Reviewed: December 28, 2004
Released: November 10, 2004
In case you havenít read any of my previous reviews allow me to reiterate, I am a racing fanatic. I grew up within earshot of the Texas Motor Speedway and have gone to their driving school on three separate occasions, most recently completing their advanced program. But long before I was climbing behind the wheel of real stockcars, and even an Indy car on one occasion, I was racing the smaller 250cc karts. Even today, you can still find me over at Track 21 in Houston tearing up their dual Indy and F1 circuits.
In some ways go-karts are as much a part of youth as bicycles and mini-bikes. Chances are, if you didnít have one you knew someone who did. Iíve often wondered why game developers havenít given this racing niche more attention, especially in light of the growing popularity and the numerous kart tracks that are springing up across the nation, even in the smaller cities.
Leave it to German race game developer, 10tacle, to address the issue from overseas, and with the endorsement of champion F1 driver, Michael Schumacher, who not only lends his name but also his legendary racing AI to the project, Michael Schumacher's Kart Challenge 2005 is one of the more exceptional PC racing titles of the year.
Kart Challenge 2005 boasts some impressive features on the box but the media hype is slightly deceiving. Letís start at the beginning. The first thing you do is design your kart and racer. The box would have you believe this is a detailed process when in reality you merely select from a few uniform and helmet styles and colors. The same goes for the karts, although you do get some variance in the performance attributes.
Game modes are of the standard fare and include Practice, Quick Race, and a substantial Career mode that spans 17 courses all over the globe. Much like real F1 racing, the idea here is to place high, earn career points, and win the championship.
The tracks range from some extremely clever indoor designs to some of the most gorgeous outdoor scenic vistas of any racing game to date. The tracks are all unique with twisting paths, banked turns, sharp hairpins flanked with stacks of tires, and plenty of dynamic scenery.
Kart racing is obviously different than regular-size cars. These little 125-250hp karts have tremendous acceleration and twitchy handling, both in real-life and in the game. Itís likely to turn a few race fans off. It actually took me a while to settle on the best way to play this game. While Kart Challenge 2005 supports a keyboard this should be your last option for playing the game.
I initially started playing with my Logitech gamepad, which offered some decent control, both in first and third-person views, but something just didnít feel right. I was using the left stick to steer and the right stick for gas and brake but no matter how much I tweaked the sensitivity and the dead zone for the stick the handling just didnít work reliably for me.
Once I plugged in my Logitech racing wheel all my problems were solved. The wide range of the wheel offered just the right amount of play while giving me accurate steering and the pedals just put me right at home behind the wheel of these karts. Obviously, using the wheel, you will want to play from the steering wheel view for best results.
The practice mode lets you test any of the available tracks without the pressure of competition, although a ghost car will always be there to represent your best lap giving you a visual goal to strive toward. Practice is essential since knowing these tracks is integral to winning races. Much like NASCAR, all of these karts are mechanically identical, so the only variable factor is the skill of the driver, and the computer AI is no slouch.
Kart Challenge 2005 has some unrealistic minimal requirement listed on the box. While you could conceivably play the game with such a system you are going to need something much more powerful to experience these tracks the way they were intended. Simply put, Kart Challenge will use as much power as you can throw at it and ultimately, it is the most stunning racing game I have played on the PC this year.
Once you have all of the settings bumped up a few notches above default, or better yet, max them out, you will be treated to the most realistic environments next to being there. Lighting and shadows are amazing, both indoors and out. Outside, you get realistic lens flares, colored lighting and deep shadows depending on the time of day. Indoors, you will see sunlight streaming through windows, cracks, or holes in the walls or ceiling and it will light the interior appropriately.
Smoke trails off skidding tires or off the engine exhaust and the karts leave skid marks all over the pavement that slowly build up over the race. Sadly, thereís no damage model and the karts themselves feel a bit light and floaty even though they stick to the tracks like glue. The drivers are nicely animated and you will see them lean into the turns even though this has no effect on the actual physics of the steering.
You have several cameras to race from including a near and far chase cam, bumper cam, and a driver cam that puts you behind the wheel. All of these work great but some work better than others depending on what you are using for a controller.
The opening movie is very nice and all of the menus are simple and informative. You can navigate easily with the keyboard, mouse, or gamepad and none of the menus go too deep, so itís impossible to get lost in the interface. When appropriate you will get pictures of the track that also reflects the chosen time of day for the race.
Sound effects are pretty standard and you get the sounds of squealing tires, bumping karts, and the whine of whichever size engine you are racing. Since you are always racing an even set of cars there isnít much variety when racing a full field, but the volume at the starting line can be a bit deafening compared to zipping around the track by yourself.
The music is standard racing tunes, a lot of energized techno, rock, dance, trance, basically anything with a fast upbeat tempo. Youíll likely tune it out or turn it down in favor of the realistic and immersive sound effects.
There is also excellent support for 3D sound that allows you to hear karts coming up behind you and as they try to pass. While not offering the best in content, the quality of the available sounds is outstanding.
Be prepared for a significant learning curve, not so much learning how to drive as simply memorizing each and every turn of the track and learning the best racing line. Even when you have mastered all 17 tracks you can still expect a good 8-10 hours in the career mode not to mention the practice sessions trying to beat your best ghost time. Not bad for a $20 game.
Kart Challenge 2005 also supports online and LAN play. This game appears to have a decent online following although I had some trouble finding racers online at convenient times. I fear a lot of the people playing this game are overseas. Hopefully that will change as word spreads of this title in the U.S. Online play is great fun and the thrill of human competition is always better than racing the computer.
Please donít confuse Michael Schumacherís Kart Challenge 2005 with an actual simulation. Despite having a legendary race driverís name on the box, this title definitely tilts toward the arcade side of racing. This is a game I would have expected on the Xbox or PS2, and actually still wouldnít minding seeing a console version.
As long as you arenít looking for the next Formula One title, anyone who enjoys a fun and casual, but extremely challenging racing game will certainly have a blast racing these nimble karts around some of the most impressive tracks you can find in a racing game this year. Itís new, itís original, and best of all itís fun.