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Review by: Justin Mills
Published: June 19, 1999
The Podracing sequence featured in The Phantom Menace was one of the most intense and visually stimulating experiences I can recall from my many years of movie going. The wild combination of unfathomable speed and lightning quick turns left me euphorically dizzy in my seat. LucasArts attempts to capture the visceral excitement of this sequence in Star Wars: Episode One Racer.
While the game’s title doesn’t scream originality, its action is centered on one of the most ingenious creations ever imagined: the Podracer. The Podracer is the chariot of the future or, rather, of a long time ago. The pilot sits in a cockpit suspended approximately four feet off of the ground and is pulled by two massive engines loosely held together by a binding beam of energy. While most vehicles push the pilot forward by situating him in front of the engines, the Podracer forces pilots to manage the reigns of a propulsion system that tugs them at unrelenting speeds over dangerous terrain. This subtle difference in design results in a very unique racing experience that truly requires a Jedi’s reflexes.
Racer allows you to take the reigns of over 21 unique Podracers and blast through multiple tracks situated on eight very different planets. You begin on the familiar planet of Tatooine in an amateur circuit. In order to advance to new tracks and higher circuits, you need to best the diverse intergalactic competition. While the glory of victory is the primary incentive for finishing these races in first place, Podracing is also deeply grounded in gambling. At the beginning of each race, you can determine how the winnings will be divided among the competitors. If you’re feeling insecure, you can spread the winnings thin, guaranteeing a little money, even for a fourth place finish. If you’re confident about a track, you can opt for a “winner takes all” distribution, securing a hefty prize for the victor.
Once you start winning races, you’ll accumulate enough money to upgrade your Podracer. This is a great addition to the game that really enhances the sweetness of victory. Crossing the finish line not only means you have access to the next track, but it brings you one step closer to installing that new “repulsorgrip” you’ve been eyeing. Furthermore, a first-place finish also grants you access to a new unique Podracer and pilot. Between races, you can buy new parts from Watto, everybody’s favorite Toydarian, whose scratchy voice and witty repartee make shopping a lot of fun. New parts are pretty expensive, so if you’re low on cash, you can also explore the junkyard for slightly used but much less expensive adaptations. These modifications affect your Podracer’s top speed, acceleration, traction, turning ability and air brake as well as cooling and repair systems. Hence, if you’re going into a race with numerous tight turns and few straight-aways, you can downgrade your top speed and use the money to buy better brakes and acceleration. While I really enjoyed this strategic element early on in the game, as you progress through the circuits, you’ll find the later tracks all demand the same type of craft configuration. More on this later.
The interface between races is a bit unpolished. For example, some of the screens have mouse support while others require you to use the keyboard. Also, the menu for viewing new parts and buying new parts are unnecessarily separated from one another. Further, as you view a new part, a bar graph attempts to show you how it will effect your craft’s performance. However, the manner in which this is displayed makes it very difficult to determine whether you’re worsening or bettering your Podracer’s condition. Little blunders like these force you to entertain the possibility that this part of the game was rushed in order to meet a very specific release date.
However, the racing interface is what really counts, and, fortunately for Racer, it’s rock solid. I played this title with a joystick and a force-feedback wheel, and in both cases I found the Podracer to be very responsive, even at high speeds. I also must commend the excellent implementation of force-feedback. The gentle bumps of gliding over sand and the out-of-control sensation of sliding over the ice were amazingly realistic. Furthermore, as your speed gets faster, the steering gets stiffer. When you’re fighting to make a gentle turn at 800 mph, you’re welcomed to a very lifelike sensation of g-force. Simply put, the superb control makes it possible for beings other than Jedis to navigate at such a remarkable velocity.
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