Written by: Stoo

Date posted: December 1, 2003

Needs a primitive 3D Jeremy Clarkson in the drivers seat.

You’ll notice something a bit different about this page, compared to our other articles on anything involving driving cars. Specifically, that is that my name is at the top of it. I’m not really into racing games – I’m just not that good at them. I think different genres each require a different kind of patience. In strategy, its formulating tactics, trying them out and rethinking if it doesn’t work. In RPGs, the patience is in repeatedly grinding away killing rats to try and improve your weedy hero. In racing, it’s about memorizing the track so you can get around in the best time possible. It’s something I’ve not gotten the hang of myself – after screwing up a rally course for the fourth time because of one little slip-up, I tend to ragequit.

I’m making an exception for Car and Driver for one reason – it was created by Looking Glass studios. Over the course of the 90s they would, if not exactly reaching great fame, at least make a name for themselves amongst discerning gamers. Their specialty was imaginative and highly immersive first-person titles – action-RPG Ultima Underworld, the relatively cerebral shooter System Shock and the classic game of stealth, Thief. This is obviously something rather different, but I would like to one day have LG’s entire range covered here.

([edit] I later learned this was originally credited to “Lerner Research”, one of the companies that merged to form Looking Glass in 1992)

where am I going? Who knows!

The game is an officially licensed tie-in with Car and Driver magazine, an American publication for automobile enthusiasts. Fittingly then, the menu screens are fashioned like pages from the magazine, with lots of brief articles on the cars and tracks on offer. I imagine some of the comments must be rather dated by now, but I guess if you’re a Top Gear type yourself you might enjoy reading. Myself tho, while I know the first principles of how a car works I’ve never really had much interest in the details of gear ratios or whatever, and don’t read about cars for fun. As far as I’m concerned they’re just ordinary, fast or really fast.

Once in the driver’s seat, the first thing you’ll notice is that this all looks very dated. The scenery consist of bare, angular polygons and the car models are quite simple. Texture-mapping was still a few years in the future. There is at least an optional 640×480 SVGA mode, though, which keeps those polygons looking relatively crisp. Oh, and the car models feature working brake lights, huzzah.

What also soon becomes obvious, is that this isn’t exactly a racing game. All you’re competing with is your own best time. An optional opponent will re-create your best performance so far, but there’s no AI-controlled competition. Thus you’re left with a rather more relaxed feel to the game, compared to most racers. You’re not out to win tournaments or anything like that – just pick a road and a fast car and go for a drive. Trundle around at a safe speed or hare down it like a maniac, it’s really up to you.

Even in videogames I still can’t park.

As for those roads they fall into a few categories. Some are based on real stretches of US highway, and they’re the most entertaining in my book. If only because, being used to the cramped and truck-laden roads of this little nation, there’s a sense of romance to huge open American interstate highways in the middle of nowhere. There’s a bit of traffic to dodge round, occasional cafes and houses by the road, and some pretty scenery. Well, pretty by 1992 standards. Along with the highways there are some closed tracks to zoom around. Also a couple of novelty options like a shopping mall with a car-park. There are no invisible barriers forcing you to stay on the tarmac – if you leave the road you can happily crash across rough ground, and dunk yourself in a river. Not that ever happens to me, ahem. There is also a handy “help I’m a terrible driver put me back on the road please” command.

On a related note of how realistically the cars handle, unfortunately I’m not qualified to say alas. One thing I can tell you though, is that with the driving set to its easiest level, it employs a bit of idiot proofing. Essentially how sharp a turn you can make is restricted to the maximum at which the wheels can maintain grip – to stop you getting into a nasty spin. On the harder settings where you’d expect realism, well, reading around some other user reviews suggest that’s probably not the case (it’s a good thing you’re not paying to read this review, huh?).

By modern standards then, it’s pretty clear Car and Driver is a museum piece. The evolution of driving games tends to be a steady increase in graphics and (for the more serious ones) realism, so there’s not a lot of rational reason to go back to a real oldie unless it has some particular standout feature. Even if you’re on a budget or running a crap PC, you should be able to find something about five years old for £5 at your local gaming shop that will be way ahead of this. So largely this is a nostalgia piece, a reminder of the days when hills were an arrangement of angular planes, and mangled but cheerful midi music was squeezed out of the synthesizer chip on your soundcard.

Actually making it to the finish line.

Still, I do think that it retains a point of interest, if only in terms of what it represents. How many other games just let you go for a drive in the country, without worrying too much about the pressures of racing? I thought about this for a while – and the best answer is both obvious and not obvious. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas not only has huge open areas, but also freedom to cross them any way you want. Then again, it’s not the most realistic game either, the AI driving the traffic is crazy and, er, you might get shot at. So I think there could be a niche in the market here: a “driving simulator” featuring simply lots of countryside and highways, and a range of popular cars to try them with. Essentially Top Gear: The Game. Complete with smug commentary by Jeremy Clarkson telling you how awful your cornering is. Fantastic!

Update – it’s since come to my attention that Test Drive Unlimited offers a pretty good sandbox experience. It’s set over a large island in Hawaii and lets you drive around freely between races. This includes exploring cities, highways and going offroad and getting utterly lost in the forest. Which is mostly what I did. The game is from 2007 so too new for us to cover, although it should be easy to find a cheap copy.