Synaptic Soup

Interview - Synaptic Soup talk about their recently announced sci-fi racing game "Crazy Car Championship"

Last summer the lead designer, lead programmer and lead artist behind the innovative third person action game "Evolva" left Computer Artworks to form a new company called Synaptic Soup. We caught up with them a few months later to chat about their impressive looking new 3D game engine Cipher, but at the time they couldn't tell us about any of the games which would use the engine.

But now we know that the first of their own games to be powered by Cipher will be the appropriately titled "Crazy Car Championship", a fantasy motor racing game which has been turning heads since its announcement a couple of weeks ago. And so we chased down Vince, Karl and Rik again to find out more about their latest project...

The Floating Island

jan06b

The motor racing genre can be a rather crowded place at times, with dozens of hardcore sims all seeking to replicate the same rally stages or Formula One race tracks, the same cars, and the same realistic physics. The idea behind Crazy Car Championship was simply to offer something completely different.

"We're all big driving game fans, but our tastes tend to be toward the Mario Karts and Diddy Kongs of the world rather than the more serious driving games", development director Vince Farquharson explained. "The initial starting point for the idea was to create an easily accessible driving game that would offer an alternative to the plethora of serious sim style racers that are around."

The game also features a rather unique setting for a driving game, described by Vince as "Jules Verne meets Flash Gordon", with the fanciful tracks built around a series of Laputa-style chunks of rock hanging amongst the clouds. "I've wanted to do a game with flying islands in it for years", Vince admitted. "We needed a spectacular environment to set Crazy Car Championship within to give the kind of rich and new look that we wanted, so it seemed like the perfect fit."

Clipper Of The Clouds

jan02b

Inspiration for the game's visual style came from a whole range of different sources. "We've got a huge scrapbook of images from old books, blueprints of old aircraft, vintage sci-fi magazines and etchings from Victorian almanacs", art director Karl Wickens told us. "In the more mainstream, I think the old black and white Flash Gordon series, as well as some of the 'nicer' anime animations, have also contributed to the look."

The game's fanciful artistic style isn't limited to the settings either, with an equally odd selection of characters and customisable cars to race, ranging from "steam-powered hovercraft to quantum powered hot-rods" according to the blurb on the company's website. "Each of the characters comes with a unique car and their own personality and set of driving attributes, which results in a variety of handling models that effect the gameplay", explained technical director Rik Heywood. "Buying components that boost these attributes allows the cars to be customised from there."

Customisation plays a major part in the game, replacing the usual tinkering with ride heights and suspension stiffness that you find in hardcore driving sims with a range of weird and wonderful optional extras and temporary power-ups to take advantage of. "The components all have a strong visual effect on the cars, as well as a gameplay effect. For example, you might replace a set of chunky piston driven wheels with a set of powerful space-age thrusters. These cause your car to hover just above the ground, but also effect the car's traction significantly."

Island Of Propellers

jan01b

So far we have only seen one track from the game in the screenshots that have been released, and Vince told us that this is just "an early prototype". But already things are looking rather impressive, with the Victorian steampunk and Japanese anime influences coming through strong to produce a world of colourful, curvaceous scenery punctuated by giant turbines and fanciful suspension bridges.

And this is just a taste of things to come. "We're planning on making the final tracks considerably more detailed and longer", Vince confirmed. "We want to make laps take about a minute to try to keep race times below five minutes. There's nothing more frustrating than having to replay the long track in a racing game when you just failed to get a position; we're trying to combat that by having a quicker turn around on races so you can more easily 'just have another go'".

Console gamers will be glad to hear that they will be able to get in on the action as well. "We've built the game upon our Cipher engine, which targets all of the next-gen formats as well as the various PC and Mac operating systems. Our current plan is pretty much to target all of them, although it's going to come down to strategic decisions on the part of our publisher as to which of these we take through to completion."

Dropped From The Clouds

jan05b

As well as the usual range of quick race and championship modes for single players, the game will also include full client-server multiplayer support with a wide selection of different ways of competing against your fellow gamers. "We have plans for quite a few multiplayer modes in the finished game, from traditional all out races to tag and CTF modes", Rik revealed. "There are also a few others, but you will have to wait to see them all!"

And with the new generation of consoles sporting internet connections, you won't even need a beige box to play online. Thanks to the Cipher engine's cross-platform multiplayer support, console and PC owners will be able to race against each other over the net. "There are obviously some technical issues to overcome", Rik admitted. "But all of the next-gen consoles now have decent analogue controllers and net connectivity options, so it is really just a case of getting on and doing it."

In fact the only bad news is that Crazy Car Championship has only been in development for a couple of months so far, although on the bright side the Cipher engine has allowed them to get a playable version up and running fairly quickly.

Conclusion

jan04b

It's likely to be at least another year before Crazy Car Championship is ready for release, and as Karl told us "it's hard to imagine what other games will have been released by the time this is on the shelves". With everything from a new Wipeout for the PlayStation 2 to the impressive looking PC game "Ballistics" currently under development, Synaptic Soup are keeping a close eye on the competition.

"The Wipeout games are always extremely polished products, and Ballistics is looking good, although it's probably a little hardcore for my tastes", Rik told us. "But you can be sure that we will be looking at all of them closely to see what lessons can be learnt."

Certainly things are looking promising for Crazy Car Championship at this early stage though, with a spectacular setting for the races to take place in, and the focus very much on fun rather than realism for realism's sake. Expect to hear more about this one over the next year.

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