Tokyo Highway Challenge is a name which should ring a bell with more than a few Dreamcast owners. THC was a misunderstood classic - the kind of game you'd buy for a fiver on a whim, but, because it was so full of originality and charm, end up paying it for longer than other more acclaimed racers. Surprisingly, while the DC died the Tokyo Highway Challenge survived, spreading its cult-following accross a range of platforms like some kind of racing-game herpes. Now, with some subtle Ubisoft rebranding, the series has arrived on the 360. Has enough changed in the last 10 years to warrant a purchase? Is there enough space in the 360 market for yet another racing game?
Tokyo Highway History
First off though, its worth explaining to the uninitiated just what the mechanics of the Import Tuner Challenge/Tokyo Highway Challenge series are. Traditionally, the series was a racing game with a difference. Rather than conventional tracks and races, the series took place on miles of (apparently) accuratley modeled Tokyo Highway. The player was given full freedom to cruise around these highways as they liked, with the racing only occuring when the player decided to pull up behind a suitable opponent and flash their lights in challenge. Even after this smack-down had been offered, the Tokyo series spurned conventional race mechanics - instead of employing a system of laps or a fixed point-to-point objectives, races were based around beat 'em up style energy bars. If the player took the lead, the opponent's bar decreased. If the player fell behind, their own energy started to sap. This was an interesting system, and one with a certain degree of unpredictability - races went on for as long as they took, and the route each race took was dependent on the whims of the driver in front. After winning as few/many racers as the player wished, the player was free to return to their garage in order to spend their winnings on new cars/car upgrades and to tune their vehicle to perfection. After this, it was time to hit the road, in a never ending cycle of driving, racing and tuning. It was certainly a little rough round the edges, particuarly with its flat graphics and unfeasibly stiff handling, but it was different enough from the pack to justify its presenceas a cult classic.
The 2007 Model
Unfortunatley the above description is just as true of the core mechnics in 2007 as it was in 2001. So, has enough changed to warrent a purchase? Well, in its defence there are a number of new features on offer. While before there was only one night-time setting, in ITC you have a choice of 3 - including the hazy light of dawn. You can now also pull into car parks and, after engaging in some woefully translated banter, engage in some point-to-point races which help to add a little variety to the formula. As one would expect from a game on the 360, there's also the inevitable multiplayer features, scoreboards and achievements to help boost the game's longetivity.
Unfortunatley, not only do most of these features not go as far as the player would like, most of the improvements come with significant draw-backs. While ITC finally boasts a range of licensed cars, for example, the overall library is far, far smaller than that of even the original Dreamcast title. Worst of all, the small additions which add spice to the basic formula are all essentially nullified by the fact that the game world is far smaller and thus much more repetitive than that of the other games in the series. Though the handling has been improved, it still feels incredibly stiff when compared to other 360 racers and, while the miltiplayer additions are welcome, they also feel like a missed opportunity - The conventional player match/ranked match system feels like a cop-out when compared to the open racing world of the single player experiance, and a long way behind the curve now that Test Drive: Unlimited has introduced us to MMOR.
Not As fast As The Rest, But Still Quite Infuritating
So all in all, objectively ITC seems to have little to offer the crowded 360 racer market. It is, unfortunatley, the living record of missed opportunity. While Genki offered racers the exciting concept of an open world long before anyone had even dreamed of the likes of Test Drive: Unlimited, ITC shows just how far they have fallen behind the curve and just how many of their once-innovative ideas have become archaic. Objectively speaking, its very difficult to reccomend what is essentially suped-up version of a seven year-old Dreamcast game which lacks many of the improvments we would expect from a game published for the 360.
Subjectively, however, I can't quite bring myself to be too harsh. While it lacks any great objectively improvement, the core game is still a good one. While other games may improved on the series' open-world mechanics, ITC's battle system is still all its own and, despite all of the faults, the gameplay is still strangely compelling. Although the difficulty leaves much to be desired once you've got a decent car and a couple of upgrades under your belt, there are hundreds of racers for you to try your luck against and, for some reason, thrashing the pants off them never seems to get boring. Although the game predictably falls short of the likes of GT and Forza, the game nonetheless features a robust tuning engine and a little bit of successful tinkering can certainly lead to a satisfyingly noticable difference once you get out on the road.
The enviroment modeled in ITC also seems to be of quite a different nature to those of other racers. While PGR lets you thrash around in city centers (which are, in reality, always congested) and the NFS series places you in pretty, neon-lit, but ultimately fake locations, ITC takes place on the kind of drab, grey concrete outter-city highways which feel much closer to the real existence of those naughty late-night street racery types. This helps give ITC a charming atmosphere all of its own. It might be just another tuner game today, but not only is it the original but it certainly doesn't feel like its reaching for that tiresome 'Fast And The Furious' cool in the same way that other games of the genre generally do. Though the graphics are not up to the highest of standards, they certainly are a marked improvement over previous itterations, and the functional audio (complete with J-rock/dance hybrid soundtrack) combined with the new in-car dash view do go someway towards rounding this bizarre package off.
The Chequered Flag
Overall, ITC is a hard game to score. My head tells me that its sheer lack of features warrants a low score. the core gameplay is still, after all, largely unchanged with many long-standing problems not having been addressed and the game hardly takes advantage of the 360's feature set. However, my heart tells me that there's still enough here to differentiate it from the other racers on the market, and there's definitley plenty here for a racing fan who's willing to over look the short comings. In short, while I know that the likes of Ridge Racer 6 are objectively better games, I enjoy a guilty late-night Import Tuner Challenge session more. It may be basic, you maybe doing exactly the same things 30 hours in that you were doing three minutes in, but it has a charm and atmosphere that cold, clinical run-off-the-mill racers do not. Overall, i feel A balanced score of 6 is applicable. It certainly isn't for everyone, but its game that all racing lovers have a duty to at least rent. This grade comes with a warning however - if Genki wishes to continue the series they really need to come up with some improvements to the flaws in thecore mechanics. Sentimentality won't save them a second time round.
6 / 10