Release Date: Late 2000
Developer: Clockwork Games
Publisher: Acclaim Entertainment
US Sales: 70,000 copies approx
Question: what exactly is a 'Vanishing Point'? Is it a cult road movie from the early 1970's, a song by New Order or could it be a theatre company in Scotland? Well it's all of these and more but in Dreamcastland, it's the name of a largely overlooked racer billed by the developers as the "conversion of an arcade racer that never existed". Using Sega coin-op racers Daytona USA, Scud Race and Sega Rally as inspiration, the task was to "create a true arcade game for the home". Did they succeed?... not quite but Vanishing Point is a game that still deserves your attention.
Graphically speaking, Vanishing Point is a technical showcase for the Dreamcast. Clockwork Games have created a bold, bright and colourful racer that runs at a rock-solid 60 FPS. There's no slowdown whatsoever; that's right....NONE....even when a large scale crash take place (and believe me, they'll be a lot of those) so everything stays silky smooth! The race backdrops even have animations such as the landing jumbo on South Riviera (a la Scud Race), the waterfalls on Alpine and the stream trains puffing along on Forest Fields. You really can appreciate the amount of thought went into creating the courses, especially when viewing your last race through the panoramic Replay Mode. If there's one negative, it's that the vehicle models aren't particularly detailed but the developers should be lauded for not sacrificing speed for the sake of a shinier Aston Martin. Quite simply, Vanishing Point strikes the perfect balance between polygon count and frame rate.
The waterfalls of Alpine....their beauty amplified by the post-race replay.
The stunning sunset of Midnight City; an obvious faux par unless they have skyscrapers in Greenland!
Moving onto sound and while there's nothing particularly special about the effects in Vanishing Point, they do their job accordingly. However a nice touch are the sounds given to the background animations; you can hear the sound of cascading water as you drive through Alpine, the clatter of the monorail on Harbour View and the roar of the 747 as it flies into land on South Riviera. Musically speaking, the game has a solid techno/breakbeat soundtrack courtesy of Rob Bridgett and it compliments the game well; there are no Long Long Roads or I Can Still Believe monstrosities here! My personal favourite is the trance-tinged track “Melting” as it sets the pace for a fast race (ooh it rhymes, it rhymes!)
The Forest Fields course has ringing bells and steam train whistles that add to the atmosphere.
Next we have the car selection and Vanishing Point is a mainly western affair with a total of 32 vehicles up for selection. You start with two Fords: the Explorer and Mustang Cobra, and work your way up to the BMW 325i, Alfa Romeo GTV and Jaguar XKR. Finally we hit the supercars with the likes of the Dodge Viper GTS, Lotus Esprit and the almighty Aston Martin V8. The sole Eastern car is the Supra courtesy of Toyota. Along with the standard selection, there's a variety of secret vehicles to unlock including the VW Microbus, Mini Cooper and Ford Thunderbird. However most of the secret cars are simply variations of their standard counterparts. There's a pretty good selection here and it'll certainly take you a while to unlock everything! The only real downside, and this applies to most racers, is that once completed there's no reason to drive the slower vehicles again.
Now for me, a racing game is only good as its physics engine and sadly this is where Vanishing Point falls down somewhat. This is partly due to the way the game is structured so it's best I discuss handling and the main race mode together. Now Vanishing Point is different to most other racers as it plays like one big Time Trial. Simply put, you do not get 1st place by finishing ahead of the CPU cars, but rather by beating a pre-set course time. The main mode is the Tournament where you race in heats that contain between 2-4 races on different courses. There are 3 heats for each standard vehicle: Bronze, Silver and Gold. Finishing each heat in 1st place allows you to unlock further vehicles and tuning options (see below).
Unfortunately the big problem begins at the start of the tournament with the initial choice of the two Fords. These vehicles have absolutely ATROCIOUS handling and as there are yet no tuning options, you have no choice but to bear it. Unless you are super-delicate with the steering, the Fords will constantly body roll like a drunk-driver on ice each time you attempt a turn. Things can actually get so bad you'd expect Sheriff John Bunnell from World's Scariest Police Chases to pitch in and shout one of his overblown clichés.....“This crazed drunk thought he could handle the Red Rock Canyon but the only Rock he'll be handling are the ones he's made to break at the county jail”! To make matters worse, the CPU cars have been programmed to try and block your path or ram you off the road. While this is no bad thing in itself - the manual warns about this and it's quite fun later on in the game – the first few heats turn into the gaming equivalent of 'hazing'. Forcing people to drive properly is one thing but punishing a novice for simply being a novice is never acceptable. The suffering only stops when you unlock the first tuning option (tire pressure) so I suggest you play the first heat with the Ford Explorer to unlock the BMW 325i and then select that car. You can then return to the Explorer and Mustang heats once tire pressure can be adjusted (deflate them for more grip).
