Wii Fanboy Review: Indianapolis 500 Legends

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Simulation racing games have never been a major interest of mine. They focus on realistically modeling car movement and performance, with the goal of encapsulating the true experience of doing something that most people cannot do: driving expensive, powerful cars very fast. Often efforts are made to model real locations as well to enhance the veracity of the experience. Simulation racing games provide a form of wish fulfillment that serves an interest shared by a lot of people. But I'm a lot more likely to wish for not having to drive than for more advanced forms of car driving.

Arcade racing, I have no problem with -- the high-speed, powersliding gameplay has less to do with accurate models of car physics and more to do with game-specific mechanics. The car is governed by what's fun instead of what's real. I generally prefer activities that are more game-like than simulation-like. That's why I don't mind not having to simulate putting bowling shoes on in Wii Sports.

Destineer's Indianapolis 500 Legends seems to have been intended as a simulation of classic Indy 500 races. But the racing feels more arcade-like. The game ends up straddling the two styles, and fails to succeed in either category. Bottom line (except not really, because there's a lot of review after this): this game is really only suitable for people with an abiding interest in driving in a circle, and an iffy proposition for that crowd.

Indianapolis 500 Legends recreates the Indianapolis 500 races from the years 1961 to 1971. It was clearly made with love for the race, with lots of documentary video and gameplay elements that focus on accurately modeling real events in each year's race. Indy history buffs (who I'm sure exist) would no doubt get a kick out of taking part in the most exciting moments from the races of that period. The premise, in fact, leads directly into the most interesting aspect of the game: the level structure.

Legends' structure is very cleverly designed. In order to combat the crushing monotony of running 200-lap races over and over again on the same track, the game features a "Mission Mode" as its main gameplay mode. In this mode, specific segments of the race are offered as short challenges, including passing specific cars, avoiding wreckage on the track, and clearing laps in certain time intervals. By distilling the race into a series of identifiable moments, the game is able to maintain historical accuracy while providing exciting and (somewhat) varied gameplay.

This mission mode gives a very video-game-like progression to the chronological series of races. You start in 1961 with only one car and driver unlocked, and must complete a series of three challenges with this car to unlock the next car; each car has three missions, and each year has three cars. The missions involve clearing wreckage, performing quick pit stops, or just racing in specific segments. This isn't Crazy Taxi's Crazy Box mode; rooted in reality as it is, there just aren't that many kinds of missions. There's no bowling mode or anything. Some of them are way too easy, and others (like, for example, the first crash-evasion mission, which I retried for about an hour and which very nearly cost this game its entire score) are painfully, joylessly difficult. And you have to play all of them in strict sequence to unlock the game's content. Want to use two different cars in multiplayer? You have to unlock it in Mission Mode first!

I will always take exception to this kind of unlocking; forcing one player to master the game before allowing content in multiplayer can only lead to two results: first, Player 2 being forced to watch as Player 1 unlocks content, and second, Player 1 learning the game really well and then defeating Player 2 repeatedly. Couldn't we just have the linear level structure and multiplayer mode? Why must one depend on the other? This is, of course, not unique to this game, but it needs to stop. If any game developer or publisher ever listens to something I say, let it be this. Stop doing that. In this case, however, it's a moot point, because the framerate drops to an unbearable level in multiplayer.

Pit stops, which occur both in missions and after too much damage in normal races, consist of pointer-based tire-changing and refueling minigames. While many of us have developed a hypersensitivity to minigame integration in Wii games, these are pretty inoffensive and, at the very least, a lot more fun than just watching animations of tires changing as your opponents pass you by. And, to be honest, it's nice to break the monotony of driving around the (historically accurate) featureless oval.

The clever progression and the historical accuracy aren't enough to compensate for the one major shortcoming of the game: the actual racing. You have the option to use "assists" for steering and braking; with these assists on, as by default, the racing is simplistic without any powersliding or fishtailing, or any other arcadey trick other than a "slingshot" maneuver (accomplished by drafting behind another car and then pressing B). In short, it's easy. There's hardly ever any reason to use the brake. The difficulty comes not in mastering racing skills, but basically in overcoming the opponents who seem to be uniformly faster than you and so focused on their own racing lines that they have no issue with slamming directly into your car. Turning the assists off seems to increase the sensitivity of steering, and doesn't do much else.

People with a special interest in Indy 500 races would be better served by books or movies, and let the real cars and real drivers handle (or have handled) the task of making the memorable moments. Arcade racing fans would be better served by a more arcade-style game; simulation racing fans would find this game lacking in realism and complexity -- of course, no real simulation fan would accept a racing game played with a stick in the air.

This game represents a large amount of wasted potential. It is evident that a ton of research went into modeling the cars, the track (which changes with the year), the atmosphere, and the situations, but the actual game reduces the impact of this work. Similarly, the Mission Mode is an interesting way to make a very long race into a pick-up-and-play affair, but it is marred by the uneven difficulty of the missions and the generally poor feel of the racing.

Final score: 4.5/10

[Screenshots via IGN, obviously]
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