As SEGA's nigh on arcade perfect Xbox port drifts ever closer to release, we take a look at the specific mission types that make up the new 101-stage Mission Mode.
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When SEGA Europe originally announced its decision to bring OutRun2 to Xbox, it marked the culmination of increasingly rampant speculation, which had clogged up many a gaming website for many a moon. Indeed, there was even a fair degree of frustration from SEGA's legions of fans, upset at the mixed messages and non-denials, and confused by their heroes' decision to hire little known British developer Sumo Digital to handle the conversion process - albeit in close collaboration with original arcade developer AM2.
Shortly after its unveiling though, SEGA representatives put the whole thing into context, arguing that they had always wanted to bring OutRun2 to Xbox, but wanted to make sure that if they did the game wouldn't be the sort of flash-in-the-pan title that critics loved but were forced to mark down because it burnt out too quickly. Speaking in EDGE magazine in May, European marketing director Matthew Woodley said: "We knew from the outset that we'd need to add much more to the game to make it a viable home console proposition, and it's taken us this long to be confident that we'll be able to do the conversion justice."
With the game now just over a month away from launch, we took a trip to SEGA Europe's offices in London, where we were able to spend a few hours with the game's key component in the fight for that lauded home console viability: Sumo Digital's AM2-endorsed Mission Mode, featuring 101 varying tasks that drift and drag the player's resplendent Ferrari through the game's myriad different stages backwards and forwards and jumping through all manner of hoops. And cone gates. And lorries.
Running In Different Directions
We've talked already about some of the things the developer has in store over the course of our previous write-ups (including a general overview and a look at the tech at E3, and a look at certain mission types more recently), but, having spent more time concentrating solely on Mission Mode, we're now in a better position to reveal what separates OutRun2 on Xbox from its Chihiro-based arcade forerunner; in terms of the wide variety of tasks you perform, and the way the added content has been structured to keep you picking away at it.
As you may have seen in some of the screenshots and movies littering the net, Mission Mode is laid out in a branching manner similar to the arcade mode. Tasks are split into various sections allied to a particular stage of the OutRun2 course (although, sensibly, that doesn't mean that the tasks are confined to that particular strip of the game; many of them actually take in several stages), and whenever you finish a section you're given a choice of going left (or, as it appears on the map, up), where you'll face tasks of a similarly easy difficulty, or right, where you'll face tougher challenges. This branching approach means that after you've dispensed with the relatively simple opening salvo, you'll always have a clutch of different missions you can attempt - giving you options if you happen to get stuck on one in particular.
Along the way you're rewarded with cards, which appear in a separate gallery screen, and while some of these are simple visual novelties, occasionally you'll collect one which unlocks more tangible gains - new tracks (of which you'll hear more in the near future), new cars, and even new tunes (including remixes of the best the game already has to offer). However, don't be fooled into mistaking Mission Mode for a simple gateway to the unlockables; it may have a similarly daft sensibility to the Crazy challenges in Dreamcast/arcade five-minuter Crazy Taxi on the surface, but it does test your command of the game's delicious drifting and faster vehicles in ways that the arcade game alone only does in a very general sense.
Because while beating the arcade mode may require you to judge when and where it's best to rely on drifting, where it's best to try and take turns without, and your judgement when it comes to avoiding slower traffic and rival OutRunners, the Mission Mode's specialised tasks are more akin to those featured in something like Project Gotham Racing, not in terms of content, but in that they focus on stress-testing particular aspects of your racing arsenal - and OutRun's are more varied and surreal to boot. We've seen plenty now, and while some are obvious - trying to drift for as much of the track distance as possible, driving through cone gates, and sticking to particular sections of the track - some are more devious, and some even require you to use your brain as well as your instincts, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
Running While Thinking
Memory Test is the most obvious example. Faced with a stage or more, you have to try and stay ahead of the countdown, and also keep an eye on which kind of fruit is floating above the road some 50 yards down the track. A little bit further on, the game faces you with a pair of cone gates, one of which has the right bit of fruit hanging over it, while the other will be something else. What's clever though is that while you're busy mumbling the word "cherry" to yourself, you're also forced to control your drifting and speed so that you can manoeuvre through the correct gate and keep up your pace. Oftentimes you won't be in a position to slack off as you round the bend - and then there are also times when you have to weave around the road as you try to dart through multiple fruit-gates in sequence.
