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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | GAMER'S CORNER

Playing With the Law

It's Just You, Your Lamborghini and Eventually Jail

April 27, 1998|AARON CURTISS | Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge

The same part of our brains that commands the words "uh, sure" when someone asks if we want to see something gross must be the same part that compels us to watch televised police chases.

We all know the moron is either going to end up dead or in jail, but some sort of ghoulish thrill keeps us glued to the tube. The same goes for the latest installment in the "Need for Speed" racing series.

Without fear of arrest or bullet wounds, "Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit" shows why so many yahoos think they can outrun the cops. It's really fun. But, like leading an air strike on alien hordes or fighting to the death in hand-to-hand arena combat, it's something best left to video games and not the real world.

"Hot Pursuit" puts Sony PlayStation owners behind the wheel of some of the finest automobiles in the digital world and lets them loose on nicely drawn tracks that slip along without a glitch.

As with all "Need for Speed" titles, "Hot Pursuit" lets players choose from a stable of cars that most of us could never afford to insure, let alone buy. Cars such as the Lamborghini Diablo SV or the Ferrari 550 Maranello aren't made for schlepping the kids to soccer practice, and "Hot Pursuit" does a great job of simulating speed on the open road.

Unlike most console racing games, "Hot Pursuit's" tracks are not impossible to navigate. They undulate gently with wide turns and gentle dips, providing the opportunity to let the cars explore the top end of the tachometer. Although "Hot Pursuit" features a perfectly fine traditional racer, the only way to play is in pursuit mode.

Demonstrate even a hint of excessive speed, and a swarm of electronic cop cars flood the screen and give chase. At this point, players can pull over and get a warning. Or they can hit the accelerator and leave Johnny Law in the dust.

That's what I did, figuring it was more of a crime to drive a Lamborghini at 35 mph than it was to resist arrest. So as the sirens blared and an official-sounding voice demanded that I pull over, I made a break for it. And for the few minutes I kept the badges at bay, I felt pretty bad.

It didn't last long, though, because the cop cars eventually forced me to the side of the road, where I got a ticket. And then arrested. A few times. In video games, bail is as cheap as hitting the "start" button.

"NEED FOR SPEED V-RALLY"

Deep in the rain forests of Indonesia, signs of the law are few and far between. So racing fans who are into off-roading can indulge without worry. This rally version of "Need for Speed" is perhaps the tightest I've played on any console, better by far than Sega's "Rally Championship."

Tracks scream and different surfaces yield dramatically different steering and braking capabilities. Players can tweak their cars with adjustments to the suspension, gear ratio and steering. But none is so sophisticated that novice players can't jump into competition within minutes.

Weather effects enhance the tracks with rain and fog. Night driving, though, beats them all with great light sourcing from the headlamps.

Simple, but cool.

"NEWMAN/HAAS RACING" and "BURNOUT CHAMPIONSHIP DRAG RACING"

Although racers abound on consoles and the PC, few demand much in the way of thought. The rules of most boil down to two simple instructions: Floor it and hang on. Both "Newman/Haas Racing" for PlayStation and "Burnout Championship Drag Racing" require fast thinking as well as fast driving.

"Newman/Haas" re-creates popular tracks from around the world--including the course of the Long Beach Grand Prix--and puts players in charge of a racing team. Players decide everything from how much fuel to carry in a race to what kind of material the tires should be made of. Each has an effect on different tracks.

The front-end planning pays off with some great traditional racing. Tracks zip into view, although the driver's-seat perspective is a little too fuzzy to use. I preferred a view from slightly above the back of the car.

"Burnout" asks a lot more but doesn't seem to give quite as much back to most casual players. This is a racing game for people who stink at traditional racing games but love assembling hot cars. While "Need for Speed V-Rally" gives details a passing glance and "Newman/Haas Racing" acknowledges their importance, Burnout dotes on them.

Players decide not only what kind of tires, but also peak, slope, stiffness, shape, curvature, camber slope, camber angle, diameter and pressure. Engines and transmissions get similar treatment. All for a fairly straightforward, 10-second race down a straight track.

For car buffs without a current project in the garage, "Burnout" fills the void.

Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send e-mail to aaron .curtiss@latimes.com

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Essentials

Title: "Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit"

Platform: Sony PlayStation

Publisher: Electronic Arts

ESRB* rating: Everyone

Price: $39.95

Bottom line: Tight and fast

Title: "Need for Speed V-Rally"

Platform: Sony PlayStation

Publisher: Electronic Arts

ESRB rating: Kids to adults

Price: $39.95

Bottom line: Dirty fun

Title: "Newman/Haas Racing"

Platform: Sony PlayStation

Publisher: Psygnosis

ESRB rating: Everyone

Price: $49.99

Bottom line: Nice mix of flash and substance

Title: "Burnout Championship Drag Racing"

Platform: PC

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks/Hot Rod magazine

ESRB rating: Kids to adults

Price: $59.99

Bottom line: Too technical for all but the most avid

* Entertainment Software ratings Board

Next week: "Pitfall 3D: Beyond the Jungle," "Starcraft," "Rampage World Tour"

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