The smash hit PlayStation game Gran Turismo changed the face of racing games forever, and in a good way. Every product released in its wake has to measure up to its standard. New racing games need to have more than just straight racing. They also need to have terrific graphics, interesting and plausible driving physics, and lots of tracks with a bunch of near-photographic environments. And most of all, they need to have a lot of drivable cars. Building a racing game around a single car, a la the superb but poor-selling Viper Racing, is seemingly a recipe for failure.
You might think doing the same thing around a single car company would be equally problematic (anyone for a fine Hyundai race game?), but few marques can sustain a game as well as the wunderkinds at Porsche. If you need proof, look no further than Electronic Arts' superlative Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. It delivers everything you could want from a racing game, and does it in the most stunning package since? well, last year's Need for Speed: High Stakes. In fact, it's a better game in every respect.
The cars are the stars
The cars from Zuffenhausen hold a special place in the heart of the enthusiast. And almost all of their models are represented in Porsche Unleashed, ranging from their first sports car, the "bathtub with wheels" 356 to the current fire-breathing (but remarkably well-behaved) 2000 911 Turbo (or 993, to the cognoscenti). The game models a grand total of 80 different cars, a few of which are available at the start of the game for standard races and others you'll need to purchase (and unlock) as part of the "Evolution" mode of play. The game does a significantly better job than Gran Turismo at making the cars feel distinctive. In that game, a front-wheel drive car handles pretty much the same as a real-wheel drive one (which is fairly loopy). Porsche Unleashed's physics model gives most of the models a slightly more distinctive feel.
But you may not think that right out of the gate. All of the rear-engine Porsches, up to and including the 914 in the '70s, have remarkably similar handling characteristics. None of the cars really has enough horsepower to get you in too much trouble; while the suspension and tire technology limits their grip, they simply do not have the horsepower later cars do. The '73 911 Carrera RS could bite you if you're not careful?all of the 356 models and the early 911s are twitchy and fidgety when pressed in a turn?but otherwise they're still manageable.
All of that changes?both in the game and in the real world?with the devilishly fast, borderline dangerous, first-generation circa mid-'70s 911 Turbo. This is truly an untamed beast?in real-life it's perhaps the most frightening road Porsche ever created?and the game nails it perfectly. It's nearly impossible to elegantly navigate most turns with this car. It oversteers horribly?the back end always wants to be out in front. You need to brake with extreme care while driving in a perfectly straight line; there's little power sliding potential with this baby. Later versions of the car, up to and including the current year's model, have tamed it considerably, making the handling almost neutral (and offending the purists, who like the fact that they're the only people who can drive the old and dangerous 911s).
Oddly enough, the game illustrates one interesting point that many drivers actually agree with; the best handling Porsches were probably the front-engined, rear-wheel drive 944 and 928 models. With their 50/50 weight distribution (due in large part to the engines in the front and transmissions in the back), they have perfect balance and can be driven fast a lot easier than their trickier rear-engine siblings. (The Boxster actually is closer to the 944 because it's technically a mid-engined car, since the engine is in front of the rear axle.)
The physics of racing
No Need for Speed game has ever purported to be a Papyrus-level "real" racing simulation, and neither does Porsche Unleashed. Its collision detection and damage modeling falls short of the leader in that area, SCi's Carmageddon series, and its physics aren't the near-perfect marriage of simulation and arcade like Viper Racing. However, it does represent a significant upgrade for the series. No longer does it reward the player that masters the fine game art of "slam the joystick or steering wheel to the left or right while mashing the brake."