Alarm Fur Cobra 11: Crashtime PC, Xbox 360 Review
Well, I think this is the first proper review of Synetic’s Crashtime that crept out on the 360 and PC during the second week after GTA IV’s domination of the planet. Very little has actually been said about this game, if I’m honest. Few sites have covered it at all, bar the odd German interview with the PR guys (and they’re mostly futile, as the PR guy didn’t exactly sell the technology I know they used to have). Anyway, I know you’ve probably seen it on the shelves, and it’ll probably die a very quick death, but then I don’t really care for its retail woes. If a game has cars and crashes, it appeals.
Synetic are an interesting development company. Like the fantastic Bugbear, they’ve not released much at all, and everything they’ve done is racing. You may have heard of them on the PC as they released the graphically superb (for its time) World Racing and World Racing 2 (Known as Mercedes World Racing to some). The console versions were overlooked somewhat (because they were crap), but the PC version was a visual spoogefest of epic proportions. They had this real world engine that could draw 6 mile vistas populated with balloons and planes and some gorgeous scenery. It made for a lovely driving game, and something very different from its peers. The gameplay suffered as it featured simple physics – far from the drift nature of the likes of Outrun C2C, but as good as the Need For Speed series. It put up a fairly nice eight-car racer. I’d actually recommend you pick up World Racing 2 to see what I mean as it’s stupidly cheap, although quite rare – check amazon.de if you’re having trouble.
So, let’s move on… Crashtime is another follow up to another German game – “Alarm fur Cobra 11”. Not heard of that? I’m not surprised. But it’s basically what can only be described as one of the most amazing TV series ever created. Sadly, no English-subtitled version exists, but it’s aired over on the RTL channel. It basically follows the story of the infamous German autobahn cops, but what takes it to another level is the stunt team. Each of the (at time of writing) 159 episodes features at least one major car crash – search for ‘Cobra 11’ on Youtube to see what I mean. I reckon you’ll be pretty blown away by the showcase, and bear in mind this is only a TV series. Anyway, Crashtime is based on this same TV show as well, so it has the potential to be massively exciting – but like so many translations of celluloid to game, something strange has happened. It’s a bit… well, broken. It does feature some nice ideas, though.
Basically, the game consists of eight episodes, or ‘investigations’, and each investigation is broken down into approximately 8-10 sections. In each section you progress through the story to establish the facts and come to a linear conclusion. What this actually amounts to is an excuse for a bunch of different driving games. Either a multi-car race, a checkpoint race, a timed raced, or finally a Chase HQ-style chase (basically either stop or repeatedly smash a car). Some sections are broken down into an A and B. (If you fail B, you’ll have to redo A, basically). What’s tacky (and funny) is that the English dubbing is awful. The laughter comes because there’s absolutely NO sense of urgency whatsoever in the actors’ voices, and they even appear to have used at least four people from each part of the UK. That aside, each section is played out over various areas (autobahn, city, country road, etc). Completing a mission results in five or so tracks from said areas being available to race in, in either single player or the four-way split screen mode, so eventually you’ll have around 30-40 tracks to race in, plus extra cars. A nice incentive.
The game is supposed to use the same engine as World Racer, but if this is the case then why is there massive pop-up on moving vehicles? I mean, the scenery is lovely. They really nail the atmosphere of driving around Germany, and to be honest this is the best part of the game. The levels (or maps) are nicely drawn, and feature lots of incidental features such as trains (which smash you to pieces at level crossings), helicopters and balloons. The use of ambient and environmental sound is also rather nice, and adds much to support the look and feel. It’s not the best looking racer around, but, like Earth Defence Force, it gels really well, especially when you’re driving through traffic at speed. It’s because it feels and looks different to what you’re used to with most racers. Its banal but in an intresting way, a bit like Need For Speed used to be. Synetic have also nailed the feel of speed, too. The game really shifts along and dodging through a busy road is made all the more exciting for it. You have more control of your car, despite the very simplified driving mechanics. You can slide, but it’s very controlled and I actually found myself enjoying it immensely because it balances simple control with roads packed with vehicles. Sadly, because you’re going so fast, the vehicle pop-up woes are rather apparent. If you look back the eight or so years to World Racer – the graphics featured very little pop-up at all, and those worlds were populated as well. Not with quite as many vehicles, but then there were eight cars racing instead. I can’t understand how an eight-year-old engine works worse on newer technology.
As I said above, the driving feels very satisfying, and there’s nothing better then chasing someone through packed traffic. You can go ‘blues and twos’ to have traffic move out your way, but owing to the fact you’re travelling so fast, the AI vehicles rarely move in time. That said, the AI of the assailant is quite good, as it does take different routes leading to some excellent chases.. The in-game physics are simplistic at best. All the vehicles take damage. Hit them hard enough, and they’ll explode – albeit poorly – but you do get debris strewn about the place. Lorries can also drop their loads, and any explosion will knock you off-course if you’re close and at speed. For most missions the damage suffered to you must be limited – go above this limit and it’s game over. Here again we see another nice example of balance, because you’re against the clock for many missions, so this goes some way into keeping things tense without being too frustrating. What does make things a little frustrating is the satnav map. For checkpoint missions, all you have on your close-up map is an arrow pointing towards the marker, so you have to work out what road to take, and access to some roads is restricted because of the motorway intersections. Plus, some motorway sections have smaller roads following them, but no access to or from them, and the manual provides no maps! That said, in the city sections this isn’t really a problem, as most areas have multiple routes anyway. It’s not a game killer because you’ll simply re-do the mission and take another exit, and to be honest the driving is so nice that you’ll rarely care anyway.
To sum up, then, this is an interesting game in the same way that Earth Defence Force is interesting. It’s full of silly faults, but if you look past them it’s fairly competent. It won’t stun you with its visuals, as it’s all functional at best – but what it does, it does well, plus it tries to recreate real roads which I personally find refreshing. It also has extras like jump events, where you have to complete so many jumps in a certain time (helpfully, you’re given markers to gauge the correct speed). Whilst it does have pop-up (on the vehicles only, rather than the environments) – the driving model is good, whilst being simple so it’s easy to play. There’s a fair amount of depth within the game as well, plus all those tracks to race on (which is nice, as the racing is the best part) and there’s even a replay mode (although you can’t actually save replays). It also features a four-player split-screen game, but no online mode. It’s certainly not the best racing game out there, but for anyone who likes road racing it’s an interesting deviation. And I can’t help thinking that if Taito had stuck the Chase HQ logo on this, people would have lapped it up and it would have been hailed as a ‘cult classic’