Saturday, 29 September 2012

PlayStation Driving / Racing Games #1

Total Drivin a.k.a. Grand Tour Racing '98 (1997)
By: Eutechnyx / Ocean Software Genre: Racing Players: 1-4 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Sony PlayStation 
Also Available For: Nothing 

When the 32-bit console era came to pass I was still a devout Sega fan-boy, but the new fangled hardware brought with it some of the finest racing games yet seen which, with the sudden absence of shmups and platform games, quickly became one of my new favourite genres. Sadly, my lovely Saturn wasn't home to many great examples of these. Sure, it had a few, mostly conversions of Sega's own arcade games, but there wasn't really anything I could get stuck into. It was mainly for this reason that I finally relented and bought a PlayStation. This pesky system hosted some fantastic examples of the genre, both arcade-style ones as well as more serious simulatory ones, and one of the first I really got into was Total Drivin which was a curious mixture of the two.

Oops, a pile-up. Least I didn't cause it!
Total Drivin, you see, is a racing game which boasts five different driving styles. All in one game! The styles, or classes, are Rally, Sports, Indy, 4x4 Buggies, and Dakar Rally. Immediately after the decent-but-slightly-gloomy title screen, you’ll find an initially confusing-looking menu screen. From here you can access the options, where you can change a few bits and pieces as well as load and save games, but more importantly you can choose your preferred game mode, racing team, and course. There are four game modes – one player, time attack, two player split screen, and link-up. The latter probably won’t be available to many gamers but the one-player mode is where I spend most of my time anyway. Before starting this, you can also change your racing team from the default (which is China, for some reason). Other choices include Egypt, Russia, America, Italy, Jamaica, France, and Great Britain, and each has a unique (though fictional) selection of cars - one of each class - emblazoned with the appropriate livery.

The Hong Kong course has a few tunnels...
This, technically at least, nearly ties up with the game's blurb which boasts 'over 40 cars', but it's not like you can choose from 40 before you start playing! Anyway, once you’ve chosen your preferred nationality, it’s time to choose a location to race in. There are six different countries or cities to choose from, and each predominantly features a certain type of course. Rugged Scotland and chilly Switzerland are exclusively comprised of various rally races, Moscow and Hong Kong both feature sports and Indy races, while Easter Island and Egypt feature 4x4 buggy and Dakar rally races. Each country is home to six circuits, though at first you can only select the first course in each country - the subsequent courses need to be unlocked by winning the previous ones. Second or third place won't do here, only the best can progress!

The menu/options screen in all its glory...
The back cover of this game also gleefully states that there are '36 courses' contained within. Since there are six courses for each of the six countries, you'd think that they’re making a lot of sense, but it's not strictly true. The second course in any given country is the same as the first course, only reversed and with a few obstacles strategically placed on the road. The third course will be the same as the second, only you'll be racing round the right way again and there will be some more obstacles in the way. The fourth time sees a few alternate routes and extra bits added to the courses, Ridge Racer style, etc. In other words, there aren't really '36 courses' but six courses and five more variations of each. The number of courses isn't as important with this game as it is with other racing games however, as this is a game where the emphasis is actually on the racing.

See if you can guess which country this is!
Each race is contested by eight cars – your own and seven computer-controlled opponents, each one representing one of the national teams. Their AI is of a pretty decent quality too - many of them will smash into you and try to make you spin or crash, and they will often tussle with each other or crash by themselves. During a race, you'll find a next/previous car indicator in the top-left part of the screen. This lets you know how far away your nearest opponent is, both in front of you and behind you, in tenths of kilometres. This is an excellent feature as you have a constant indication of how well you're doing, and whether you're catching your nearest opponent or not (or indeed losing ground to the one behind). Each driver has his (or her?) own names too, and they are displayed on screen when they are nearby. Some drivers can be quite aggressive and you'll get to know which ones. If you’re the grudge-holding type, some intense rivalries will undoubtedly be forged in this game!

Grrr, get out of my way, stupid Egyptian driver...
This is all still just the normal one-player mode of the game though. As mentioned, there are a few other modes available too. The time attack mode allows you to race on any of the circuits that you've unlocked and over an unlimited number of laps without other vehicles on the road. After one lap has been completed, a ghost car will appear which represents your last lap. The two-player split-screen mode is just a straight race between you and a friend - all computer-controlled cars making each race a definitive one-on-one battle. It’s also possible to have a four-player race by linking two PlayStations together. Races in all game modes are contested over a wide variety of surfaces and are also subject to the elements - mud, tarmac, gravel, sand, snow and ice will all be encountered in abundance, and before each race an icon will tell you what kind of weather you can expect - sunny, storm (rain), or snow (and ice).

Climbing a steep Scottish hill at sunset...
Rain makes the road more slippery and consequently cornering is harder, while snow and sand will slow your car down dramatically, but ice, oddly, doesn't seem to have an enormous effect on your driving. With all these different road surfaces, weather effects, and racing locations, you probably won't be too surprised to find that Total Drivin is one of the more varied driving games around, in terms of graphics as well as gameplay. There's not too much in the way of special effects with no flashy lighting, reflections, or night races with headlights shining all over the place, and the cars are little more than functional in their appearance. The scenery and backgrounds for each location, however, are superb. They perfectly reflect the countries they're based in (with the possible exception of Easter Island - I've no idea if it really looks like this) with many distinctive and impressive sights at the road-side.

