• Initial D: Special Stage Review - Sony PS2

    Whether it's arcade or simulation, circuit or off road, it seems that every possible form of four-wheeled entertainment has been covered on the current crop of consoles. So, in this saturated market, what does Initial D Special Stage - the latest game from Sega Rosso - bring to the party that's fresh and new? Well, to start with it's based on one of the most popular Japanese manga and anime series of the 90's and secondly it's all about head-to-head street racing along the most insanely contorted Japanese mountain passes.
    The story of Initial D is a straightforward zero to hero tale. Dopey high school student Takumi Fujiwara has been delivering Tofu from his dad's shop to the top of Mount Akina every morning, for the last five years. During this time he has unwittingly become the fastest driver on the tricky Akina mountain pass, although he has no appreciation of his talent and no interest in cars or racing. Events come to a head when the Redsuns, a local team of road racers, come and challenge the Akina Speedstars team and, through a twist of fate and some clever manoeuvring by Takumi's dad, Takumi ends up heading off the challenge. After this initial encounter the series follows the development of Takumi both emotionally and as a driver, the story being punctuated with high-speed road battles.
    Just like the Initial D anime series, the game is all about cornering, drifting and inch-perfect car control, which logically leads to the first issue with any driving game, namely the car handling model. With all of those hairpin bends to slide around, Initial D's developers required something quite exceptional. Thankfully, Sega Rosso has delivered in spades. The car handling feels like a cross between Gran Turismo and Sega Rally, with oversteer and understeer all present and correct, but not at the expense of responsiveness and agility.
    The control using the Dual Shock 2 is perhaps a little too sensitive, resulting in some twitchy cornering, but since most of the corners in the game are sharp and require an armful of steering to initiate a drift, it doesn't really affect the gameplay. The game supports the use of the Logitech GT Force wheel and this definitely adds an extra dimension to the control, as it's far easier to make precise turns and provides analogue inputs for acceleration and braking. A word of warning however, the game does not support the paddle shift on the newer Logitech Driving Force wheel.
    The course design is equally exceptional, with corners following a diverse array of horizontal and vertical alignments, skilfully married together to provide little respite for the brain or hands. All of the courses from the second arcade version have made it across to the PS2, with some extra courses thrown in. To provide a gentle learning curve the arcade version took the Myogi and Usui courses from the series and formed them into simple circuits for the novice driver to tackle. Special Stage retains these, but also includes the full-length courses as well. All of the courses can be tackled in both directions, either at night or during the day and in either wet or dry conditions. Fans of the anime will instantly recognise some of the landmarks and corner complexes, the most obvious of these being the famous five hairpins on the Akina mountain pass.
    In terms of actual racing, the player needs to use techniques like rapid gear shifting and lift off oversteer, coupled with techniques that are used and described in the series, to get anywhere near the times on the official internet ranking site. The most spectacular of these techniques being the gutter run, which requires the driver to drop the front wheel of the car into the gutter at the inside of a corner to provide additional lateral resistance and enable a much higher cornering speed. However, unlike Gran Turismo, using the roadside barriers to guide the car around the corner is simply not an option in this game. Contact with the barrier not only causes a drop in speed, but it also creates a momentary hiccup in acceleration. In fact, the acceleration of the cars at the top of the rev range is intentionally weak, forcing the player to try and conserve the speed they have built up by being consistent and by maximising corner exit speed.
    All of this adds up to an immense feeling of satisfaction when a complex of corners comes off flawlessly, but never results in frustration when it all goes a bit pear-shaped, as the fault always lies with the player and not the game. Wisely, the designers have been very forgiving when it comes to car-on-car collisions. Bumping or being bumped has a very minor effect on the behaviour of the vehicle, which suits the narrow twisty tracks well. It also means that it's nearly impossible to force a way past an opponent, making passing an opportunistic waiting game.

    The game has three modes of play: arcade, story and time attack. In arcade mode, the player picks a car and then has to face off against a number of computer-controlled adversaries, across a range of tracks and driving conditions. Each of the AI controlled opponents behaves in a convincing way, and actually put up a good fight without resorting to dirty tactics. However, it seems as though they never drop too far behind and always lurk within a few hundred metres regardless of the speed differential. This is no bad thing as it makes the racing closer and more exciting, especially when an unforced error sends the distance meter tumbling from two hundred meters towards zero.

