Episode One Racer is a Force to be reckoned with

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Speed. Competition. Thrills. A Jedi craves not these things. However, you might be of a different mind.

For all of us Lucas Lunatics out there who just haven’t gotten our fill of The Phantom Menace, you can breath a little easier. LucasArts has your fix in the form of a very un-Jedi-like game called Star Wars Episode 1 Racer.

If you haven’t seen the Phantom Menace yet, then turn off your computer and go buy yourself a movie ticket. Okay, now that they have left, it is only us true believers here.

While I will leave a review of the film to the movie critics, except for pointing out it was very cool, the game Episode 1 Racer, while suffering from a clumsy title, is a smooth piece of work. I will even go out on a limb and say that even without the movie tie-in, this game would be worth playing. While there are plenty of racing games out there, few look or play as well as this one does.

In the game you can choose to be Anakin Skywalker, or one of 20 other Podracers. A pod, as you should know, is basically a land speeder with two big jet engines attached to it. Think hovercraft on steroids. And as the front of the box says: "Feel the Force 600MPH, 4Ft. off the ground." Thanks to pretty good frame rates, the world seems to be a constantly changing blur as you push your pod through the desert racetracks of Tatooine or some other Star Wars locale.

While in the movie, Anakin is the only human able to navigate a pod at the high rate of speed needed to win the race, many gamers out there may find the first couple of races pretty easy to win. However, be assured, it gets more and more difficult. Both the tracks and the management of the pod get to be difficult as the game goes on. In fact, since the damage accrued during one race isn’t miraculously fixed in time for the next race, you’ll have to lay out more credits for new parts or repair droids. This adds a nice dimension to the game, and certainly increases the challenge for full-throttle bang-em up drivers like myself.

Even if your parts aren’t all worn out, you can upgrade components of your pod to increase its capabilities in several areas like top speed, acceleration, or traction. To make your pod as cherry as it can be you can either go buy equipment from Watto (another character from the movie) or stop by the junkyard to pick up "previously owned" parts. And just like in the real world, if you buy "previously owned," you can expect to have to do a little repair work. Or more truthfully, you will have to have a repair droid do the work for you, and that costs money too.

With 20 tracks on eight different worlds, the game offers enough variety to last awhile. Also, while not perfect, the computer-controlled racing opponents can be tough competitors. We found this especially true if you could not get a jump on the rest of the pack. Jockeying for position can be a big part of the game, especially on those tracks that have lots of narrow twists and turns.

I was really impressed with how well the game took a scene from a movie and expanded it out into a fully fleshed game. While the first and last races on the game take you through courses on Tatooine, the courses in between provide engaging vistas on other worlds.

One of the great things about all the Star Wars movies was that a great amount of work and detail was put into sets and models that might only be on screen for a couple of seconds. The same thing holds true for this game as well. While racing along at 600mph is not exactly a tour bus trip, if you do happen to glance around as you’re flying by, the landscapes you are racing though are detailed and inventive.

The courses also offer much in the way of options. On many of the tracks you might be able to find a shortcut that will shave a few seconds off your time and might provide you with that needed edge.

One of the hardest things to do in the game is to learn how to properly handle your pod. It’s a good idea to try different pods to find the one that best suits your style of play. You can get a pod that handles the straightaways great but may not be the best at cornering and visa-versa. You can race any of the pods in the "Free Play" section of the game before commit yourself to one for the "Tournament" play.

You have a great deal of control over how to steer your pod as well. While most of the controls handle steering through the engines, you can also control the hovercraft part of the pod separately. You can even flip the pod on its side to go through narrow spaces and to manage tight turns better. Juggling all of the controls is at first daunting, especially if you are using a mouse and keyboard. A game pad or joystick user might fair a little better initially, but after some practice you can get pretty proficient with the keyboard/mouse combination.

All in all, this game is one of the most entertaining racers I’ve seen. Its so good, we didn’t even really mind the fact that you can only play it if you have a video card that supports 3D acceleration. Gameplay, graphics, audio, and action are all very, very good. Best of all, for those who have seen the movie, Jar Jar Binks makes no appearance in this game. Thank the Force!

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