An arcade orientated Formula 1 racing game. These words don't fill me with confidence. But having sampled Downforce first hand over the last couple of days, I'm willing to overlook the game's somewhat tenuous premise. Downforce is a great little arcade racer, perfect for mindless unwinding after a hard day at the office, and based on the preview code I've been playing, I'm willing to bet it will find a home in the niche of racers currently occupied by the likes of Star Wars Racer Revenge.
The intro movie is set in-game, showcasing the spectacular crashes and sheer speed of the game with some finesse. There are a multitude of options awaiting you on the next screen, including the progressive Trophy mode, the more structured Championship mode, as well as time trials and multiplayer options. The presentation is chunky and colourful, and once you've chosen a game mode the character select screen pops up and shows you the racers. Each racer has their own identity, which comes into play elsewhere in the game, and their respective cars differ from one another in terms of speed, handling, size and so forth.
Trophy mode consists of sets of three tracks which must be completed in third place or higher to unlock the next set. There are three variations on the six basic tracks, and unlike the intricate but fairly forgettable Project Gotham variants, Titus have managed to produce three distinguishable versions in each case. Championship mode is a similar undertaking, but includes a qualification section, with a points system instead of a simple third-or-better objective.
In terms of multiplayer modes, Downforce is set to feature a choice of Free Race and Time Tag. Although Free Race is a simple head-to-head job, Time Tag is a fairly original idea, the objective of the exercise being to get a certain distance ahead of your opponent and stay there. Once you plough far enough ahead, a timer pops up and your opponent must reduce the gap below a certain threshold or you get a point. If he crashes during this time you also benefit, but it works both ways thanks to the game's delightful handling and playful physics.
On the Track
Although early tracks feature lots of straights, before long chicanes litter the courses and hairpins are ten a penny. The simple control system is responsive, and the physics and handling of the car dictates that enormous and appreciable speeds be the order of the day, while skidding into a turn with the brake button depressed and careering successfully out the other side is a hair-raising experience.
Tracks are fairly well detailed and the graphics are chunky and colourful, much like the menus, accentuated by the helpful and equally colourful on-screen timer, lap records, map, and car radar, which shows you roughly where your competition is directly around you - useful for cutting off overtaking manoeuvres.
Downforce's biggest asset though looks to be its creative crash system. Criterion's racer Burnout had a stab at this, but it held up play rather too much and lost its appeal after a while. Spectacular crashes in Downforce are shown off properly as they happen, with the camera snapping neatly to the elevated position of a spectator to record the action before replacing you on the track, a few seconds down but quite able to regain your composure. Developer Titus makes no attempt to hide the game's arcade approach here, pulling the old 'briefly invincible' trick when your car is righted, with the vehicle flashing so that other drivers speed through you, saving you from being wrecked within seconds of restarting.
Downforce is a surprisingly fun game, and I look forward to its release later this month. I'm not often overwhelmed by arcade racers, but this one seems to have the right balance to remain entertaining without falling victim to wacky ideas. Whether it will stand up to long term repeated play remains to be seen, but it makes a good first impression.