Hmmm! Hang on a mo, let me consult the YS book on how to start a driving game review. Ah yes, here it is.
"Vroom! Vroom! Watch me zoom!" Hmmm! In this case it's more like "Vroom! Vroom!" (unless you've got a 48K, 'cos there's no sound) "Watch me swerve all over the shop as if I've just consumed 15 pints of vodka!" Make no bones about it, this game is hard, but then, as Clare (the rather nice Domark lady) told me, "It's not called Soft Drivin' is it?!" Hem, hem, point taken!
Hard Drivin' has been one of the most eagerly awaited arcade conversions of this year. How on earth could Domark think it could squeeze such a massive driving sim into the humble Spec?! I had my doubts, but now it's arrived and, bearing in mind I'd braced myself for a disappointment, it's skill! In case you missed our Megapreview last month, the arcade Hard Drivin' is a racing game much more akin to a driving simulator than a normal arcade machine, and the first I've seen with a full complement of gears and a clutch pedal for starters! In it you get to drive a 'popular sports car' (Italian, red and with a name which begins with 'F' - Domark doesn't have the licence to use the name!) around a 'Speed Track' or 'Stunt Track'. The latter features high speed banking, an open drawbridge and a spectacular loop-the-loop! Oh, and there's a cow standing next to the barn which 'moos' should you run it over! Half way around each circuit is a checkpoint - make this and you'll get extra time. Make it to the end and, if you're quick enough, you'll get to race the 'Phantom Photon', a computer-controlled car which emulates the performance of he previous best lapper! (So if you had the previous best lap you'll get to race yourself!) Oh, and any time you crash you'll get to see a replay of yourself coming to grief from a spectator's viewpoint!
Suffice to say then that most of this has been ported down on to the Spec, which is no mean technical achievement! There are no pedals, of course, it's largely monochrome and there's no cow (boo boo!) but most of the other arcade features are here, F'rinstance, you've got the whole arcade course to zoom around, even the skid pan which isn't on the 16-bit versions! (So "Yah boo sucks!")
Alright alright, so you know all this - what you want to know is 'how does it play and is it fast?' The answer is that it plays remarkably well, and, considering just how much the computer has to cope with, it is fast! I mean, what we're dealing with here is a solid-filled 3D environment a la Freescape. Unlike most games in which a car will be represented by so many different sprites, in Hard Drivin' no matter what angle you look at something the computer will mathematically work out what area should be filled by the graphic and present you with the appropriate image. Okay, so I've compared the graphics to Freescape, but, whilst those games are very slow, this isn't the case here. There are times when the action will noticeably jerk and slow down, such as when you come around a corner and see the suspension bridge, but the overall impression is of it being pretty darn speedy! I assume the programmers, Binary Design, overcame some of the speed problem by having the computer update screens on a system of priorities. Background details, like half the bridge, appear in their own time! There are other glitches in the graphics too. The Spec basically can't cope with tying all the blocks of graphics together. This is most apparent in the loop where the graphic appears to break up. But you'll learn to live with it. Oh, and the replay feature is brilliant, especially if you can manage a 'head on' over the drawbridge!
In terms of control, the game is not unlike the arcade original in that it's very tricky. It's more akin to a flight sim in many respects (!) and did take me some time to master. Although much easier with a joystick, there is a key available to automatically centre the steering wheel which will assist beginners. My first attempts were really erratic (hence the intro!), but be patient, it's worth it! Suss this out and you get to have a go at the manual gearbox! Like the best flight sims it'll take some time to perfect your control, but stick at it. It might not have the instant playability of Slant Car Racer, and don't expect an OutRun or WEC Le Mans clone, but if you're into a thinking person's driving game you won't want to miss Hard Drivin'.
There are games with tricky controls and there are games with overly tricky controls. And then there's Hard Drivin'.
It's a lead-sled sim with a heck of a lot going for it. After the licence was announced there were widespread murmurings that Domark must have been eight socks short of a laundry to take it on. Then the conversion appeared and smugly quashed the scoffing. There are two distinct parts to the action, the more straightforward of which is the Speed Track. Here the idea is, well, to drive as fast as possible really. If you manage to complete the course you're put up against the Phantom Futon, a mean driver with a grim expression who'll blow you off the road with his jet-propelled mattress. (I think you'll find that's Phantom Photon actually. Ed) As an alternative, if you turn right at the first junction you'll find yourself blazing along the nerve-busting Stunt Track. This offers an unrivalled opportunity to be loudly ill as you scream over an open bridge, thump flatly down steep ramps and zing through a 360 degree loop. All this (and more) whilst swerving past road users who appear to have been hand-picked from the ranks of the Barnstaple Elderly Stick Whittlers' Club. The action is depicted in speedy shaded-3D, the most impressive graphics outside of a Freescape game. Even though they do tend to fall to bits if there's a lot going on. Spookily enough, this actually adds to the game.
So why, for those of you who've impatiently sought out the final score, isn't this a Megagame? For one simple reason - it's completely impossible to play. The controls are preposterously sensitive - one twitch of the joystick and the car reacts like Bambi on ice. To be fair, this is what happened in the arcade version, but there you had mechanical feedback via the chunky steering wheel. Though it pains me to say it, I'm afraid that as a game Hard Drivin' is only good for frightening people into using public transport.
If you haven't heard of this one you must be... erm, well, I'm sure you've got your reasons. It's an extremely famous coin-op conversion of a game that wowed 'em all in the arcades (most of them, anyway) with its solid 3D graphics and unnerving realism. Playing the arcade original is more or less just like driving a real car, with gears, a clutch and a proper steering wheel. There's a choice of speed or stunt track, the latter featuring a loop-the-loop and a drawbridge. And it really is brilliant fun.
So how does the Spectrum version measure up? Okayish, on the whole. The graphics are just about 'there', although they're a bit jerky and tend to start falling apart at crucial moments. And the car handles quite well too, allowing for the limitations of a joystick. The snag is that, when you get down to it, Hard Drivin' isn't such a great game. It's a good 50ps worth in the arcade if you only play it a couple of times, but when you get to load it up on me Speccy it loses its appeal astonishingly quickly. All the same, it's the state-of-the-art where driving games are concerned. and a great feat of programming.
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