    The story mode lets the player take part in the battles and events from the Initial D series. In the main, the player gets to assume the role of the central character, Takumi Fujiwara, in his dad's Toyota AE86 GT Apex (known as the Corolla in the UK). Fans of the series will love dispatching Takumi's onscreen rivals, and it should be noted that many of the challenges play out quite differently to the arcade mode. For example, one of the early stages is a recreation of the Gumtape Deathmatch: a race from the series where Takumi has to drive with his right hand gaffer-taped to the steering wheel, effectively restricting the amount of steering he can use.

    Naturally, no driving game would be complete without the ubiquitous time attack mode, and players will find the bulk of their time spent perfecting their skills using this feature. All of the expected options are there, including a ghost car option. Criminally, this is the only way that two human players can effectively race against each other, as the game contains no two player mode - neither iLink or splitscreen racing is supported. This is a startling omission for a game that is focused totally on head-to-head racing.

    Within the arcade and time attack modes, the game also allows players to upgrade or tune their chosen vehicle, with a system that initially seems to be a poor man's Gran Turismo, but on closer inspection turns out to be a simple and flexible system of rewards. Once one of the thirty-plus vehicles have been chosen, the player is given the choice of one of four tuning paths. Each path adds on various trick bits to the car, whether it's mufflers to increase power, body kits and spoilers to improve handling, new wheels to improve traction or some stickers for that Max Power look. Each tuning step along the path is automatically added to the car once the player accrues enough points, earned either in the arcade or time attack modes. Tune-ups affecting exterior components make a visible difference to the way the car looks, which is a nice touch.

    Initial D fans will also be pleased to see that by selecting an appropriate tune option their car will evolve into one from the series. For example, select the RX-7 FC and tune path A and the end result is Ryosuke's car: the White Comet of Akagi. Select the eight-six and tune option A and the ultimate result is Takumi's set of wheels. There are also special tunes available once enough points have been earned. For example, the eight-six gets the AE101 high rev race engine and the Lan Evo IV gets the WRC misfiring system. Beyond this the game provides opportunities to swap parts with a different tune course as the points total masses.

    Graphically, the game is very slick indeed. The original anime series used a combination of hand-drawn visuals for the out-of-car sequences and some impressive (for the time) CGI for the street battles. Fortunately things have moved on a bit since then, and the game showcases a very detailed graphics engine, which moves at a near-constant 60fps. However none of the original style from the anime has been lost, with the cars and courses looking like an update from the anime as opposed to a complete reworking. Races in the arcade and story modes are all linked together, with narrative screens either lifted from the pages of the black and white manga books, or full frame colour with a little animation. As a result the game remains true to its roots, and puts the player inside the world of Initial D.

    Mention has to be made of the in game music. Normally, for a Sega driving game the expectation is to be subjected to the painful wailing of some guy whose leather pants are on too tight, backed-up with an electric guitar noise indistinguishable from the sound of a drowning cat. Fortunately in the case of Initial D, Sega have a licence with a very strong musical content to draw on. In fact, you can buy CD compilations of the music from the series and a lot of these tracks have been implemented in the game. The musical genre Eurobeat, which can be described as a Japanese take on European dance music from the early 90's, wont be to everybody's taste, but it works in the game surprisingly well, providing the perfect soundtrack for attacking the downhill.

    On the sound effect side it's good news too, with spot on engine sounds, including the distinctive sound of the Wankel rotary engine in the RX-7. Apart from that, the only other effects are a fine tyre squeal and the clonking sound as the front wheel drops into a gutter.

    In conclusion Initial D Special Stage is a fantastic driving game that actually brings something fresh to the genre. It succeeds because it not only provides an arcade adrenalin buzz, but also encourages experimentation and improvement until the potential of the car and player have been fully realised, which will keep players coming back for more and for longer.

    Score: 8/10

    Text by: Trevor Bradbury (Madbury)
    Comments 4 Comments
    1. speedlolita's Avatar
      speedlolita -
      Really nice write up. I much prefer to play the AC version of these games but they never disappoint as both a casual racing sim fan (Gran Turismo, Forza) and an Initial D fan.
    1. Madbury's Avatar
      Madbury -
      Hi, glad you liked the review. This is a bit of a blast from the past. What I will add is that the PS3 Initial D game is woefully bad in comparison. Stick to the PS2 game or the PSP game, both are still excellent fun. Oh and I still love a bit of Eurobeat from time to time
    1. Baseley09's Avatar
      Baseley09 -
      I really liked Special Stage (I think it was) in the arcades, but got the PS3 game and its bogus, do i need to get PS2 version instead seriously?
    1. nakamura's Avatar
      nakamura -
      PS3 version bad? That's odd my list as I thought it sucked on ps2.
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