangles change color, growing progressively redder as they get angry with you, neutral as they don't care, or green, showing a defensive posture. I have really not witnessed much green -- just neutral or red. This is supposed to be persistent, as the game tracks just which drivers have grudges against you and which will race cleanly. More on how this affects gameplay later.
Finally, there are the tracks. Ah, the tracks. Perhaps the best part of the entire package, Empire has included a fantastic set of tracks. Most are real life tracks and a great job has been done on them. They are nicely detailed and look and feel as realistic as I've seen them in any other simulation. Two of the fantasy tracks, Talheimring and Springfield, should be looked at by any racing sim maker who wants to design fantastic tracks. The last time I found fantasy tracks I liked this much was Gran Turismo, except I think these are BETTER. They have many high speed corners, hilly areas with blind crests, and other nice features which make me want to see more of them. I repeat. These are two of the best fantasy track designs I've seen.
The sound is also quite nice. When in the cockpit view, it's biased a bit too much towards the right speaker and is a bit muted, but each kind of engine sounds noticeably different and is very much like what you would hear watching in-car footage on TV.
A race engineer will talk to you occasionally. A new feature here is on-the-fly setup. Instead of returning to the garage to painstakingly tweak your car setup, when you are doing time trials the engineer will tweak your car setup as you complete each clean lap, presumably to further improve the car based upon how you are driving it. In theory, this is an awesome feature. What sim (or real) driver wouldn't love to have improvements made automatically to the car on a lap by lap basis by an engineer who understands just what to do? In practice, the only thing the guy ever changes is my gear ratios! Maybe at some point he'll touch something else, but after 5 laps of gear ratio changes I was done.
The driving physics and driving feel are average. The feedback through the wheel didn't tell me much, and the lack of a good tire shriek fails to give me adequate feedback as to the balance of the car. However, putting the power down too aggressively can make your car fishtail, and maybe spin out. I did find that applying proper driving techniques increased my lap times and the car behaved predictably most of the time. That having been said, the model is fairly forgiving, and may be of interest of people who want to attack the course aggressively without feeling like every little mistake will fling them off the track.
The racing, unfortunately, is where the package falls apart. There's no damage model I can see. The worst smashups cause your cars to behave more like steel matchbox cars, bouncing off of barriers and banging against one another to no real consequence. The cars bounce off one another like bumper cars. They get deflected away for a moment, but don't spin out or lose control in most instances.
The AI is mainly awful. If you fly past them on the straight they won't jerk over to block, but follow someone closely and watch them fishtail the car down the road, as if they are in a panic because you are so close. When you should get in close in the middle of a corner, expect to be banged around pretty good, regardless of the other drivers' "emotions" towards you.
Basically the whole "emotion" thing appears to be more of a marketing gimmick than a real revolution. Even the best ideas crumble if the execution stinks, and it really does stink here. Not once in all the races I did, did I ever come close to believing that "moods" were any kind of factor.
On the other hand, even a moderately experienced sim driver will burn through this title in no time. After doing a few seasons in career mode, I decided to see what the game really had under the hood and tried a "Legend" mode single race, the toughest level. I won it easily. Someone forgot to tune this game for higher difficulty levels, or the way I have the game set up is wrong. Maybe someone who knows better might tell me how I could have increased the difficulty even higher, because I couldn't find another setting higher than Legend.
The bottom line here is that Total Immersion starts with a decent graphics engine, great sounds, and some fantastic track designs, and then spices it up with a few new innovative features, but then fails so badly in its actual execution. I think Razorworks should go back to the drawing board and address their problems in execution, because their concepts are intriguing and the presentation of the package is great. Multiplayer is a MUST for any future follow-up. But until they address these issues, this game is strictly for a driver who wants something less than a full-blown sim , and doesn't mind banging doors a lot. The graphics and sound are excellent, and the real sport should have nothing to be ashamed of with this title.
People who downloaded Total Immersion Racing have also downloaded:
TOCA Race Driver 2, TOCA Race Driver (a.k.a. Pro Race Driver), Wings over Europe: Cold War Gone Hot, Top Gun: Fire at Will, U.S. Navy Fighters Gold, Tornado & Operation Desert Storm, Test Drive 6, Wings over Vietnam
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