Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Star Grand Prix Review

New Star Grand Prix, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Intense arcade racing, all current F1 tracks and (slightly renamed) drivers, challenging but well adjusted difficulty, track editor
The Not So Good: Second-rate career mode with less management options, lacks multiplayer, tight racing requires precision driving
What say you? Although the career mode has been simplified, the enjoyable racing makes up for it: 6/8

What is that high-pitched scream on the horizon? Why, it’s the sound of the new F1 season! That, or the French are at it again. The world's most popular racing series has about the same amount of interest here in the U.S. As the world's most popular sport: close to none. But I still harbor at least a marginal interest in F1 racing and it's action-packed mix of single-line racing and the occasional pass. Yes, it's really “soccer” on the race track. Because it is a very popular series, numerous games have been developed that center around F1 racing, although they almost always tend to be simulations aiming for realism. The developer behind New Star Soccer has adapted the career management aspects of that title and arcade racing on the F1 tracks of the world and produced the aptly-named New Star Grand Prix. Will this game make the podium, or suffer from mechanical failures?

New Star Grand Prix chooses to use a 2-D overhead perspective for its game, and it works well if you can adjust to it. Transitioning from playing many racing games from inside the cockpit to New Star Grand Prix takes some time and I do end up crashing when turning the wrong way (since the car rotates but not the background), but it's nothing that's completely terrible and it's certainly tolerable. The tracks aren't photorealistic by any means, but they do contain a good assortment of track-side objects (boats in Monaco, for example) and look similar enough to their real-life counterparts. The cars are easily identifiable by the paint schemes (if you know that sort of thing) despite being quite small. Damage results in a gradually thicker smoke trail following your vehicle; wrecks never involve flying parts of any type of advanced modeling, although the cars are too small to notice. New Star Grand Prix is best played in a window, especially since the game lacks my prized 1280x1024 screen resolution option. As for the sound design, New Star Grand Prix features distinct F1 engine sounds that work well unless you are near top-speed, as it tops out and starts to shift again. The crashing sound is repetitive but pleasingly dangerous, and your crew chief (which I suspect is the game developer) notifies you of lap times and low fuel and he is helpful enough. The rain sound effect, however, is entirely too loud and dominates the game during inclement weather. The music is good enough, although it's not necessarily “race-y.” Overall, New Star Grand Prix delivers exactly what you would expect for a 2-D racing game.

New Star Grand Prix centers around the career mode, where you lead a driver (most likely yourself, as the registration key for the game is tied to your character’s name) over ten years of the F1 racing series. The game features all of the tracks that are currently featured in the series, in addition to slightly-renamed drivers in order to avoid getting sued. It’s easy to correct the names or simply download the real drivers. Unlike New Star Soccer, only features the F1 series, not allowing you to “grow” over time and work your way up to the top series. Adding in subordinate series, even if the races take place at the same tracks, would reduce the repetition of going against the same roster of drivers week after week for ten years straight. When you create a new career, you’ll have to choose one of the current teams (and replace a real driver); teams are rated according to handling, acceleration, and top speed. Ratings change ever so slightly over time according to season results, but there are no options to start a new team or work your way up the ranks. If the 17 tracks that come with New Star Grand Prix aren’t enough, you can always use the track editor to extend the action even further. The editor is not nearly as straightforward as the one offered in Roadclub, but the option is there for those who want to pursue it. While New Star Grand Prix does offer an online time leaderboard where you can upload your fastest laps at each track, there is no multiplayer either online or on the same computer: a detriment for a racing title. New Star Grand Prix will automatically save your progress, whether you want it to or not.

