Review: Indianapolis 500 Legends

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Platform: Wii
Publisher: Destineer
Developer: Torus Games
Release Date: 12/14/07
Genre: Racing
Players: 1-2

Featuring ten years of legendary cars, top drivers and some great historical race footage from the era, Indianapolis 500 Legends is a game for both longtime fans of the classic event as well as anyone who wants a nice slice of fun to play automotive history. Sure, it’s got only one track and none of the deeper features found in pretty much every racer in the post Gran Turismo world, but that doesn’t make it a “bad” game at all. In fact, by focusing on a specific era and how it changed racing, the game makes for a fantastic time machine to the days when hopping into what amounted to a rolling bomb and surviving 200 laps without incident was a mixture of luck, skill and sheer force of will. Developer Torus Games has done a nice job with the Wii hardware, cooking up an arcade racer with great control, challenging mission portions and tricky pit stop mini-games.

There are two gameplay modes, Classic and Mission and a cool Museum area where you can peruse the historical goodies you’ve unlocked. Classic allows you to choose a year, track and car or let the game randomly choose them for you and you’ll get fun two-player split-screen action. Mission mode is where you’ll tackle portions of Indy races such as zipping through a pack of wrecking cars unscathed or trying to catch up and pass a set number of cars in a few laps in order to take the checkered flag. Speaking of laps, Classic also allows you to set your laps, so you can race a little as 10 all the way up to a full 200 laps (or 500 miles) with a 33-car field. As a guy who played a full 24-hour race in Test Drive Le Mans on the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, I loved this feature because it adds a bit of simulation aspect to the game, complete with pit stops (and thankfully, no boring commercials to sit through).

You’ll need to do well in both modes in order to unlock everything and fortunately, the game controls are solid, simple and quite responsive. To play, you need to hold the controller sideways; Button 2 is the gas, 1 is your brake and reverse. The D-Pad is used to look left, right behind you or switch car viewpoints. Once you’re on the track, the only other button you need to think about is B, which allows you to slingshot past a car you’ve been drafting. One thing you need to realize in this game is that despite the simplified controls, this isn’t a NASCAR game or something from the Burnout franchise. Yes, you’re making a series of left turns after blasting down some long straights while trying not to crash into the opposition. However, if you grew up watching the 500 year after year like me, you’ll get a big thrill when you’re in the pack going for the win after a hard fought battle.

Torus’ custom engine makes for some pretty intense moments, particularly if you lose control while in a pack of other cars. Tires smoke, cars start skidding and if you’re playing on a big enough TV, you’ll practically feel your stomach churn as your car smashes into a wall or a few other cars. If you’re old enough to remember the great PC game Gran Prix Legends, you might feel as if you’re playing that game in a simplified form at times. While that was a more complex simulation, it also focused on the period in the 60’s where the sport was at its most dangerous. What’s here is clearly geared toward a more family-friendly gameplay experience, but there are definitely more than enough hair-raising moments here to keep you playing race after race.

As this is a Wii game, you know Torus had to add something unique to the mix, so in addition to the tilt steering you get interactive (and mandatory) pit stops. The game would be pretty dull if all you did was press the accelerator and blaze around the track without consequence, so with damage on, you might just find yourself forced to pit in after scraping the wall (or another car) or you might need to roll in to gas up and get new rubber. Here’s where the mini-game fun begins… Once you hit the pit lane and come to a stop, it’s all you as you’re tasked with changing tires, refueling and getting out before you lose too much ground. Trust me; the first time you have to perform that 8-step tire change with the Wiimote, you’ll probably get a case of the jitters, screwing up royally as you go from first place to 16th. If you happen to ace the tire change, there’s a hilariously great chance you set your car afire in the refueling portion. Good thing you have a Wiimote-controlled fire extinguisher handy!

Speaking of hot stuff, I love the retro car selection here. During this 10-year stretch, the 500 featured multiple car types from classic front engine open-wheel roadsters to experiments with body and engine types in addition to mid-engine placement and more streamlined rear engine jobs. When you look at the bonus footage, you’ll get to see how the differences made for quite a bit of unpredictability during the race. For example, in 1967, only seven cars finished the race out of the initial 33 – the majority of cars suffered from mechanical failures of one sort or another. Other races featured dangerous crashes (complete with fatalities), but the game doesn’t dwell heavily on these darker moments. Of course, you get the chance to change a bit of history here and there in Challenge mode, but you’ll probably hit the Google after some of the wilder Challenges to read about what really happened in a few instances.

From a graphics standpoint, the game does a very solid job of representing the cars and track, going for realism over fancy color work or an overabundance of visual effects. Some might consider the game bland-looking, but you have to remember that in general, most racetracks are pretty dull to look at and secondly, racecars back then weren’t quite the ridiculously garish rolling billboards we see today. Seeing a slim, trim Lotus on the same track as A.J. Foyt’s beefier Offenhauser roadster (the cover model from the 1964 race, by the way) along with some other unique cars types is pretty cool. The sense of speed isn’t always as fluid as other racers, however, here’s a case where judging a game on its own merits is key. On more powerful hardware, I’m sure the developer could get a solid 60 FPS, but that’s neither here nor there. This is a Wii game, so the fact that you’re getting a full 33 car field with a killer damage system implemented and a comfortably quick sense of speed should be appreciated. Split-screen play is OK, but I did wish there was some sort of online component added. Nice game or not, it would have been sweet to see what sort of community interest this sort of racer has., specifically as there’s still aren’t a ton of exclusive racers on the Wii featuring real cars.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with the game: it’s probably going to be seen as too limited for jaded gamers that expect every game they buy to be packed to the gills with content. Paradoxically, as fun as it is to play, the fact that it’s solely on the Wii (and DS) might make some think it’s of lesser quality. It would have been really super to see a 360 or PS3 version sporting higher-resolution graphics, a solid 60FPS, online play and more years of racing added, but I’m gathering development costs kept this from being a realization this time out. However, I’m hoping someone decides to tackle the definitive history of Indy in a full-priced racer one of these days. The slim main game aside, the ability to race a full 500 laps and the quicker Challenges combined with the wonderful historic footage make this one worth keeping for classic racing fans. In closing, while the prospect of buying a racing game with just one track might seem eyebrow raising to most gamers in this day and age, open minded players will definitely enjoy what’s here while it lasts and come back for more when they can.

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Pros:
+ Easy to pick up and play for all ages
+ Cringe-worthy crashes (if that’s your thing)
+ Pit stop mini-games are well implemented
+ Indy fans and racing buffs will love the historical elements

Cons:
– Somewhat slim on game modes
– Looks nice, but we’re wondering how much better a 360 or PS3 version would be…

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