Monday, March 12, 2007

Hidden Gems 2007 Volume 1

Time for another series of Hidden Gems! As before, each game featured here was overlooked in some way on its original release and is actually well worth checking out. They can often be found nice and cheap to, which makes them extremely good value for money. The more open-mined gamers out there could pick up quite a few bargains if they're willing to look past the crap that regularly appears in the sales charts.

This week I'm looking at a double pack of racing games for the PC which are available via the Steam online distribution service for the equivalent of £10. They are Xpand Rally and GTI Racing, and while not perfect by any means, both offer plenty of game to get your teeth into.

Despite being a few years old, the Chromed engine that powers both games is capable of producing some impressive graphics.

Of the two games on offer here, Xpand Rally is perhaps the more famous of the two, but that's not really saying much. It aims to offer PC rally fans an alernative to the big name Colin McRae franchise, and almost pulls it off. It's actually a very solidly made game, with crisp clean graphics (though not quite as detailed as Colin McRae), a sizeable career mode and a nice range of well designed tracks. However, the cars in the game are not officially licenced, but it's pretty obvious what they're supposed to be. Mini Coopers are renamed Tiny Hoopers, and Peugeots are replaced by Lions. It doesn't really matter that much that they're not the real deal, they still look good.

The game is not quite perfect however. It is let down slightly both by the controls and the game structure. When you first create your profile, you can choose between an Arcade or a Simulation style control model. While you'd expect it to be much easier to chuck the car around the bends in Arcade mode, I actually found Simulation easier as Arcade was too floaty and unpredictable. The cars still start of rather twitchy in Simulation mode as well, but it's much less pronounced and gets better once you replace the stock suspension and steering parts that come with your new car.

This brings up the next problem I have wit the game. Each race in the career mode gets a little harder to beat, but rather than using pure skill, victory is largely dependant on how much you've upgraded your car. This results in you having to basically replay the first four races until you've got enough money to buy a car in the next class up and start over again upgrading that car. This is the same problem I have with the Gran Turismo games - it feels like you're not really racing but merely repeating the same process over and over again until your car is good enough to move on. Despite this however, driving around the many environments, such as the Grand Canyon, Poland, and Sweden is good fun and the rather challenging handling makes victory all the sweeter. The replay function is well done too with many different cameras and visual effects such as saturation, blur and black & white filters.

GTI Racing takes the same sort of structure, but this time the handling is pure arcade style through and through and feels spot on. Progress is also much easier as well, because you can make your first car last for a good 8-10 racers before you need to start thinking about changing up to the next class. The cost of repairs is also much less than in Xpand Rally, so you won't have to spend out so much off your valuable prize fund on fixing up your car after every race.

GTI Racing also has a full Volkswagen licence, which means you'll be driving Beetles, Baha Bugs and Golfs to name but a few. The game has a very European flavour which is represented by the track selection. You will be racing around areas in Bavaria, Sicily, and the UK, and not just in straight circuit races. There are also drift challenges and off road events where you race your rivals to be the first to a selection of checkpoints.

Both games also feature online player, and you can choose to either switch collisions on or have everyone as ghosts. If you do decide to switch the collisions on, you may notice a bit of lag unless everyone has a powerful PC and a fast internet connection.

So while the games have their little quirks, they're still well worth a look at the price that they're on offer for. Personally I thought GTI Racing was the better game of the two due to being more accessible and forgiving.

If you don't own a joypad for the PC (which helps immensely with driving games) but you do own a PlayStation 2, there are a variety of PS2 to PC adaptors on the market. I own a Joytech one which only cost me £7 and has worked with every game I've tested it with (it even supports rumble if the game in question also supports it, which Xpand Rally and GTI Racing do).

Whereas Xpand Rally is quite a solitary affair, GTI Racing features pack racing with a fair amount of jostling for position.

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