In addition to actually driving the car (more on that later), you’ll have to maintain relationships with four groups: your boss, pit crew, the fans, and friends. Posting fast laps and good finishes will impress your boss, who might promote you to #1 driver status and earn more cash. Expectations are adjusted based on the team you are driving for. A happy pit crew will complete pit stops faster, and they are disappointed by high amounts of damage. Fans like good results and provide sponsorship, and your friends will affect your reaction time at the beginning of the race (as an abstraction of focus, I suppose) and can be influenced by random events. You can also take your pit crew or friends to the casino and play the same games that were present in New Star Soccer (black jack, roulette, slot machine). Money earned for race results can be used to purchase cars and property; there is no benefit to this, although you can purchase cars for your friends and then race against them for fun. I was disappointed with the relationship and career options in New Star Grand Prix, especially after playing with the robust options present in New Star Soccer. Having only one series and only one outside-of-racing activity produces a lot of repetition, and makes the career and relationship options tedious instead of enjoyable. Fans react harshly to poor finishes, even if you are still high in points, and the overall career experience is disappointing.

Luckily, the racing in New Star Grand Prix fares much better than the career options. While the game does not handle two joysticks plugged in at the same time, an analogue gamepad is preferred for more precise turning. The game handles just like any other racing title, so racing is intuitive once you get past the initial learning curve associated with the top-down perspective (I still occasionally turn the wrong direction when driving “down” the screen). The key to turning good laps in New Star Grand Prix is to never, ever go off the track, as you will be significantly slowed. The game features changing weather, so pit strategy to put on wet tires is a common occurrence. Your car behaves poorly on dry tires after a couple of laps in the rain, although running on wet tires under dry conditions has less of a noticeable effect. I’ve been tricked on numerous occasions trying to stay ahead of the weather, only to have the conditions quickly switch back. During a pit stop, you are given options to fuel and change your tires, although the game does not indicate how many laps a given amount of fuel is good for. The default race length of ten laps usually involves at least one pit stop with additional ones for inclement weather. Cars are thankfully ghosted while in the pits, eliminating collisions with reckless AI drivers. Tire wear does matter in the game, as fresh rubber performs much better.

New Star Grand Prix features a forgiving damage model, where you can actually mix it up a bit with the AI drivers, unlike the boring real F1 where one scratch means that you are done for the race. New Star Grand Prix features some very competitive AI that put up a good fight, using the preferred line and providing satisfying opposition. You are almost always racing someone in the game, keeping the intensity level high. The AI drivers are far from perfect, however: while during qualifying the AI will occasionally run off-track, during the races they are far too robotic, sticking to the preferred line and not moving even if you are beside them. This stiffness leads to a lot of on-track incidents, so it’s a good thing the damage model is not as severe as in real life. The AI is also too evenly matched amongst themselves, as the difference between 1st and 8th can be only two seconds: this isn’t NASCAR! It would be better (and less stressful) if the cars were more spread out during the race. As a result, New Star Grand Prix is one of the more stressful racing games I’ve played, featuring narrow tracks and robotic AI that is more than happy to run into you if you attempt to use the racing line while passing them. This inflexibility does lead to less passing (as in the real series), but also less exciting racing.

New Star Grand Prix generally does a good job adapting the finer aspects of New Star Soccer to F1-style arcade racing. If the top-down perspective isn't enough to hamper your enjoyment, then you'll find close, intense racing (much more so than the real-life series). The tracks are all very narrow and passing opportunities are few (as is the case in the realm of reality), but the damage model is forgiving enough that you can beat and bang at least a little bit to make a pass. The AI drivers are much better during qualifying, as they will exhibit human-like imperfections, and drive much more like robots in races, rarely getting out of your way or deviating from the programmed racing line even if you are directly beside them. New Star Grand Prix immerses you into the current F1 season by providing all of the current track layouts and drivers, although you will have to rename them for total authenticity. If the included tracks are not enough, then you can always make your own, although the editor is much less intuitive than the competition. New Star Grand Prix surprisingly eliminates the variety of the career mode exhibited by its predessesor, giving you one off-track option (the casino) to improve relationships. This shortcoming isn't that big of a deal since the racing is enjoyable, though. The graphics, though small, are detailed enough to differentiate between teams and allow for an educated guess on the location based off of looks alone. The continued lack of multiplayer is a detriment for a racing game, but the AI drivers offer up enough of a competent challenge. In all, the transition to motorsport has gone smoothly and fans of top-down racing games will find competitive racing with some career management options.