Vroom... chkka vroooooooom... chkka vrooooooo... hnhrhrhrhrhr... thwak! crunch! grauuunnnnch...
That's what it sounds like when you try your first Lotus race and discover that (a) the bends have to be judged just right if you're not to pile off into the scenery and (b) the computer racers you're up against are opportunist gits...
You go into battle against fifteen other Lotus drivers when you enter the Lotus Challenge, and although you should be able to scrape past the more mediocre drivers even in your first few attempts, you're up against some pretty stiff competition if you aim to win. For example, there's Ricardo Pastry, Rissole Brookes, Nijel Mainsail, Ayrton Sendup... the list goes on. And the funny thing is, they're all somehow familiar...
When you start your first race, you'll notice something very strange. The top half of the screen shows the view through your windscreen, while the bottom half shows a piccie of your car. The narrow slot you look through as you drive is a bit off-putting, particularly as the road disappears entirely for a second or so as you crest a hill - ulp!
The reason for this split becomes apparent when you try the two-player mode, however. It's not just an alternating mode like most games, but genuinely simultaneous! You get to see your opponent's car as he whizzes past (damn him!) and he gets a brief glimpse of your disappearing exhaust when you return the compliment (ha!). The other human driver's car is distinguished from the computer opponent's by a large arrow suspended above its roof.
There are three difficulty levels in Lotus, and you'd be well advised to pick the easiest when you're just starting. Here you have to tackle seven different circuits, in races lasting four, five or six laps. Your aim is to win the drivers' championship at the end of the year by amassing most points, but it's all complicated by the fact that you can't go from one race to the next unless you qualify eighth or above. Come in lower than that and it's game over! (In two-player mode you have to qualify fifth or above, and only one of you need qualify to take you both to the next race.)
As you progress through the season you'll notice the tracks getting tougher and tougher. What's more, you'll get to realise the benefits of 'learning' each circuit. And they all have their own distinct characters and special 'tricky' sections. Fiskivoth in Iceland, for example, has a very nasty composite left-hander at the end of the main straight, with two blind leaps on the way through. And Hethel, England, has some nasty S-bends...
The nastiest surprise of all, however, comes with China's Nan Chong circuit. Try this one and you may think you're doing pretty well to be holding third on the last lap... and then you run out of fuel. Yup, there's pit-stops too. The pits are indicated by special signs on the right of the track just after the Start/Finish line. Just after these there's a pit area, where you have to pull in and stop. Your car is filled up automatically.
That's bad enough, but at Nan Chong the pits are very near the line, and if you start braking when you see the line you'll over-shoot... yes, you really do need to learn the circuits.The intermediate level takes place over ten different circuits. Pit-stops for fuel are more common now, and the circuits are generally tougher. Finally, for real 'ard cases, the hardest level has you battling it out over fifteen of the world's nastiest tracks.
The variety of circuits means that there's enough variety in Turbo Challenge to last any racing fan for absolutely yonks. It takes a fair old amount of practice even to get through the easy level, let alone make an impression on the others. And even the most skilled driver is going to find it nigh-on impossible to reliably win races, again, even on the easy level.
But the size of the game isn't its main strength - it's its sheer playability. It takes a bit of getting used to compared to most driving games, partly because of the small viewing window and partly because it is so, so realistic. In Lotus you don't overtake other cars simply by driving round the outside, as you do in 99 per cent of other driving games. The fastest way through a corner really is to come in wide, clip the apex and drift out. And the collision detection is good enough to make overtaking manoeuvers a matter of skill and timing, not downright As a racing simulation, it's got to be the best one we've seen.
Graphics are done in the Amstrad four-colour mode, as with Gremlin's Shadow Of The Beast and Switchblade. They don't look terribly impressive compared to Burnin' Rubber, but in one-player mode they move quickly and smoothly and give an excellent impression of speed. In two-player mode the game chugs along at almost the same pace, but the screen updates are further apart, and the whole thing is a bit more jerky. It's still extremely playable, though, and the extra fun of having two human nutters on the track at the same time easily makes up for it.
Sound effects consist of a mildly irritating, warbly title tune, but excellent in-game effects which tell you exactly how fast you're accelerating, how badly you're sliding and how thoroughly you've pranged your £40,000 motor...
The basic message is that if you're at all serious about a driving sim, this is the one. It takes a while to get into, but it really is an incredibly realistic, playable and satisfying game. Both one and two-player modes are excellent fun. They're easy enough to get you hooked at the start, but tough enough that no normal human being could ever completely get the better of those devilish computer drivers.
Have you got what it takes to meet the Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge? There's only one way to find out...
The more you play it the better it gets. You end up appreciating the sheer realism and subtlety that's gone into this game. And racing against someone else is highly addictive - and beating Rod is a pleasure! [A rare one - Ed]
N. Not much colour and a bit claustrophobic.
P. Smooth and fast.
N. Slightly irritating soundtrack.
P. Very good effects.
Grab Factor 89%
P. Looks good right from the start.
N. The initial trickiness can be frustrating.
Staying Power 94%
P. It's hard to imagine you could ever wear it out.
N. Win every race? - it can't be done!
N. The graphics aren't wonderful, but the racing itself is truly excellent.