Video Game Review: World Driver Championship (Nintendo 64)

Video Game Review
World Driver Championship
Nintendo 64
1999
Developer: Boss Game Studios
Publisher: Midway Games

For those who owned only an Nintendo 64 during the final decade of the 20th century, you spent your time playing Goldeneye, being envious of PlayStation owners, and finding solace in the fact that Goldeneye was exclusive to the N64. The PlayStation was rich in racing titles including Wipeout, Need for Speed, Test Drive, and the godfather of racing games, Gran Turismo. Developer Boss Games Studios and Midway decided to capitalize on the lack of true racing titles on Nintendo’s system by releasing World Driver Championship in 1999. Finally, the N64 had a racing title that could be considered in the same league as Gran Turismo.

There are several modes for the game. You get the standard single race, two-player race and time trials but the meat and potatoes of the package is the career mode. You begin your career as the driver for one of the smaller teams in the weaker GT2 circuit. They each offer you their C-class car. You progress through your career by entering into tournaments that involve anywhere from 2 to 6 races each. As you win races and tournaments, you gain points to level you up to a higher career ranking. As your career ranking gets higher, other teams start taking an interest in you and possibly offer you a chance to race for their team or the team you are on might start to begin to offer you their B or even A class car. Loyalty is key as teams tend to give you their best cars sooner if you stick with them longer and don’t move from team to team frequently. There is actually one team that refuses to take you back once you quit or have joined a rival team in the past. Success in the GT2 moves you up to the GT1 circuit where there are new events, cars, and teams. Your goal is to win the GT1 championship and become ranked number 1.

World Driver Championship, although a great game, still choked on the exhaust of Gran Turismo. Gran Turismo had more tracks, real cars, and more of a complete driving experience. While World Driver Championship couldn’t compete with Gran Turismo in the depth department, it was still a great game that gave players at least 25 hours of racing satisfaction. The fundamentals of the game were solid: the controls were perfectly tuned, the graphics were very good looking, and the difficulty level curved perfectly.

Many did not like the lack of cars or rather the lack of real car names. The cars of World Driver Championship had the look of various sports and performance cars but did not have the license to actually call them by their real name. However, it was obvious that a Venom was actually a Viper and so on. That aside, there was little customization. The only under-the-hood option you had was whether you wanted an automatic or a standard transmission. The only other real choice you had was between three preset colour options for each car (most of the hideously ugly). Even games that were not called Gran Turismo had better customization options than World Driver Championship. At least the track selection was better with ten locations with three variations each (plus a reverse option so technically there were six variations). The variations offered enough difference that it felt like you were racing on different tracks every time. The only exception to this was Black Forest was that it only had two variations which is just as well because it was the hardest location of them all.

Controls are a bigger issue in racing game than many realise. During this era, many game companies were having to get used to the analog stick being standard on controllers. Before the analog stick, pressing the d-pad either left or right was usually translated by the game that you wanted to veer all the way in one direction. Players had to become accustomed to tapping on the d-pad to finely manoeuvre around turns rather than pressing down on the d-pad. With the analog stick, this allowed for players to control their video game cars more like actual cars. Some games handled this progression better than others. Some still treated the analog stick like a d-pad so even the slightest nudge left or right was the equivalent of jerking the wheel all the way in one direction. These games usually did poorly. Even Gran Turismo didn’t exactly handle the analog stick all that great; it performed much better with a racing steering wheel actually. The makers of World Driver Championship must have realized that making a good racing game in the 3D era was to fine tune the analog controls. Boss did an excellent job at making the analog stick making it one of the best controlled racing games of the generation. Navigating through small S-curves with slight nudges to the analog stick feel natural and power sliding through hard corners feel just as good. The car feels like you can turn just like a real automobile and not only the compass points.

There can be some criticism made about the physics of the game. At times it can be too easy to spin out and you have no idea why.  It’s as if there the designers intended to put debris on the track and coded the hazard into the game but forgot to code the graphics for it. Bumping into race cars kills all your momentum unless they hit you directly from behind. Sideswipes only hurt you and, at times, seems to push the opponent ahead of you even if there is no physical reason why that should be. Hitting walls though is too forgiving and on some tracks it’s actually works in your favour to hit a wall at full speed to take a turn rather than having to slow down to take a hard corner. While it does add an interesting bit of strategy to the game, it does take away from the experience of a true racing game.

Graphically the game is stunning. Some of the vistas including the Hawaiian and Roman tracks are gorgeous. The lighting is well done and there are few objects that look blockish. The car detail is a little to be desired but considering that while racing you can’t see your own wheels spin anyways, it’s forgivable. The game also has an option to view the game in high-resolution although it letterboxes the action to a third of the screen. While it does improve the graphics, it’s easier to play on the low-resolution option just because it’s easier to make out the tracks. The graphics look good enough without having to need to put the high-resolution option on. The developer did not make the game Expansion Pak compatible which is too bad because it would have been nice to a full-screen high-resolution display.

The difficulty is pretty fair. The game starts off easy enough and gets progressively harder. If you feel sentimental to that C-class car you picked up at the beginning of the game, you’re not going to go far as the drivers get better as the events get bigger. It’s nearly impossible to take a C-class GT2 car into the GT1 circuit and do well. With an appropriately tuned car, there is never a feeling of hopelessness when racing (except on that unforgiving Black Forest track). Even if you are stuck with a inferior car, you can still be award a decent amount of points for placing on the podium or even a couple of spots lower than third. If you have to get 3rd for a couple of races to score enough points to nab a new, more powerful car, the game affords you that luxury. It’s not about winning every race (only the circuit championships), it’s about being patient and picking your spots.

The game certainly has it’s flaws but considering what was available on the Nintendo 64 at the time, it felt like a gift from the heavens. Even today, it stands up as a perfectly competent racer that can still provide the same level of racing excitement that the current generation of consoles can provide. It is limited in options by today’s standards but at it’s core, it’s all about the racing and World Driver Championship is definitely a great racing title.

☆☆☆☆

 

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