Three categories of cars are supplied: GTS, Prototype and GTP all with very individual handling styles. Various race options are included. Quick Race mode to get going immediately at a circuit of choice, and success unlocks new tracks. Championship mode needs to be worked though to unlock extra cars. Time trial mode is a challenge to beat a certain lap time and perfect the lines through the corners. Multiplayer mode allows up to 4 player split screen action. However, the main reason for the existence of Test Drive: Le Mans is the Le Mans mode.
Le Mans is a 24 hour race, so instead of completing the race within a certain number of laps, the aim is to complete as many laps as possible in that 24 hours. Time options range from 10 minutes to the full 24 hour epic (saving the game is possible during pitstops). Regardless of which time is chosen, a full 24 hour day is squeezed into that time, so dusk, night, dawn and day are all experienced during every race in Le Mans mode, along with random weather changes. The night to day effects are very effective, making the game extremely atmospheric and believable. However, this aspect is just one slick part of a very well oiled game. The rest of the package is so polished that it is difficult to point out any particular area that deserves most attention. The attention to detail is commendable. The graphics push the boundaries of what is capable on the platform. The artificial intelligence puts other renowned racing games to shame. The downsides are few and far between. In split screen multiplayer mode, there is a drop in frame-rate. It is not severe, but in the absence of other things to point a finger at, it is an admittedly small target. And the in-race background music sounds like dire copyright free guitar solos. In contrast, all the other music is superb. The only other complaint is that the expert mode (ABS and traction control turned off) is too hard because the opponent AI ramps up too much.
The game looks special. F355 looked great. Le Mans looks better. Brake discs glow after heavy braking and smoke pours from individual wheels if locked up. Flash lights burst from cameras in the crowds watching the race. Flames leap from exhausts during gear changes. The grass textures are superlative and when driven over after an over zealous cornering effort, it flattens under the wheels. A burst of acceleration tears up the grass to reveal the mud. Clouds move across the sky. Clumps of people sit on the grass overlooking the circuit at Donnington Park, trying to get a cheap view of the race. Pop-up has been virtually eliminated by making sure that the graphics engine does not bother applying the textures to objects until they become obvious. The cars take off over high speed brows and tip onto 2 wheels if a high kerb is clipped in a corner. Most of the alloys look gorgeous and the brake callipers are clearly visible through them. The warm Catalunya circuit evening glow at sunset is perfect when combined with the beautiful background/distance texture of the mountains.
Spots of rain hit the windscreen and stay there for a fraction of a second and if the car speed is slow enough, the rain can be clearly seen bouncing off the road. And the road texture is perfect, not needing the use of lighting effects to make it look real. It just does.
The car models are not quite as detailed as more recent PS2 and Xbox racers but depending on the colour, they can look totally convincing, for example the Dodge Viper, which looks stunning. The upshot is that 24 cars are on screen at once. Read it again. 24 cars, all light sourced, all shadowed, all with great AI, and no slowdown in the single player game and only slight slowdown in the multiplayer game. Even the replays are totally smooth.
The crowd reacts to the situation, with, amongst many others, overtakes, accidents and crossing the finish line bringing about distinctive effects. The engine notes are well above average and gear changes are accompanied by gearbox clunk and engine backfires, the latter being visible as well as audible. Tyre squeal and pack rumble informs that acceleration or braking is being overdone.
The other drivers are intelligent in the same way that we are. They are great drivers, but they make mistakes too. They will misjudge their braking distance at the end of a long straight and hit the back of the player's car, punting it off into the gravel, back end a couple of feet in the air. 3 computer drivers will be side by side dead ahead and tussling for position, when a slight nudge will send one of them spinning off the track, forcing the player to brake or get taken out. After an overtake, they will pull into the slipstream to reduce their losses. They do not just stick to the racing line, but take a blocking line if necessary, if an attempt is made to dive up the inside.
The whole game is an experience that will not be forgotten. The first time speeding down the back straight at Le Mans at top speed during the night, with only the dim and distant glow of the someone else's taillights up ahead. The strobe lights before the corners warning which way the corner goes. Coping with driving rain and spray. Everything needed from a Le Mans games is included.
The game is fun. It is not as frustrating as F355 and looks even better. It is difficult to think of another game that display 24 cars at once without slowing down. The difficulty curve is fairly steep but anyone familiar with driving games should be on familiar ground from the off. Delicate use of the analogue triggers goes a long way.
At the beginning of this review it states that anyone owning a Dreamcast that likes driving games should get hold of Test Drive: Le Mans. However, it should be added that anyone that is serious about driving games should play this game, even if it means buying/borrowing a Dreamcast.
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