Ever have the feeling that you were the right person for a job in the right place, but it simply was the wrong time? You know, like the window for your unique take on a situation has come and gone? Guess what -- this tragic occurrence isn't solely restricted to people; games can suffer the same fate as well. Such is the case with the recent state of driving titles, where three separate companies tried to deliver THE racing game of 2005 with three oft-delayed products. Sony finally came out with Gran Turismo 4, which was shortly followed by Microsoft's Forza Motorsport, with Konami's Enthusia Professional Racing pulling up the rear. Does this latest driving sim suffer from a lack of positioning? Hold onto your steering wheels, racers….
Enthusia is one of those games that falls squarely between the extremes of a particular genre: It's not as quick or accessible as an arcade-styled racer, like Forza, nor is it as detail or gearhead-driven as a driving sim, like GT4. Instead, Enthusia picks and chooses pieces of both styles, eventually emphasizing a player's skill and talents at cleanly racing a course. As a result, gamers have to take many more details into account that they might normally take for granted, such as a car's differential, the particular angle of a turn on a track and how their car responds to tight curves without losing traction. If that sounds like a lot to keep track of, don't worry – a lot of this information is encapsulated in what's known as Enthusia's Visual G system, or VGS. A number of visual displays ring the screen that measures the grip of your tires to the racetrack and the degree to which inertia and G-Force push onto your car. By paying attention to these meters, you can be alerted to losing control of your car, potentially avoiding crashes or unintended slides into a wall.
Avoiding mistakes like these really come into play in the game's primary mode, the creatively named "Enthusia Life" mode and its point system. Essentially an extended career mode, Enthusia Life measures gameplay a week at a time. Entering and performing well in a race opens up additional contests to compete in, and at the end of 12 weeks, Enthusia takes your best 9 races from that period and adjusts your standing in the rankings accordingly. These standings can affect your performance upgrades and even a starting place on the track. However, there are a few catches: Whatever car you pick to race with, you're locked into that machine, unless you choose to sit out a week to pick a new vehicle. Depending on the timing, sitting out one week could possibly sink your advancement in the standings.
Then again, so could the choice of your car. Unlike other racers, Enthusia doesn't emphasize dominating your opponents, blowing them away with overpowered machines. Instead, it actually values gamers that intentionally choose to be an underdog, a feature that boosts the calculation of "Enthu" points for drivers who stick out races with weaker cars. Replacing currency for the game, Enthu points have a number of uses throughout the career mode. Supplementing the ranking system, Enthu points can also bolster your driver's stats, further increasing the amount of points that you can earn while racing. This also can affect the car upgrades that you receive for your vehicles. Apart from the "career" mode, there's the standard modes found in most racing games, such as versus play, free driving modes and time attack. There's also an additional feature known as driving revolution, where you attempt to drive your car through colored gates at specific speeds, braking or accelerating to accurately clear the track. Your performance on these shortened courses is graded based on how well you successfully navigated the course, allowing you to continue to the next challenge or forcing you to retry the stage again.
While the core idea behind Enthusia (that of cleanly racing along a course) is a creative one, it runs into a number of problems that relegates it to the hardcore driving fan only. First of all, the game manages to dock you for just about any single infraction. Run just slightly off the course – Enthu points get docked. Inadvertently powerslide around a corner that you should’ve taken more slowly – goodbye points. Wind up slamming the wall, and expect those points to quickly evaporate. All of these can be controlled somewhat by a player learning to be less aggressive in their driving and more astute with their cornering and acceleration. However, it is wildly and overwhelmingly unfair when the AI can be as hostile as it wants to be, even to the point of hitting you intentionally as it jockeys for position, yet you are docked for the collision. Why should I pay for what the computer specifically did to me? That’s not only emotionally insulting, but mentally frustrating. Oh, and did I mention that if you don’t have enough Enthu points after a particularly bruising race, you’re forced to sit out a week or more until you regain them? There’s no justification for that at all.
Another facet of patience comes into play with the “underdog” system that the game is so enamored with. It does add to the challenge of the game to go against much more powerful machines than yours, and it can be a rush to actually pull out a win. However, thanks to the “limitation” on switching cars, you’ll probably start to feel restricted in gameplay, choosing to disregard the entire idea anyway to simply find a machine that can compete. This isn’t entirely that easy either, as the system for unlocking additional cars is tantamount to hitting a jackpot in Vegas on a slot machine. It’s entirely possible, if your luck isn’t with you, to race ten games or so and only unlock one car, if that. Considering that there are more than two hundred licensed cars, this actually makes the process of unlocking vehicles feel more like drudge work than a reward.
Layer on top of this features that seem nonsensical or non-existent, and you’ll start to wonder if the original game concept was implemented or just complicated by superfluous rules. For instance, while the VGS system is supposed to help govern the way you play, it can also distract you with the numerous instrument boxes scattered around the periphery of the screen. The fact that you probably will be better off turning this info off, because any facts it will give you is often too late to act upon before you’re in trouble, makes the system seem flawed. There’s also a very definite lacking sense of speed to a race, so much so that you’ll find yourself pounding on the acceleration button to try to make your car run faster while getting a negligible response. This really doesn’t come off well for a racing game, although the implemented physics will gladly spin your car out of control if you go off the road and into a barrier. Finally, the Enthu points system feels so arcane that taxes might start to make more sense. Not only does the game add and subtract a number of different fields to generate a final total for a race, you can easily spend half a minute or more just watching the game tally up the number of mistakes you made.
Enthusia itself is a mixed technical bag, one that is both well done and visually unappealing at the same time. For instance, the car models themselves are easily the most impressive feature of the game, with many of the licensed machines looking like their real counterpart without the seemingly ever-present sheen that other driving games seem to overemphasize. The result is a title whose vehicles appear to stand out from their backgrounds, which can be striking for car enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the backgrounds and menu textures can sometimes be so plain, generic or basically textured that this is the lone plus going for some courses. Aliasing issues abound throughout a lot of the tracks, which just feel outclassed compared to the machines driving on them. What’s more, the menu system is so dull, text laden and unappealing that you almost feel like you’re playing two separate titles between races. While the somewhat mellow jazz that plays on these directional screens is calm inducing, the sound effects aren’t much better, capturing some of the distinctiveness of the engines from each car on the track but providing basic effects for tires on different “environmental” surfaces (asphalt vs. grass, for instance), regardless of the speed that your going. Additionally, when they occur, collisions sound exactly the same, which is rather disappointing considering that you won’t necessarily have the same impact or be at the same speed every time.
Considering the two titles that arrived just before Enthusia, the game seems to have been stuck between a rock and a hard place. Thanks to GT4 and Forza, the expectations on a driving game were elevated to a point at which Enthusia finds a lot of trouble to even compete. Were the game released in January or even at some point in winter of 2004, the hiccups of the game might’ve come across differently. Maybe they’d seem quirky, even slightly problematic, but an indication of where racing could go complexity-wise. As it stands now, it’s really a game for the most serious driving enthusiast.