Review: Um, if the game takes place in Tokyo, how can the cars be imports?
Being a fan of the Shutokou Battle franchise is tough these days if you live outside Japan. Aside from a PlayStation game dubbed Tokyo Highway Battle, every Dreamcast and PS2 game shipped in the US under the name of Tokyo Xtreme Racer, and thus it was easy to know what to look for. Crave Entertainment, the owners of the TXR name, even used the trademark with the Kaido Battle drifting games, to keep the franchise together. But recently other publishers got into the action. Konami last year picked up the PSP game, and dubbed it Street Supremacy, beginning the confusion. Now the first Xbox 360 game, called Shutokou Battle X in Japan, was picked up by Ubisoft and titled Import Tuner Challenge. In short, if you like TXR, now you have to actually look hard to find the newest games because Crave is apparently getting beaten to the punch these days, with publishers seeing that there's a huge cult following for this unique racing game. Import Tuner Challenge is a definite buy for the TXR crowd ? it's got the same unique style and gameplay the series is known for, and now it's even better than before in almost every way. The average gamer may not get it, but for fans this is a must-buy.
One could argue that Shutokou Battle is one of the pioneers of what's known as the ?sandbox? genre of games, and Import Tuner Challenge continues that tradition. Once beginning the large Quest Mode, you get to choose a car from an admittedly brief list ? far less selection than the recent Kaido Battle/TXR Drift games ? you're dropped into the Tokyo highways with the freedom to drive around without anyone telling you to stop. Like GTA, or Elder Scrolls, or any other modern open-world title, ITC lets you do exactly nothing if that's what you want. Granted, in order to escape the C1 Ring that takes up the initial stage, you have to take down the many racing teams that occupy the highway and beat the ?bosses? to unlock new locations. Not only that, as driving around in a circle for no reason isn't much fun. But it doesn't take long before the entire game is opened up to race on, though admittedly there's a lot missing from the last game in the franchise that released here as Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3. Still, there's roughly 400 rivals to defeat to fully clear the game, so it'll keep you busy.
Import Tuner Challenge is unique in that the game has no competition in this sub-genre of racing. Shutokou Battle has been around since the SNES/Super Famicom days, and nobody has tried to make anything like it. The reason why is fairly simple, in that the game is not for everyone, given how the game works and how progression is handled. Veterans of Genki games are well aware of how it all works, but the unique design every game in the series has creates a ton of polarity in opinion. It has a MMO feel of sorts, in that you're on the highway, alone, with competitors also in your way, all of whom can be challenged to a race. The race has no real finish line, as the goal is to deplete their life bar, known as Spirit Points, as if you're playing a fighting game with the similar life bar scenario. Complete the race and again you're off looking for more contenders. This is pretty much how it goes from beginning to end. ITC does add a quirk in the Parking Areas similar to Kaido Battle titles, which have even more opponents. While most of these are SP races, a few do Time Attacks, with an actual finish line.
The addition of Parking Area events and Time Attacks are just a couple ways Genki has tried to mix things up with ITC. Sometimes you'll wind up in a 2 or 3 on one race where you have to defeat all comers in one shot ? lose to any of them and you get no credit. These are probably the toughest races to deal with, especially if you get trapped without a way to blaze past, meaning getting blown off the road before getting a chance to recover. A more fair setup is a Team Battle like, say, Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift, where in succession you battle a group until they're all gone. It couldn't be a Shutokou Battle game, though, without at least one stupid decision, and that's the mid-race interruption battles. Basically, if you're doing battle with a rival, and get them down to the last bit of their SP, sometimes a teammate of the rival will appear to make it a 2 on 1 race...with the original opponent's SP bar fully returned. It pretty much sucks. More than once I was far, far head only for this to happen and the rival is suddenly right along side me. Thankfully, it doesn't happen often.
Both Shutokou and Kaido Battle games have had a lot of control issues lately ? but not this game. Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift has screwy, floaty physics, and its sequel has its own weirdness with some cars. Street Supremacy, aka Shutokou Battle PSP, was totally ruined by awful handling, as the game otherwise was a surprisingly unique rendition, which is crazy given how unique the franchise itself is. But Import Tuner Challenge? No way. The control is tight and accurate, without the usual poor handling RWD cars and understeering FWD messes that has ruined the last few games in the franchise. Because of this, ITC is the best playing game the series has seen ? a few of the custom cars might handle a bit wild, but almost everything else is sharp and responsive, making the game far more enjoyable. No more fear of cornering into walls anymore; it's simple to just hit the brake and coast through without any hassle.
