We'd almost forgotten how good it looked. Perhaps it was the sights and sounds of a thousand other demo pods at E3, or maybe we're just drinking more than we used to, but we had almost forgotten that OutRun2 is one of the most gorgeous arcade racing games we've ever encountered. But sitting back down with Sumo Digital's ambitious and increasingly expansive Xbox port in Sega's cavernous conference room in London recently, it didn't take long before the superlatives were flowing again.
Days Of Thunder
Then again, you already know how good it looks. You've seen the screenshots, you've listened to us ramble endlessly about perfect reflections on finely tuned Ferraris, diving out of storm clouds into the haze of a sunny valley, watching the misplaced moisture skip around on the implicit breeze of AM2's graphics engine, practically felt the humidity, and heard us cooing as sunbeams danced on a lake surface while we rounded a turn at an impossible angle and hurtled over the bridge above it. You've seen the words 'arcade perfect' together again. You've wondered, as we have, how a game that looks this good can manage to maintain an immovable 60 frames per second, while Xbox-only racers like Project Gotham have to take a hit to maintain detail.
You also know how well it plays. How the crazy throw-the-end-out-and-wrestle-with-it arcade turns feel so perfect on an Xbox pad, and how whipping the car between two opposing turns with a careful application of brakes, acceleration and aggressive thumbing is one of the most rewarding experiences on the console. You know we love the bloody thing already, and that we reckon all it needs is a little more along the same lines to really give the bloated Christmas racing line-up (Need For Speed Underground 2, Burnout 3, Midnight Club 3, Juiced, et al) more than a run for its marketing money.
A Race Against Time
But you haven't, up to this point, heard much about Sumo Digital's plans to take the briefly blinding thrills of the OutRun2 arcade game and develop them into the sort of product that could do that. Beyond "Xbox Live play" and "Mission Mode" and a few scant details that we mercilessly clubbed out of our minders, there hasn't been much to say. And yet Sega knows the arcade port alone isn't enough. All along we've been told that while it might work for the Japanese market on its own, it needs more in Europe. It needs something to give it more than just blistering rental power.
Fortunately for you, discovering what that something might be was rather the point of our latest trip to Sega Towers, and it's safe to say we didn't come away disappointed. Having spent a few minutes (okay, about 45) messing around with the branching arcade single-player mode again, racing along the perfectly balanced tracks, admiring the ever-changing scenery and trying desperately to look like as though we'd chosen the easiest path to the goal by accident, rather than in fear of looking crap, we finally got to see and try new things.
First of all: online. Last time out, we told you that Xbox Live support was planned for up to four players, but that Sega and Sumo Digital were happy to scale that up if at all possible. And so, it seems, they have. At the moment we can look forward to eight-player online racing, not just four, and along with that Xbox Live fans will be able to download and upload top ghost cars and race against them in Time Attack - an option which is bound to prove popular amongst the sort of people who can butcher the arcade mode in a matter of even-pulsed minutes. And indeed the rest of us, when we finally become that proficient.
The most promising of Sumo's changes though is Mission Mode. Whereas the arcade mode gives you a full run at the game's branching racetracks, and the variant Heart Attack mode (also from the arcade) has you trying to stick to a particular line or pass a certain number of cars to earn the affections of your female passenger, Mission Mode will throw up a much larger range of challenges, and start you off at different points in the game. So far we've knocked over a series of cones and had to maintain enormous drifts for as long as possible amongst other things, and, like Heart Attack mode, it's tremendously engaging - get it right, and your passenger's heart meter will fill up with little bouncing heart icons, and banking a top triple-A rank is the perfect climax.
Sumo isn't just copying AM2's Heart Attack mode and breaking it up though. Apart from the fact that we're told to expect a lot more ingenious ideas beyond simply knocking things over and overtaking banks of AI-controlled traffic, we've already seen evidence of missions that begin at particular points on the five-pronged branching course, we've tried other modes that force you to try and stay ahead of the four-car pack or risk elimination at the end of a section, and we've conquered some of the six-mission stages that unlock cards, opening up fan-centric bonuses in a gallery area and more besides. There's absolutely loads in there now - 101 tasks in Mission Mode alone - and a lot of it happily demonstrates the level of access that Sumo has been given; simply put, anything that the team tries is fine as long as AM2 approves it. And AM2 seems to get on pretty well with Sumo Digital by the looks of things.
It's not hard to see why though. The new changes are all in the spirit of the existing game. Indeed, some of them are borne of the arcade's ideas. Changing car colours is possible now, whereas before it was limited to 2-4 player linked games, and to tie things in with the Mission Mode, you'll now be able to start off with one of four initial Ferraris before unlocking the rest as you make progress. And 'the rest' doesn't necessarily mean just the other four existing arcade choices. Indeed, we understand there will be plenty of unlockable content, which may include new tracks or cars.
We also hope that OutRun2 gets the reception it deserves. These days even arcade racing games seem to need monstrous gimmicks, boatloads of customisation and other quirks to catch our attention. OutRun2 relies solely on short, sharp bursts of neatly packaged fun, and makes no apologies for it. It's practically sycophantic in its pursuit of making you look and feel like the star of the arcade, and it has a knack for doing that. It's easy to pick up, play, and enjoy, and thanks to Sumo Digital, it now seems to be structured in such a way that there's always something else to do, no matter how good you've become. When it's fully balanced, polished, packaged and on store shelves, we hope someone recognises it for that. Assuming Sumo and AM2 can keep it together, it will deserve it.