Racing through rainy Moscow streets...
The courses are well-designed too. The rally ones mostly take place in mountainous terrain and through small villages while the sports and Indy races are usually on city street circuits. The buggy courses arguably look the best as they usually take place over golden sand and near lush watery areas, or even lava! As well as the usual assortment of features, there are plenty of bridges and hills, especially on the humpy-bumpy rally courses, and they’re quite challenging to navigate even before the pretty weather and less-pretty obstacles (boulders, logs, narrow sections of road, snow patches, etc) start appearing! However, along with this varied terrain, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this game boasts five distinctly different driving styles to go with them, and each type of vehicle controls differently accordingly.

The snowy courses are among the trickiest...
The rally and sports cars are by far the easiest to use. They control almost perfectly and, while not frighteningly fast, are really nice to drive. So nice, in fact, that it's very enjoyable to simply drive these cars around, irrespective of race position, particularly considering how nice the courses are as well. The Indy cars, on the other hand, are raced on the same circuits as the sports cars but travel so insanely fast that they are crashed frequently - practise is required with these beasts before any reasonable finishing position can be gained. Cars also have a tendency to get 'stuck' to the side of the course if contact is made (especially the rally cars) and often spin or even flip up in the air if they touch another car or hit the sides too fast. Although there's no time limit or checkpoints, this obviously won't do your chances of winning any favours!

Stupid bloody buggies climbing all over the place!
The buggies are the worst of the bunch though. They are very frustrating to control as they will not turn the sharper corners at anything approaching a decent speed. You therefore need to brake considerably before making these turns by which point you'll have lost at least one race position, usually more, and if two buggies touch they often seem to get locked together in a most aggravating fashion thanks to their big chunky wheels which can also cost a lot of time. The sandy courses on which you use them also mostly have banked edges which the buggies usually ride up if you drive near them. This also costs a lot of time and can even flip your buggy right over. As you might imagine, this is very annoying. That’s not all either! Since these courses are frequently near water, if you somehow end up submerged it's an instant game over - there's no 'car repositioned on circuit' here.

These Indy cars are rather nippy!
As damning as this may sound though, the various irksome buggy-related issues are about the only major thing wrong with Total Drivin. The sense of speed initially seems to be pretty average but it’s more than adequate in most vehicles considering the design of the courses. The accompanying music is good too. There are six techno-style ‘choons' composed by 'proper' dance music acts such as Chaser and Stone Factory. I've not heard of them but you might have. The effects are less impressive however. There's only about three or four different noises in the game including a poor engine noise, which is quite annoying, a strange scraping noise when you touch the scenery or other cars, and the obligatory screeching tyre noises, but it's not too important as you can hardly hear them over the music anyway.

Oops, that's probably not the best thing to be doing...
The best thing about this game is that it rewards skillful driving, and likewise punishes poor driving. Unlike games such as Gran Turismo, where you can go from first to sixth place in one corner, the racers in Total Drivin get widely separated quite quickly and if you race well enough you can get far enough ahead that you can afford to make the odd mistake or two without losing a position. That said, it's fairly easy to make mistakes and it can be rather frustrating - just today I was racing along, doing well, looked like winning; then I accidentally clipped a signpost and stopped dead, then an opponent slammed into me from behind, spinning my car. Okay, this doesn't happen often but it effectively ended my changes of winning the race. And made me angry! Overtaking manoeuvres can also sometimes be tricky - it's not uncommon to find yourself racing a rival side-by-side for corner after corner until one of you finally makes a mistake. Another good thing is that when you unlock courses, you only unlock them for the team that you're playing as - if you choose another team, all but the first courses in each country will again be locked.

Look - proof! I can win a race in a damn buggy!
This increases the longevity of the game substantially and the difficulty level is also very well pitched - the latest incarnation of each course is just a bit harder than the last and they're always a challenge to win. Considering the overwhelming number of racing/driving games on the Playstation, it's nice to find one where more effort has been put into the gameplay and lifespan than merely making it look super-flashy with all sort of floopy special effects, weapons, and all the rest of it. Including various styles of racing was a brilliant brainwave too, so it's just a shame that some of the classes are so much more frustrating than the others, especially those bloody buggies! They're a great idea and opportunities to drive over dunes and beaches with vehicles of this type are rare, so it's annoying that with just a bit more tweaking of their control and toning down of their ability to drive over everything, Total Drivin may have been one of my very favourite driving games. It's still a more than decent and challenging game though, which is fun and tense to play in equal measure.

RKS Score: 8/10


  1. Thanks for this one. I say that because I played the demo back in the day and hated it but your positive write-up has made me want to give the game a second chance and see if I was too harsh on it. Is this the one that doesn't support analogue control?

  2. I remember you asking that when I did the 'Top Five PS Racing Games' feature actually. I've just looked on the game case and it doesn't mention anything about analogue control - I think it was made too early to be honest. It isn't a flashy game at all - Gran Turismo does the GT racing better, Colin McRae does the rally better, etc, but as an overall package it has a lot of appeal, to me at least. Even if it does make me angry now and then :P