Still, the game is aimed squarely at the fans of the series, as it's definitely not for everyone. Even the veterans of the series might be a bit perturbed, as though it's hard to create new courses when you're basing a game on the real Shuto Expressway, the game starts in the same place you always do, the C1 loop. The only difference is the much improved graphics that show more of Tokyo than ever before; the game is surprisingly polished and even pretty in many cases. And this is technically a 1st generation 360 game! The downside to the improvement in handling is the AI is still dumb and thus ITC is pretty easy in most cases. The AI struggles in corners (the lone exception is the final rival after beating everyone else, who is impossibly hard and worth the 100 achievement points), and a skilled driver can easily pass a faster opponent in time, and when that happens the race is usually over because they'll make mistakes trying to catch up. Newbies may not find the game very easy, but for experienced drivers it'll be a piece of cake more often than not. But again, Import Tuner Challenge isn't for everyone, you have to either be a real gearhead and love tuning cars, or dig the unique style of the gameplay. There's not much in-between here ? the Forza fan who needs long grueling races won't find the quick-fix mentality and frequent repetition to be much fun. Nor will it draw the attention of the Ridge Racer crowd because it's not very arcadey.
One of the reasons why the series is such a cult success is because of the quirky charm typical of Genki racing titles. The game just wouldn't be the same without the strange characters and teams that occupy the universe ? and now it's even more evident. Visit any of the Parking Areas, and you'll find not only races, but other rivals hanging out to give advice, talk about other racers, give out hints for finding the very elusive Wanderers (who tend to have very
specific requirements to race), and otherwise be very strange. The teams can be just as wacky ? for instance, after a few hours play you run into a team made up of former American football players...who race in their uniforms and have nicknames related to their positions. It's just so...Japanese. Even better, the logo on the helmet is the exact
same logo as the Minnesota Vikings, which means either EA or the NFL will in time lay some smack down on this unlicensed use of the trademark. Whoops, I just gave it away. Another team consists of international spies, and another is full of family members called Family Business with a logo that kinda looks like Vito Corleone. It's just awesome stuff. Aside from an occasionally shaky translation and a few dumb grammatical errors (damn near every localized game in this franchise has something weird about the translation), the spirit of the game shines.
The Quest Mode is the bulk of the game, but progressing through it means better cars for the other play types. There's 8 time trials to complete, based on the different sections of the highway, all of which have some Achievements tied to them...and the only way to get the time needed is to have a very powerful Quest Mode car, because none of the stock cars can get it done. Online play is included for the first time, in both traditional network play against another Xbox Live member (as a Silver member right now, it's not something I'm able to try out), or a time attack challenge with online leaderboards. I'm not sure if you need Gold to rank on a scoreboard as after finishing one of these my 360 froze up, so maybe that was a sign that they don't serve my kind there. But I'm sure without a top-of-the-line modified car, it's impossible to get anywhere in either XBL mode. Of course there's 2 player split-screen multiplayer as well, like every game in this franchise has had.
It's already been said, but Import Tuner Challenge is surprisingly good looking. The TXR games have rarely been about graphics (most of them are released here a couple years after release making them outdated), but this one is nice. The car models are okay, but it's the great neon lights and recreated buildings around the highway are nice touches. The new time zones allow for different perspectives on the in-game world, though the big difference is the Daybreak races that are the closest we'll ever get to daytime, as it's the one time you can see the city without the blinding neon. More importantly, the game feels fast as hell thanks to the fast framerate and sensation of speed, at top speed the buildings just zoom by and an incredible amount of focus is required to dodge traffic and take corners effectively. On the other hand, I hope you have some music ripped onto the HDD or have your 360 setup to share over a network, because the in-game music isn't so much awful...there's just not a lot of it. Hearing the same repetitive techno beat when driving through the city and hearing the same music during every race is maddening.