If there’s one flavor of motorsport that causes more debate than any other, it’s probably NASCAR fans arguing with others about whether racers with a southern drawl have the most incredible car control on the planet or are just too dim-witted to know when to lift. Second to that, though, the automotive endeavor that gets the most debate is definitely drifting. But, where the NASCAR debates usually focus on skill, racing fans often question drifting’s status as a motorsport. After all, is a form of racing where style and finesse are far more important than speed really worthy of being compared to something like Formula One or *gulp* NASCAR?
Regardless of whether you think drifters and their tarted out cars have more in common with Christie Yamaguchi or Takuma Sato, you have to admit that drifting looks like fun. Just kicking your tail out a few degrees in a real car can be a rush, but the insane slip angles drifters in D1GP hit on just about every corner make even your craziest drifts in Project Gotham Racing look like kid’s stuff. Sadly, D1 Grand Prix, a game dedicated to the professional sport of drifting, will do far more to frustrate you than to encourage your wild side.
In D1GP, like in PGR, competitors are scored based on the length, speed, and angle of their drift, either running solo or dueling with a competitor. The race weekend begins with each qualified racer getting three solo runs through the closed course. Each is scored as above, with points taken off for spinning, stopping, or crashing into something. After solo runs, the top 16 scorers continue onto a series of tsuiso (twin run) battles. Here, a pair of racers take turns leading and following, the leader trying to hold position and impress while the follower tries to take away the leader’s line. After they swap the scores are tallied and the winner continues on to the next round.
This system is replicated exactly in D1 Grand Prix. And well it should be; Yuke’s, Japanese developer of the game, is a major sponsor of the series and runs a vividly orange and purple RWD-conversion Subaru WRX STI (AWD cars being sadly prohibited). In the game you select from a solid selection of about 40 perennial drifter favorites like the AE86 Corolla, made famous in the Initial-D series, or the vicious Toyota Supra.
However, the game also has a selection of relative newcomers to the drifting scene, like the Pontiac GTO (Holden Monaro to you non-Yankees) and the Dodge Viper. In the game these cars seem to be a bit more of a handful then their Asian counterparts, and perhaps that’s appropriate given their typically higher girth and similarly higher torque curves. But, to say that the Japanese cars are easier to drift is a little like saying a World Superbike monster is easier to ride than a MotoGP beast; neither is exactly a walk in the park.
Do You Have the Skills?
This entire game will push your skills, and ultimately patience, to the limit. If you’re a keen drifter in Gran Turismo and Project Gotham and expect to be running laps around the AI competition right out of the starting gates, you should instead be prepared for a surprise. D1 Grand Prix is hard, seriously hard, and not just because the cars are punishingly difficult to push to the limit (though they certainly are).
It’s the scoring system that will really be the bane of your existence. While you might be able to rack up 100 points in a single long corner if you nail a perfect drift, should you bobble coming out of it and go straight for a moment you can easily lose 200. Hitting the wall or sliding off-course will put you well into negative territory, a place you won’t likely crawl out of.
This very difficult point system makes sense for the upper-tiers of drifting, where you expect each corner to be handled perfectly and the differences between the drivers to be minute. But, when you’re playing the game in the beginner level in a slower car and a limited track, it’s frustrating to have your every mistake be punished so harshly. Rather than encouraging you to push your car and get the feel for extreme drifts you wind up making small slides and then trying to nurse the car home safely without making a mistake.
Getting Up to Speed
The game does include a very (very) lengthy set of tutorials to teach you the basics, but despite their extreme length you’ll wind up little better after completing them than you were before. Each individual tutorial is prefaced by an overly long non-skippable video showing you what you’re supposed to do and quickly telling you how to do it. You’re then thrown onto a track to do it yourself. Most of the time the actual driving challenge can be completed in 15 seconds and you’re off to the next tutorial.
The first problem is that sitting through the videos is slow and frustrating. But, the bigger problem here is that the tutorials don’t often give you a chance to just run through a series of corners and really get the feel for drifting. This is a major aspect of the sport; being able to effectively connect corners. To practice this you’re left to your own devices, having to go into time-trial mode and practice with no guidance until you figure it out. It’s either that or just start a new season and get your ass handed to you over and over again in the competitions.
The game does get better when played with any of the PS2’s USB steering wheels, but these too are a bit of a disappointment. The game works quite well with them, as this style of drifting requires more finesse than quick reactions on a control-pad. However, despite officially supporting the force-feedback wheels there’s little if any “force” to speak of. One of the best uses of FF wheels in racing games is to tell when your tires are slipping, and sadly there’s no communication whatsoever.
Modes and Features
There’s a definite lack of gameplay modes here, especially when it comes to multiplayer. While drifting is partially a solo sport, the drivers form a strong community and are often seen watching and cheering on their competitors when they’re not on the track. The format of racers running individually then going into very brief mano-a-mano competitions would be perfect for online play. It would be easy to host matches with large numbers of players but very low bandwidth requirements because you’d only ever have two competitors on track at a time. And, people wouldn’t mind waiting, because they’d get to cheer or jeer the competition through short tsuiso battles. Alas, all we get is two-player single console play.
The graphics of the game are good enough, perhaps not GT4 quality but good nonetheless. There is damage modeling here and you can roll your car onto its roof, but the worst damage you can inflict is popping either bumper off, damage that, honestly, results in a better looking car from time to time thanks to the awful body kits here. Audio on the other hand is categorically bad, with obnoxious and repetitive commentators saying the same things over and over again and the same irritating Limp Bizkit-style guitar riffs looping with every menu selection.
Sideways and Swearing
Overall, D1 Grand Prix is an occasionally fun and seriously challenging title. The primary problem is that the learning curve is ridiculously steep; the beginner level cars really don’t help you to learn the basics and the scoring system in the championships results in unskilled players being eliminated quickly, thus getting less practice than they need. Sure, you can spend all the time you want lapping solo in time-trial mode to get the hang of things but the game should do a better job of rewarding skill improvement. With a better driver’s school, better audio, and some sort of online play D1 Grand Prix could a must-buy title for fans of all things sideways. As it is, it’s pretty passable for everyone but the most ardent devotees, and it certainly won’t be the game to change anyone’s minds about drifting’s merits.