The CarPG (racing games with role-playing-style gameplay) is becoming a well-worn genre, but where many racers focus on tweaking cars to achieve performance perfection, Evolution GT has you constantly sweating about the specs of the guy behind the wheel of the car.
First, pick your driver. It's not based on appearance, height, age, or anything other than which preset skill levels you want. A plus in Concentration, Anticipation, and Hindsight would make you better at avoiding intimidating maneuvers, and you can correct mistakes more easily. Drivers who race more on the edge will go for Throttle Control, Brake Timing, and Steering Precision. Or if you're just not sure, there's the All-Rounder. The stats get tweaked further as you gain experience and stat points with each level. It's a departure from the genre norm of focusing more on the car and improving its parts and performance than changing the driver himself. It's a little different, but I can deal.
Second, you pick a racing team. Different sponsors offer different experience point multipliers for different talents. Good at Intimidation or fancy setting lap records? Go with the team that offers a 2x or 3x multiplier for that, and you'll be gaining levels in no time. If you don't pay attention to which skills you're getting the most rewards for, you won't be earning experience as fast as your rivals, and will be perpetually behind. In fact, maddening as it is, oftentimes you have to continually lose races just to get the best experience points; then you can boost your talents and hopefully one day beat that guy who constantly seems ahead of the pack.
From there, the RPG comparisons get even more literal. You win new "gear" in the form of new racing suits, shoes, gloves, helmets, and the like, and they all have particular stat pluses and minuses, just like fancy auction-house niceties in World of Warcraft. Find the gear combo that suits your racing style (kind of like having Raid gear versus PvP gear) and get dressed.
The initial offerings are a bit slim, with three cars and three short tracks. Quick Play isn't much fun until you waste a day or two in Career mode unlocking cars and tracks, and even then, the differences between the Quick Play and Career modes make the former dangerous to go back to. QP is mainly an arcade racing mode, where you don't take damage and can generally drive like an idiot. Getting into this mindset and then trying to go back to Career mode will have you junking your car in no time and losing every race you set wheel in, and vice versa. If you take your careful driving skills from Career mode back to QP, you'll get dusted by guys who know the rules aren't the same and powerslide with reckless abandon, shoving you into guardrails.
At the intro to your career, you get tips from an actual racer via full-motion video clips. It reminded me a little of the Sega CD's heyday, but despite it being totally obvious this guy's no actor and squinted to see the teleprompter, the info he gives you is effectively your tutorial on how to perform the particulars of this game, including Intimidation, Cunning Overtakes, Drafting, and overall clean racing. Again, it feels strange getting points for tailgating and passing, and not getting a thing for slick powerslides or narrowly escaping disasters. It's about technique and exacting performance, not style or flash. And this is, for me anyway, where the racing sim genre starts to bog down.
Games like this stop being fun when they turn punishing and frustrating and there's nothing you can do once a guy gets a heady lead on you. Then you have to decide whether it's more worthwhile to finish a losing race and try to accumulate some semblance of experience points while risking the higher-level drivers getting an even bigger lead on you in the same area, or just restart over and over and over until you want to smash the controller to bits. This is not fun. It takes a certain breed of gamer to seek out this sort of digital brutality as entertainment. I can't blame an elephant for being gray, though; this game is what it is, and for those who prefer precision over goofy fun (think Excite Truck), this game excels.
However, I can fault the game for having no time trials, meaning you always start every race dead last. This opens up the opportunity for more Intimidation and getting other drivers to wreck, but there's little jostling for first. You aren't fighting for position as much as you're fighting just not to be dead last. The other drivers have moments of brilliance and moments of pure idiocy, not to mention that they can often do things effortlessly that would likely land you flat in the dirt. I can't imagine some of their stunts and fishtail slams that threw me off the course could really be gained via adding a point here or there to my relative talent tree.
There's also inconsistency in that some races you can blow everyone away, while it seems you'll never ever finish first in others, no matter what you do or how perfectly you take your corners. This randomness makes things uneven, since you're obviously going to stick with and constantly replay the races you know you can win to get the most experience. This fighting for a few numbers here and there brought back memories of grinding out low-paid races in Gran Turismo for hours on end just to afford a better car. The road to rewards and improvements is very slow and winding here. Thrill seekers and people who need to feel good about themselves right away should look elsewhere.
