Preview: Enthusia Professional Racing (PS2)

Publisher: Konami / Developer: Konami / Genre: Driving / Release: 03-08-05

Everybody loves an underdog battle. We all want to believe that the little guy with a lot of heart can overcome the oppressive juggernaut. We cheer Link and Mario on against impossible odds. We were all there with Little Mac when he dropped Tyson. And this is the same situation that Konami’s upcoming sim-racer, Enthusia Professional Racing, finds itself in. Have a gander at Matt Yeager’s Gran Turismo 4 preview for an idea of exactly what Konami has to compete with. But with its impressive mix of quality and innovation, there might just be hope for Enthusia.

The main goal of Enthusia is to give players who really love racing a realistic, responsive racing game. It matches GT’s realistic physics (no small feat), but takes the emphasis off of buying parts and meticulously tinkering with the cars. The aim of Enthusia is to be the best simulation of race driving out there, and to reward players for their skill at driving, not their ability to spam races until they can buy the most expensive upgrades and make their driving skill a moot point.

In keeping with its focus on realism and driving skill, Enthusia adds some new wrinkles to the standard graphical interface. Acceleration and braking are represented via bars that show the relative pressure being placed on the pedals, to help players gauge exactly how hard they’re pushing their vehicle. The most touted feature is the Visual Gravity System (VGS), which is demonstrated by a rolling sphere that shows the player exactly how hard and in which direction the car is being pulled, which gives a much clearer idea of how much control one has over the physics of the car. Visual representation of the tires’ grip on the track is also part of this system, and works with the rest of the display to give the player an incredibly detailed diagnostic of their performance.

While GT fanboys might be quick to call Enthusia’s selection of 200 cars lacking (and boast of GT4’s 700 choices), it’s purely a matter of quality over quantity. You might not have access to as many cars, but you get unheard-of realism with the cars at your disposal. Enthusia is intimate with its vehicles in a way that borders on the creepily obscene. This is truly a racing enthusiast’s game; you get distinctive reactions from each car. Instead of the same generic engine noises for every car, you get realistic, specific engine noises from their real-life counterparts. The same goes for physics.

Take, for example, the Mazda RX-7; Konami showed their build of the car to Hiroshi Ito, the man who helped develop the car, and participated in multiple super endurance races in it. To say that he knows the vehicle might be putting it a bit mildly. In an interview posted on Konami’s official Enthusia Professional Racing site he discusses Enthusia’s version of the RX-7 and openly vouches for its authenticity; from its weight balance and steering control to the sound of its exhaust and the high-RPM whines, this is as close to the real deal you can get in a video game. This is not coming from some industry bigwig or marketing wizard, but from the man whose livelihood depends on knowing his car better than anyone else.

Track selection goes nose to nose with GT4, boasting 50 tracks of its own. The highlights here are the Tsubuka Circuit and Nurburgring, the racing behemoth that the developers of GT4 have been bragging about. While it looks like Enthusia’s tracks might not be as graphically impressive, the attention to specific, ultrarealist details of the courses, down to tree branches indicating specific turns. While Enthusia’s graphics might not be quite up to speed (get it? hah!) with its main competition, it still looks pretty good. One of the most interesting concepts is the desert race course, which the game will generate on each play from a selection of premade sections strung together randomly.

The meat of the game is in Enthusia Life, a standard career mode focused on improving rank. Interestingly, the game calculates each car’s odds on each track, which figures prominently into the driver’s rank. For example, a sports car would have much better odds on an urban racetrack than, say, a heavy truck intended for off-roading. Winning that race with the sports car will give you a bit of a boost, but managing to beat the odds and push that behemoth over the finish line first will give the player a much more significant boost in rank. One can also expect other standby modes of the genre, such as time attack and free race for one or two players. (Had Konami been able to work in an online multiplayer mode, this game would have been a much more direct threat to GT4.)

An interesting twist is the Driving Revolution mode, which places a series of gates on the courses, challenging the driver to pass through them at the correct speed and with the proper acceleration or braking. This is one of the best ways to learn strategies for the courses. It also grades the player on how precisely they complete the course in an oddly DDR-ish manner, as though to encourage players like Alex Williams to try something besides Bemani. Compared to GT4’s innovations being limited to a mode which makes the AI race for you, and the opportunity to take pictures of your cars and print them out (a feature which, quite frankly, seems to fall a bit short of heterosexuality), these player-friendly new ideas look even better.

With the Gran Turismo series still resting on its laurels a bit, Enthusia Professional Racing has the opening it needs to enter the PS2 racing circuit with a bang. Factoring in the game’s attention to detail and innovation, Konami just might have what it takes to surpass sim racing’s poster franchise on the 8th of March.