Viper Racing

An overlooked gem that still sparkles after a decade.

The Good
Viper Racing's single greatest asset has to be its incredibly realistic physics engine. On par with Grand Prix Legends, another mid-90's hardcore racing sim, Viper Racing's physics were far superior to most driving sims of the era, and have only recently been surpassed by titles like Live for Speed and GT-R.

Factors like inertia, torque, aerodynamics, weight transfer, brake and tire wear, and a host of other forces are all accurately modeled in the game engine. Rev the engine and the car lurches a bit. Brake excessively and the discs glow red. Apply too much throttle in a turn and the rear wheels break free, sending you spinning into an outside corner. And if you hit a wall hard enough the suspension will bend, making it difficult to drive in a straight line. In fact, the entire vehicle deforms in a very believable way upon impact, making multi-car accidents fun to watch. Viper Racing was also one of the first PC racing titles to fully simulate a clutch, which can be mapped to a button or a pedal, or set to "Auto" for effortless paddle-shifting.

For those who appreciate physics, Viper Racing is a wonderful sandbox, offering lots of freedom to experiment. The suspension, drivetrain, and aerodynamics are all adjustable, but the sim includes some non-standard features as well. Tapping the "W" key causes the car to pop a wheelie, and holding it down sends you tumbling through the air. A hack called "Horn Ball" shoots a two-ton bowling ball out the front of your car, knocking opponents around as though they were toys. You can even raise the suspension height to twenty inches and go off-roading over desert sands and grass hills. Forget about racing - hours of fun can be had simply experimenting in the game environment.

A physics engine is, of course, just one piece of a bigger picture that includes elements like level design, gameplay, and network play. The eight bundled tracks are all-original and well-conceived, offering a good mix of challenge and driveability, and even a few opportunities to go airborne. They can also be raced backwards for variety. Gameplay modes include time-trials, quick races, and a career mode that offers progressive car upgrades. Computer-controlled opponents are competent and aggressive, with three difficulty levels. Network play allows up to eight players to compete on a LAN. And a few additional vehicles are available for fun, including a powerful mid-engine exotic, a 4WD sports sedan, and even a hackneyed airplane that can soar far above the track.

Viper Racing also offers a wide array of camera views. The typical in-cockpit, third-person, and trackside views are supplemented by a top-down POV and even an in-car view that displays the front wishbone suspension, springs, and wheels, which are entertaining to observe while you negotiate turns and crest hills. A full VCR-style replay complete with basic telemetry graphs is available after every race.

Despite its age, Viper Racing benefits from a tightly-knit online fanbase which has produced dozens of add-on cars, tracks, and utilities, and also organizes racing championships. Though the only car to receive any attention in the original game was the Dodge Viper, the physics engine is versatile enough to simulate front and all-wheel drive vehicles, so the 3rd-party Celica and monster truck all operate in a believable way. Between the original package and all the add-ons that have been created over the years, Viper Racing offers dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hours of playability.

The Bad
Like many hardcore simulations, Viper racing is much deeper than it is wide. Vehicle and track variety is very limited, so casual racers will quickly grow bored. It's a shame that this sim didn't offer a wider variety of cars out of the box. Thankfully, the online community has filled the gap, and GT-spec versions of the Porsche 911, McLaren F1, Toyota Supra, Ferrari 360 Modena, and Lotus Esprit are available as add-ons, to name just a few.

Viper Racing would also have benefited from the inclusion of some real-life racetracks. Though the bundled circuits are fun and challenging, many hardcore sim drivers want to do hotlaps at Spa-Francorchamps or Monza. Once again, the online community has stepped-up and several real-world add-on tracks are available for download, along with a track-management utility.

For all its realism, Viper Racing does lack a few standard damage-related features. The engine can never be over-revved or destroyed, even if you smash into a wall at top speed. Wheels, body panels, and other parts remain firmly attached no matter how violently you wreck the car. Tires never blow and fuel never runs out. One wonders why such fundamental features weren't implemented in an otherwise realistic sim.

Several users have also complained about the omnipresent "reset" feature, which allows both human and AI drivers to immediately restore their wrecked vehicles to the road in pristine condition with a tap of the spacebar. It creates an incentive to cheat and detracts from overall realism, especially during serious races where drivers ought to stay out of the running once wrecked, and it cannot be disabled.

A few quirks aside, the chief complaint about Viper Racing is that there is not enough of it in the box, which suggests that the core of the sim is good enough to warrant further development. Thankfully, most of Viper Racing's major shortcomings have been addressed by the online community, so there are currently no reasons to avoid this title, assuming you can actually find a copy.

The Bottom Line
Viper Racing is a detailed simulation of the Dodge Viper that appeals principally to hardcore sim racers. Casual gamers who wish to drive a few quick races interspersed with fancy mo-capped cinematics and flashy graphics will surely be disappointed, but anyone willing to invest the time and energy to update and master the sim will find it a richly rewarding experience. A wheel and pedals are necessary to really appreciate the driving experience.

by SiliconClassics (861) on December 27th, 2008

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