Once you begin to unlock faster cars from the BMW onwards and the various tuning options, things improve dramatically. The cars will begin to do what the thumbstick tells them and racing becomes a less sadistic affair. You'll begin to appreciate the differences in handling between each vehicle and spend more time with the tuning options and the Test Track in order to perfect your ride. Personally I always play Vanishing Point using driver's view as you have more control and everything feels less sensitive. But sadly some problems remain. Now when Sega were developing Scud Race, Yu Suzuki was rumoured to have played an early version and stated “This is no good...bring me a pencil and paper”. He then went on to note down improvements for the physics engine that were included in the final release. If Yu Suzuki played Vanishing Point, he would still ask for a pencil but would instead use it to stab up the Clockwork Games team! You see, if you look at Vanishing Point you can clearly see from the (excellent) course designs and game structure that it's an arcade racer. So it begs the question... why did the developers seek out automobile experts and spend two years developing “the most advanced vehicle dynamics”? Surely this is the type of thing you do when you are making a simulation racer like Gran Turismo or Ferrari F355, not a “conversion of an arcade game that never existed”. As a result the game lacks the essential drift dynamic found in Sega coin-op racers and feels far too restrained. This is the type of game you'll want to drift around corners at ridiculous speeds while clinging to that all important racing line. You want to be able to mount those bumps on Midnight City in order to shave milliseconds off your lap time, not avoid them because “advanced vehicle dynamics” make you overturn. In conclusion, the handling is far more nervous than it needed to be and in my opinion the game suffers as a result. Forget the so called “car experts”....they should have hired AM2 or Sega Rosso instead!
The Tuning shop, essential if you want to make cars driveable or feel more arcadey. But should this have been necessary in the first place?
One other curious feature with Vanishing Point are the transmission types: we have manual and what seems to be 'semi-automatic'. When driving with auto gears, you can actually take control of the shifting if you need to accelerate faster, for example when driving up an incline. While this is no bad thing, it does beg the question as to why manual transmission exists in the first place. This is amplified by the fact auto transmission always allows a better head start when beginning from a stationery position (ie Time Trial Mode).
In addition to Tournament mode, there are also Single Races, Single Time Trials, ie no CPU cars, and later on in the game the CWG Rally, which is a series of Time Trials where overall time counts. We also have the rather fabulous stunt mode similar to Crazy Box in the Crazy Taxi series. Here you have to perform a series of challenges involving long jumps, balloon popping and 'tagging' certain areas. It's a welcome break from the other bog-standard racing modes (if a little short-lived) and it would have been nice if it were incorporated into the main game...well it was once....sort of...see below......
You may have noticed an option for Internet on the menu screen. Now most people wouldn't give this a second thought nowadays as the Vanishing Point server has been dead and buried for over a decade. However older reviews alluded to special challenges that could only be accessed online. Basically the game was programmed to accept special code direct from an Acclaim server allowing players to compete in a particular challenge with a set course and car. Although most of these challenges were simply a straight race or time attack affair, you could take part in something normally reserved for two players: namely Balloon Buster. Here you race through a course popping red balloons for extra points and avoiding the blue balloons that deduct your points (or vica versa). Once the challenge was over, points were converted in seconds that were deducted from your overall course time. Now I've mentioned racing in Vanishing Point is fun enough but spoilt somewhat by the restrained and sim-like handling. If Clockwork Games had incorporated the essence of Stunt Mode within the main Tournament mode, this would have alleviated that issue somewhat. Heats could consist of straight races and a stunt races where you perform specific tasks throughout. For example, getting points for the hill jump in South Riviera, passing heavy traffic without touching anything, popping balloons, tagging certain areas of the road, drifting in certain spots...the possibilities are endless. If Vanishing Point is to be revived for a sequel or make a return via LIVE/PSN, this is something they should consider.
Vanishing Point's stunt mode: a welcome diversion from the racing action. Just a shame these ideas weren't included more in Tournament mode.
There a few other niggles with Vanishing Point....autosave not being the default choice, the lack of an announcer while racing, rivals not actually racing you and no ghost cars. I would also recommend using the Y button for rear view and relegate the unnecessary 'car reset' feature to somewhere on the D-PAD.
In conclusion, Vanishing Point is a very good racer spoilt by its punishing start and the subdued physics engine. If you're prepared to be patient and spend lots of time with the various tuning options, the game will begin to feel more like the arcade racer it was meant to be. Sadly the flaws prevent it from reaching the dizzy heights of Sega and Namco's coin-op classics.
Overall 6/10 (7/10 if the internet challenges were still available or could be revived).
I've decided to upload a VMU starting save that has the Tuning Shop open (using Action Replay). I also switched on the Autosave function and changed the rear view command to 'Y'. Nothing else has been unlocked or altered. The save is PAL only. Click on the link below to access (works with Dreamkey/Planetweb/XDP):
VMU Save File