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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Gamers' Corner

Racing Oldies Revved Up for Another Round Get Left in the Dust

July 06, 1998|AARON CURTISS

A decade ago, Atari merged driving with shooting in the quarter-gobbling arcade game "RoadBlasters," a title that lives on thanks to the tiresome trend of dusting off coin-op hits from the Mesozoic, bundling them together and selling them in shiny new jewel cases.

It was a hoot initially to replay old faves like "Defender," "PacMan," "Joust" and "Robotron." Now that all the old stallions have been set free once more on Sony PlayStation and the PC, the titles left in the pasture seem like old nags in comparison--particularly when stacked against games written in the last year or so.

For instance, Midway's "Arcade's Greatest Hits: The Atari Collection 2" contains a perfectly good PlayStation conversion of "RoadBlasters"--along with perfectly good conversions of "Paperboy," "Gauntlet," "Millipede," "Marble Madness" and "Crystal Castles." But a perfectly good conversion of an 11-year-old game still leaves players with an 11-year-old game.

In the case of "RoadBlasters," nostalgia goes only so far. Drivers are stuck in a rigid track with repetitive action and graphics that no self-respecting PlayStation would tolerate on a newer game.

Smart console owners should--after respectfully acknowledging the place of "RoadBlasters" in the video game pantheon--leave it buried in the past and concentrate instead on newer vehicle combat titles that show what a difference a decade makes. Using "RoadBlasters" as a benchmark, three relatively recent games effectively make the point.

Perhaps closest to the "RoadBlasters" milieu of good guy fighting injustice, "Auto Destruct" puts players behind the wheel of a tricked-out spy car that James Bond would envy. Although Electronic Arts released "Auto Destruct" last year, the game never really caught on in a huge way.

That's a pity. The game delivers varied action in sprawling cityscapes from San Francisco to Tokyo. A nice battery of weapons and tricks give players plenty of firepower to battle a nihilistic cult. Free range of motion gives players the opportunity to tour realistic neighborhoods while tracking bad guys and keeping innocents out of harm's way.

The graphics seem fairly lackluster, however, given how far along PlayStation is in its development cycle. But for a game on the discount rack, "Auto Destruct" provides a fairly challenging and engaging experience. It's better by far than much of the dross that passes for digital entertainment these days.

Closest to "RoadBlasters" in actual play, Electronic Arts' "Road Rash 3D" mixes traditional motorcycle racing with all-out brawling. "Road Rash" was one of the best titles on the 3DO Multiplayer and, happily, made the jump to PlayStation when 3DO tanked.

This version tweaks the graphics to take full advantage of PlayStation's capabilities. It also fixes the physics to more closely match the control--or lack of it--of a motorcycle. With PlayStation's analog joy pad, control is as sweet as ever.

Of course, this wouldn't be "Road Rash" without some nasty opponents and a bevy of crude weapons. Players in a tight squeeze can always do the gentlemanly thing and kick over the rider on the left and give the rider on the right the business end of a 2-by-4.

Like "RoadBlasters," players are stuck to the tracks. Wandering too far from the center line yields undesirable results. Yet for all the realism of the game's graphics and control, one thing still eludes me. How is it possible to clip a car at 110 mph, lose control, fly over the handlebars, skid along pavement for 50 feet and still get up, dust off and hop right back on the bike?

Ah, video games.

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"Vigilante 8" from Activision likewise demands the suspension of disbelief, but it demonstrates best just how far vehicular combat games have come in the last decade. Sure, it's a pretty bald rip-off of "Twisted Metal," but "Vigilante 8" drops players in some heinous three-dimensional environments to do battle with a bunch of psychos.

As similar as it may sound to the morning commute, "Vigilante 8" allows players to outfit their 1970s-era muscle cars with rocket launchers and other implements of destruction. Arenas allow free range of motion, and players can blow almost everything up as they chase opponents who have long since crossed the very thin line between the workaday world and abject madness. There is, for instance, the rogue FBI agent who admonishes opponents that they "have the right to remain silent--permanently."

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Descent Freespace: It is tempting to write off Interplay's "Descent Freespace" as yet another sequel in the revolutionary "Descent" franchise. But that would be incorrect. In fact, "Descent III" won't hit shelves until fall. Think of "Descent Freespace" as more of a spinoff that stands separate and apart from its creator--sort of like "The Jeffersons" and "All in the Family."

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