Things that make you go vrooom
Motor racing games usually fall into one of three categories. First of all you have the simulations, heavy on statistics and accurate driving models, often with fancy graphics to lace it all together and endless tweaking potential. The more challenging and comprehensive of these are practically timeless - Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix III springs to mind. Secondly you have games which simulate and speculate, which, when done well as with Gran Turismo can be a real pleasure to play, tickling your chin with both simulation and arcade racing modes.
The third category is pure arcade racers, and these are harder to pigeonhole. If you've ever driven a car you can tell whether a simulation is on the money, but when you chuck all of the rules of physics and science out of the window it becomes more difficult. Downforce is one of the purest arcade racers released in a long time.
Eschewing the traditions of Formula 1, a group of renegade racers has formed its own alternative association, and now banned from world-renowned circuits like Silverstone and Monaco the organisers have set up tracks which stretch Project Gotham-style throughout urban metropoli. The vehicles no longer closely resemble one another, with radical alterations leading to cars with ferocious acceleration, higher top speeds and sudden braking. This is a game where a hairpin turn means slamming the pedal to the metal, and then screeching to an almost halt to pull away in thunderous style, a manoeuvre which when performed correctly can help you avoid an unceremonious slide, capitulation to the G-forces of nature and a spectacular crash. It ain't real, but it sure is fun.
Are you ready?
The game's introductory video begins in cinematic fashion with cars revving up on the starting grid, before they roar off and start flying and spiralling about at the first corner. Although you won't be doing that immediately, the latter sections of the single player game are fought with some guile by your AI-controlled opponents, who for the most part are just as uncompromising as you. They will plough into you without a second thought, but fortunately if you do end up watching your car hurtle along and disintegrate, it is immediately righted and flashes for a few seconds to help you avoid immediate collisions.
The structure of the game is a bit odd, with two fairly similar gameplay modes making up the majority of the single player game. Trophy mode gives you tracks to complete in sets of three by placing first to third, and while Championship mode includes a qualifying section and a points system it is ostensibly the same thing. Tracks improve in quality and go up in difficulty, with anything from intermediate level upwards jam-packed with corners, hairpins and suspension-buggering curbs, so it's quite an enjoyable slog.
The HUD keeps you up to date with information on your position, speed, the lap you're in and your lap times, and although you don't get a rear view, a little car radar in the top right helps you to spot competitors close by and prevent them from scooting through if you aren't quite going as fast as them.
Graphically Downforce is a pretty elegant racer with a cartoon finish. The characters are all fairly anonymous but their vehicles differ in plenty of ways, and there are greater and more exciting cars to be unlocked the more you play. Cars have different markings, obviously, but they are also varied in length, width and in terms of their various accessories. Some of them fold into themselves slightly to attain better aerodynamics during long straights, and some of them spit flame out of the back or worse, so there's a lot to be said for trying out each one.
Taking your car out for a spin you will be impressed with the draw distance, but otherwise the graphics are fairly chunky and low-res, even if the image is extremely sharp. The street textures are nice, but there are only so many ways to paint a barrier grey so Smartdog has had to experiment elsewhere with lighting effects and other trackside paraphernalia. The sun peeks through between skyscrapers at times, blinding you unhelpfully, and some tracks are bathed in twilight or murky and 'orrible. Complementing the atmosphere are some fairly unobtrusive techno beats but the noise of roaring engines is more important and done quite well.
There are roadside distractions aplenty but you won't want to take your eyes off the tarmac for too long, because one missed curb could flip you. In fact this becomes an issue at times, because while the lines on the road are often unimportant, it's difficult to pick out a curb and it can at the very least knock miles from your speedo, which doesn't help in such a hi-octane racing game.
Oh, and it's not 60Hz, but the framerate is top-notch throughout and it does feature a screen centring utility. Okay?
More to the party
Lonely hermits will do all right with the single player game, but I was also initially excited by the Time Tag multiplayer option, which pits you against a friend with a simple objective: build up a lead. Pass a certain distance threshold and your opponent will be faced with a deadline to close the gap, dropping a point should he fail. The problem is that it's a bit stop-starty, and the car with superior acceleration often triumphs regardless of actual driving skill. It's quite good fun, especially if you think you're about to lose and your careless opponent flips his vehicle through some chicane, allowing you to claim the point, but I lost interest quite quickly.
The free race mode is actually somewhat preferable. This is a very fast-paced game, and thundering along behind your worried mate and then laughing maniacally as he loses control is one of those very special experiences. With such a large variety of tracks on offer you'll want to try them all, and there's definitely longevity here, and also for single players in time trial, where lightning reactions and daredevil antics are required to top the leaderboards.
To some Downforce will seem irritating and inconsistent. Sometimes the process of crashing and re-righting seems to take forever, whereas elsewhere you can be up in a flash, and the AI is sometimes a bit too good, reducing any lead you might build up in seconds should you come unstuck, but ultimately this is a harmless, adrenaline-soaked arcade gauntlet you'll want to run. Like the drivers they created, Smartdog has ignored a lot of the traditions of the genre and produced a racer easily suitable for a quick burn now and then, and if you can find a friend the superb two-player split-screen races with no obvious drop in detail and a top framerate will definitely win you over.