One other place this game strays from the norm perhaps too much is that in any and all career races I ran, you cannot pick your car, and everyone else on the track is driving the exact same automobile. I understand that this makes performance all about the driver, since the vehicle cannot enhance performance or give you an unfair advantage over underpowered rides, but it also makes things monotonous, as you pass lap after lap yet another of the same exact make and model that you're driving.
The interface is pretty clean, offering speed/tachometer, position, times, who's immediately in front of and behind you, and a special spot in the bottom left corner for Driver Condition, Car Damage, and Tiger Effect meters. Driver Condition runs down as cars tail you and supposedly stress you out. Waggle your tail end a little to shake them off, or when the meter is empty, everything becomes a hideous blur, making it impossible to steer or see where you're going. I think they overdid it a little here. Having the camera shake or vision go a little red would have sufficed and been less aggravating than doing the same thing the AI opponents would do, especially since it'll make you a worse driver while it's in effect. Increase your Concentration and Confidence stats to delay this effect. Car Damage is just what it sounds like; empty that one and you're done for the race, with a big DNF on your scorecard. Lastly, Tiger Effect is like the time rewind feature from the more recent Prince of Persia games, allowing you to go back a certain amount of time to correct mistakes. Increasing the length and regeneration rate of this effect relates to Anticipation and Hindsight skills. The better they are, the more meter and rewind you get to use. This is one of the game's more useful features, if not entirely novel.
The three different camera views give you very different looks at the lovely surroundings and what's going on. Bumper cam lets you see more of the cities and tracks you'll be racing though than the two more distant behind-the-car cams. Cities toured include London, Florence, Milan, Berlin, Valencia, and Barcelona among others, and dedicated tracks include Donington, Hockenheim, and Laguna Seca. The latest version of RenderWare does all of these locales justice in high-resolution glory. It's worth driving a lap or two just to take in the sights. Really really nice.
The cars aren't bad themselves, with full reflective surfaces, limited body damage modeling, and a snazzy roster of mostly imports. Opel, Volkswagen, TVR, Alfa, Audi, Mercedes, Renault, SEAT, and Vauxhall entries appear alongside some popular American standards like the Chevy Corvette Z06 and Monte Carlo, Pontiac GTO and Solstice. For Quick Race mode, you can pick your car and track, and sunny or rainy conditions; while the damage modeling doesn't affect handling or performance, weather definitely does. The rest of the grid and I spent the first 10 seconds of a race spinning our tires on rain-slick roads, just trying to find some traction.
In case you hadn't picked up on the largely European "flavor" of the game by now, it's available for play in five different languages, including English, Spanish, Italian, French, and German. There's music, but you only hear it on menus or during replays. This kind of misses the point by avoiding where you'll be spending most of your time in this game - on the track itself.
Default controls go to the keyboard, but I plugged in my Logitech Dual Action analog USB gamepad and was able to map everything right where I wanted it (analog steering and gas/brake, everything else to the triggers). At that point, it felt kind of odd to have to keep reaching for the keyboard to make menu selections when I had a perfectly good controller sitting right in my lap. Even if you pause the game with a controller button, you have to hit Enter to get back to the race. Not a huge deal, but it could have been avoided.
The stellar texturing and eerily photorealistic visuals manage to make the leap to the split-screen multiplayer modes, where I still got an impressive and constant 35 frames per second. There are only three modes here: Race, Tournament, and Survivor. Race is a single track between two opponents, while Tournament is a set of races on different tracks to see who's the best overall. Survivor is the only mode with damage enabled, as it takes center stage here. Whoever takes the most damage and wears out his car first loses the race. There's evidently no online modes, so this is all you're gonna get. It seems a bit slim in this age of eight-player online racers, and even the attempted racing MMOs.
Evolution GT's long-term appeal depends heavily on what types of racing games you prefer. If you hate the idea of getting last place 30 times in a row just to gain the stats needed to then maybe have a shot at the gold medal, well, stick to the arcade crowd. If you're into the tuner scene where everything down to the spokes on your rims is customizable, you should also look elsewhere since this game doesn't even let you change mufflers, let alone do a level-two weight reduction on your ride. But for the tiny itch of a niche that this odd racer scratches, you few should enjoy quite a bit leveling yourself up, getting the best gear, hitting level 40, and then beating Onyxia. Er, I mean Petrovic. I wish that guy would just wreck once in a while.
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