Thursday, July 28, 2005

Live for Speed S2 Review

Live for Speed S2 Alpha PC, developed and published by Live for Speed.
The Good: Great driving model, variety of tracks and cars, multiplayer
The Not So Good: No stock cars?
What say you? If you like road racing, you'll love this game: 6/8

A large majority of racing/driving games are simplified to appeal to the largest possible market, so that they are easy to pick up and play. Live for Speed is not one of these games. Developed independently by a three man team, Live for Speed strives for accurate physics and a real driving experience.

For having such as small team, the graphics are actually pretty good. The car interiors are slightly detailed, while the models themselves are pleasing to the eye. The track environments are filled with just enough detail to make them realistic, especially the city environment, with its variety of buildings. Best of all, the game runs silky smooth, and load times are very short. You can compare this to other PC racing games released recently (namely GTR and NASCAR SimRacing), which have load times that are easily 5 times longer. The sounds are very, very basic, however. The cars have different engine sounds, and you can hear the wind whipping by your cockpit, but the crash sound effects are very underwhelming. No matter if you hit the wall at 10 or 100 mph, it sounds pretty much the same. Improvements in this area could be made.

In S2, there are 18 cars modeled in the game. The car selection ranges from stock sedans, midgets, GTs, Formulas, Minis, and DTMs (a popular German series). About the only major racing series missing is NASCAR-style stock cars, which could be added in S3 (the final iteration in the series). Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

There are seven racing environments, each of which have several different arrangements of tracks. The range includes a city environment, fast F1 style, oval, and several GP tracks. All told, there are 23 layouts (I don't count reversed tracks: that's cheating). You'll probably be able to find a favorite and a not so favorite track among the choices.

Although I've never been in a real race car (my Saturn does not count), I think that the physics model used in Live for Speed is realistic. All of the cars handle differently, each providing their own challenge. The biggest difficulty I've had to overcome is trying to erase the lessons learned in stock car racing, where the cars have tons of downforce on the back spoiler. Most of these cars will spin out if you accelerate fully off the corner before straightening out, so you need to gradually apply the accelerator. Because of this, you really need a pedal set to enjoy this game, or be comfortable with using the driving aids. As with all racing games, practice makes perfect, and the best drivers will spend hours on one track with one car to find the best line. This means that most of the people you'll be racing against will be much faster than you, because all they do is race, apparently. Once you get past the initial learning curve, driving in this game is actually very fun, and the feeling you get from successfully taking a chicane is equaled in very few other games.

You can play Live for Speed against the AI drivers, or on the Internet. The AI drivers are actually fun to race against, as they will bump and grind you (virtually speaking) without spinning either party out, which is something that cannot be said for the NASCAR sims. They are also very good at the tracks on the hardest setting, especially for new drivers. You cannot mix the difficulty level of the AI drivers, however, so a more realistic blend of good and bad AI drivers is not possible. Of course, this game was meant for multiplayer. You can always find people through the in-game matching software, and some servers restrict the types of cars available, so you won't always need to race the Formula V8 to win. Most of the drivers on-line are good at the game, but you always get some jerks who either can't drive, intentionally run in to other cars, or both. Approaching the first braking corner is always an adventure for people near the back of the field. Mean drivers can be kicked or banned by the other drivers, so there is some form of retribution. Nice people can also share their fast setups with others just through the press of a menu option, so searching for that perfect setup may not be so hard.

Live for Speed has gained quite a large following, and has spawned quite a number of racing leagues and sites dedicated to the game. In addition, a central server keeps track of all your online races (much like the stat tracker in Battlefield 2), and also stores all the skins people have uploaded. Live for Speed sports some really cool features, especially for a game with such a small development team. A track editor may be added after the release of S3, but that is way in the future. This game is also very stable: even though it's officially in Alpha, I have yet to find a single bug or CTD. This cannot be said for more mainstream offerings (I'm looking in your direction, *insert any game*).

Live for Speed S2 is a great driving game. If you like road driving, you should check this game out. It is only available online at the official site, and you can download the demo version (which is the locked full version) to check out 3 cars at 1 track to see if Live for Speed is right for you. The game is even more impressive when you realize that three people are responsible for it. The variety of cars, tracks, and features makes this a wonderful investment for virtual racers everywhere.