Nevertheless, that one's rather simple. Far harder, in practice, is the task that involves adding and subtracting random numbers as you race. You don't have to hit the numbers that hover above the track as you pass them, but you do have to keep a running total. Add five here, subtract six there, add another ten, etc. It's not going to trouble even a ten year-old if you sit there and ask them to do it on the spot, but when you're forced to contend with the sweeping turns and an encroaching countdown it's another matter altogether. And when you've hit that final straight a few times and found yourself faced with a pair of gates, one of which has the right answer emblazoned over the top, and one of which doesn't, we'd be surprised if you don't have to rely on luck to steer you down the right path every once in a while. We did. After all, could you do your son's maths homework while navigating the Hanger Lane gyratory system?
In every case - even with the above examples - your skill on the road and the number of things you get right or wrong contributes to an overall ranking for that particular task, with A, double A or triple A good enough to pass the test, and anything less forcing you to retry. It's all managed in a similar way to the arcade game's Heart Attack mode; as you race, a little circular meter in the bottom right gathers hearts based on your ability to do what you're told and remain on the track. Veer off, miss a cone gate, crash into another car or do anything that doesn't quite live up to your female passenger's expectations, and you'll be stripped of some of your hearts, and you need a full circle of them to advance back up a rank. Which is bad news when you're stuck on a tough task and A is the minimum requirement. Which is often.
Naturally it's not all memory games and arithmetic either; many of the tasks prefer to rely on old-fashioned driving skill. The drifting task is particularly entertaining, in our experience, because while it's possible to drift through the entirety of some stages in arcade mode without coming up for air, the diminished speed in doing so will often see you run the clock down way before you hit the next checkpoint or goal. Mission Mode latches onto that, gives you a fair wedge of time, and sends you through various stages trying to remain on track whilst burning up your tyres constantly like you're screeching away from omnipresent traffic lights in a Vauxhall Nova.
Then there are the racing modes - straight up, or Knockout, for example. Knockout, which is also one of the Xbox Live modes that you can tackle with up to seven other players, sees the last Ferrari through each checkpoint knocked out. Played in Mission Mode, your AI opposition doesn't take it easy, and you'll need to stay on the track more or less all the time after a while and use as little drifting as possible if you want to rank high enough to pass. Come in first and you can net a triple-A, but even after just a few short hours with Mission Mode's harder streak we were glad to make it through with an A. We can see there being a fair amount of replay value in this for people who want to search out the top rankings - and we bet SEGA's scheduled the unlockables to give them maximum benefit for sticking with it.
There's plenty more on offer, too, including Crazy Convoy, which has you dodging massive articulated lorries rather than small cars (the lorries being slower and bigger and able to obscure more of the track ahead), maximum speed (stay above a certain MPH through various sections of road), cone gate and time trial based tasks, and, finally, a pair of our favourites: Laser Breaker, and an odd twist for fans of speed cameras. The oddly named Laser Breaker, first, is a simple game of dodging traffic between the start point and the finish line. What makes it a little bit more challenging is the constant need to brush past said traffic without making contact, because the idea is to slice through lasers that link the cars together, each of which earns you a certain number of hearts depending on the proximity of the cars to one another. Getting a top rank here would bring Michael Schumacher out in a sweat.
But, with our apologies to Laser Breaker, our favourite aspect of the Mission Mode to date has to be the heart-snapping photography task, which has you drifting sideways round bends and trying to press the Y button at the most opportune moment in order to snap a picture of a big throbbing heart perched just outside the track boundary. You can't do this unless you're sliding. You gain hearts here depending on the quality of your photography - and judging the turn and the timing of the shutter so that you can grind through the finish line with an A or above is about as far removed from the skill of arcade OutRunning that we could be playing a different game entirely.
Looking back, nobody was sure of Sumo Digital's abilities when SEGA first confirmed OutRun2 Xbox in late April - just prior to the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Following E3 though, most agreed that the Xbox port looked exactly the way it should. Now, with several hours of Mission Mode in our rearview, we've seen plenty of evidence of Sumo's ability to add depth to a game that had everything else - and we've by no means covered it all. And while the North English outfit could have just mimicked Project Gotham Racing or another task-driven racer, instead it does its own thing, plays to OutRun's own strengths, and - coupled with the lure of the arcade mode, the Live support, the countless unlockables, and all the other treats in store - demonstrates why SEGA is so confident that OutRun2 will be able to satisfy the demands of the average home console owner. Oh, and as if you could forget: it's a beautiful journey.
OutRun2 is due out exclusively on Xbox in early October.
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