You Wanna Do What For 24 Hours?
It is one of motor racing's greatest challenges for man and machine, lasting for a full 24 hours. There is only one 24 Heures du Mans, otherwise known as .. LeMans 24 Hours. And now, thanks to developers Eutechnyx, you too can drive around in a big circle all day and all night...
I must admit, when I first heard there was a LeMans game in development, I thought "Blimey - 1 track, 24 hours - how are they gonna make that fun to play?" So when the box arrived from Infogrames, I had mixed feelings about what would be inside.
Options, Options, Options
Thankfully the team at Eutechnyx also realised how boring this game would be if there was only one track, and they have spent a lot of time spicing things up.
When you first start the game, you are a nobody. You have no experience, and no CV. To start things off gently, you can try the Arcade mode. Here you can choose between Challenge, where you jostle for position with CPU-controlled cars, or Time Attack, a classic checkpoint style affair.
You begin your career driving GT2 cars like the Porsche 911, and graduate to the open cockpit Prototype class, and then on to GT1. In the beginning the only cars available have mediocre performance at best, but the computer opponents at this stage are quite slow. With each race you win though you unlock a faster car, which allows you to keep up with the increasing pace.
Driving the three different classes keeps things interesting - a GT1 may have superior grip, but its higher top speed means you also approach the corners faster. Finding a balance is all part of the challenge.
Arcade mode is a lot of fun - the handling is more forgiving, you don't take damage, and you won't have to worry about making pitstops. Having said that, LeMans 24 Hours is no trip down to Sainsburys - to succeed you need to adopt "proper" driving techniques, and it may take several attempts to win the later races as the competition hots up.
Once you master the Arcade Mode you can try your hand at Championship Mode. Here you can select Sprint (3 laps) or Endurance (10 laps), competing in a whole season of races, and accumulating points just like in the regular World GT Championship season.
This is where things start to get a little tricky - endurance races require you to take pitstops to refuel, and you also sustain damage to your car which can impede your performance. The computer-controlled opponents are much tougher as well, and you sometimes simply hang-on to sixth place to secure that last championship point.
It's Just Like The Real Thing
The third option of playing is the famous 24 hour race at LeMans. Thankfully you're not expected to actually sit there for 24 hours, and you can play an accelerated time race over 12 or 24 minutes, or 1 hour, 2 hours, or even go the whole hog for 24 hours! I can't see anyone ever doing this, but at least there is the option...
Just like the real event all three classes compete at the same time, so you not only have to watch out for slower moving traffic, but have to make way for the awesome GT1 cars if you are competing in a lower category.
As day turns to night you need to turn your lights on. Unfortunately, driving with lights on is only marginally better than with them off. I refuse to believe that anyone would drive around at 190mph and not be able to see where they are going. I found it necessary to hold off overtaking some of the computer cars just so I could follow them around the track and see where I was going!
Obviously very few of us will ever experience the real thing, but from what I can tell the physics model is as accurate as it needs to be without spoiling the fun. For example, the GT2 Porsche 911 has some wonderful lift-off oversteer that allows you to catch the most enormous power slides, but as in real life this is not the fastest way around the track, and if you burn too much rubber you can rapidly find yourself at the back of the pack...
Check Out All Them Polys!
Graphically the game is generally excellent, with some real attention to detail. Cars sputter and pop small flames as excess fuel is burnt, and at night the crowd goes wild with camera flashes as you drive past.
A wet track will reflect the brake lights of the cars in front, and the brake discs glow a bright orange under heavy braking. The cars are lovingly detailed with over 500 polygons per car, and each is accurately modelled on the different manufacturers.
The game supports a wide range of 3D cards via Glide and D3D, and on my PII-450 the frame rates were high even at 1024 x 768. You really get a sense of speed, and can almost feel the G-Forces as you slam through the chicanes.
I did have a few gripes though... I can forgive the odd visual glitch with scenery popping in and out, but the mipmap levels are far too apparent and too close to the action, so much as to be distracting.
There are 3 camera modes but no "In-Car" shot, only a "bonnet cam", and there are no mirrors in any mode. Instead, there is a separate key for "look behind". I found this especially annoying as you cannot see cars from behind making a move on your position, and you have to wait for a straight before you can safely look behind you.
As I mentioned before, the lighting is fairly woeful, and the night stages are extremely difficult because you simply cannot see where you are going. The only way to succeed was to memorise the track in a day time race, and then race at night purely from memory.
While driving in Professional Mode you can sustain damage, but even in the most severe crashes there is no visible damage to the cars involved, and certainly no debris. Your performance is impeded though, and the joke is that one of your most vulnerable parts are your lights - crash at night, and you are forced to crawl back to the pits at 25mph for repairs.
Realistic I suppose, but hardly fun.
Heard But Not Seen?
The sound is good all round, each class of car making an appropriately distinctive grumble, and I was impressed at how realistic the Porsche 911 samples were. Although not employing any specific 3D positional audio, you can normally hear a car catching up to you, which is handy because you don't have a mirror to spot them in.
The one feature that is constantly annoying is the commentary, provided by Top Gear's Tiff Needel, who himself has competed in the LeMans 24 Hour several times. Unfortunately, this does not qualify him to commentate a racing game, and for the most part it is abysmal. Not only is it repetitive and delivered in a flat, un-excited tone (Murray Walker he ain't!), but some of the time he is just plain wrong.
For example, I'm on the grid for the start of the race, in last position because I didn't bother to qualify. The flag is waved and we're off! Before the first corner I manage to blast past the guy in 7th place, only to hear "He's been fighting for a long time to overtake that car, and now he's finally been rewarded". Oh dear!
Despite some minor annoyances, LeMans 24 Hour is a top-notch racing game.
Apart from the obvious appeal of competing in an accurate recreation of the real LeMans race, the arcade challenges and championship season modes really extend the longevity of the game. Many rainy afternoons can be lost attempting to master all three classes of racer, and the difficulty level is just enough to challenge you without being overly difficult.
The only other PC racing game this good is Codemasters TOCA2, but if you've played that to death and need your fix of adrenaline while waiting for Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 3, then I have no hesitation in recommending LeMans 24 Hours. Great stuff!