PEDAL TO THE METAL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a clear day, perfect for taking the millennium-yellow Corvette Z06 out for a spin. The sun glints off the tinted windows and the sky is mirrored perfectly in the polished skin of the $51,000 machine.

It looks even better under the hood - with 379 horsepower, it'll fly from zero to 60 in four seconds.

You give it your best, maneuvering through a couple of turns and into a straightaway, where you push the Z06 to 145 mph. As the engine winds up to red-line at 6,500 rpm, you ease it into fifth gear, smirking as you shoot past drivers trying to outrun you.

Suddenly, there's a tight turn. You hit the brakes and try to downshift. But the car skids, leaving a scorched trail of tire tread on the road. Alas, instead of sliding through the turn, you slide into the wall while the other cars whiz by, leaving you in their dust.

Don't worry. There isn't a scratch on you or the 'Vette. But you've probably lost the race. Maybe you'll do better next time with the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage, or the Jaguar XKR, or the Honda S2000. Or perhaps you'll race in the dirt with a Subaru Impreza or Ford Focus.

After all, in Gran Turismo 3 A-spec you're an immortal driver with more than 150 cars to play with, and all it cost you was $50.

By all accounts, this PlayStation 2 title is among the best of a racing game genre that dates back a quarter century and still draws dozens of new entries every year - each flashier and more realistic.

In replaying the race, you'll see a heat-shimmer effect as the cars prepare to take the green light. When you're driving through wooded areas, beams of light shine through trees. Wet roads at night reflect headlights and the surrounding environment.

"The level of simulation is incredible. The number of cars, tracks and how you can tweak them - it mirrors sport racing in real life. It's a lot of fun," says Frank Rogan, network director for GameSpy.com, an online gamer's resource.

To make GT3 look so three-dimensional, programmers had to generate 4,000 polygons per second of game time. It's amazing, then, to think that all this started in 1976 with a handful of white rectangles outlining a road on a black screen.

"When I did Night Driver, it was just 12 white dots," said Rob Fulop, who wrote the Atari 2600 version of the arcade classic, generally regarded as the first racing game to put the player behind the wheel.

Night Driver didn't even have an animated car. In the arcades, the racer was represented by a plastic overlay; on the Atari Video Computer System for the home, a tiny blue car was permanently fixed to the bottom of the screen. But it was a hit, and racing continues to be an entertainment staple, accounting for 20 percent of the game titles on the market, right behind the sports and action-adventure genres.

Game retailer Sam Goody's list of Top 10 sellers last year included three racing titles: Gran Turismo 3, ranked at No. 4, Motocross Mania at No. 7 and Gran Turismo 2 at No. 8. (The top-selling game was Madden NFL 2002.)

Racing and driving games are popular "mostly due in part to consumer passion for automobiles, particularly motor sports, which is the most popular sport in the world," said Ryan Bowling, a spokesman for Sony Computer Entertainment.

GameSpy's Rogan agrees. "Real-world racing is a much bigger sport than you might imagine. Formula 1 is probably the most popular sport internationally, aside from soccer. And what makes those games appeal to audiences is it's simple to understand," he said.

Early game developers such as Rob Fulop, now president of Perchance Inc., a San Francisco-based entertainment software company, also got a chance to fulfill their driving fantasies.

"I always loved going fast," said Fulop, who was hired as a summer intern with Atari in 1978 while he attended the University of California at Berkeley. "It was only natural that my first video game would be based on my favorite childhood experience."

By today's standards, Atari's Night Driver is laughably crude. Arcade machines and early home game consoles had limited computing power and graphic capabilities. "In order to get things to move quickly, you couldn't have a lot of detail," said Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. "The reason we did Night Driver was because all it showed was the reflectors. It was a very sparse representation, but it made sense as a night-driving game."

A few years later, a company called Vectorbeam produced Speed Freak, the first racing game that used vector graphics, with moving images formed by lines and polygons. It was a quantum leap: Players had to avoid oncoming cars and pass stick-like hitchhikers, cows, cacti and police roadblocks. And when a player crashed, an explosion of car parts erupted. But the game still lacked color and sound effects.

It wasn't until 1982, when Japanese arcade pioneer Namco introduced Pole Position, that racing games really took off, thanks to 4-bit color graphics and a real track based on the Fuji Speedway.

"You had to qualify to get a pole position, like a real race," said Yas Noguchi, Namco's research director. The game also employed something resembling the laws of physics. "When you make corners ... you have to have your steering, braking and acceleration techniques," Noguchi said, although he conceded that the game's physics were "super real."

"If you went out in the real world and tried to do what you did in Pole Position 1, you'd probably get yourself killed."

Pole Position was a smash arcade hit. "Every 16-year-old kid wanted to get in there and play it," said Earl E. Green, a writer for Classic Gamer magazine. "You could find yourself waiting about a half-hour or so."

"We may look back at it now and laugh; but at the time, it raised the bar on reality."

In the early 1990s, technological advances allowed game makers to build 3-D graphics "engines," as they are known. According to, Noguchi, these were circuits designed to do quadratic equations and calculus needed to create 3-D games with realistic detail.

"I think we [Namco] have the first 3-D game that had textures, and that was Ridge Racer for the arcade," which appeared in 1993, says Noguchi, "But some credit Virtua Racing by Sega," which was created in 1992.

At Sega, which stopped manufacturing game consoles last year to concentrate on software, product manager Rich Briggs said programmers are always using advances in hardware to "push the envelope" closer to reality with titles such as Sega GT 2002.

He also noted that racing game developers have been branching off from the original formula.

"You're going to see the creative process," he said. "In Crazy Taxi, hey, you have a racing game but you also have to pick up passengers. And in Eighteen Wheeler American Pro Trucker, you're glorifying the trucker guy. It's part of the evolutionary process."

He said developers tend to split into two camps: one striving for ultimate realism and the other to make games as fun, crazy or different as possible.

In one spin-off from the genre, Sony's Kinetica, players control futuristic humans who are morphed into racing suits and perform a variety of stunts to build up enough "boost" to win. Midway's Arctic Thunder puts drivers into high-speed snowmobiles that can be equipped with weapons to attack competitors.

"But you're always going to have a straight-out arcade racer," said Briggs, because ultimately "it gives you a sense of ownership."

In Sega GT 2002, due out in March, the car lineup includes current favorites as well as cars from the 1970s and 1980s. "You race, collect money and buy more cars - so, you feel like you're adding to your collection," Briggs said.

Of course, reality has its limits. Why is it that nothing really bad happens when your Corvette hits a wall in GT3? And why can't you drive into the countryside?

It all has to do with licensing. If they want to use real cars, publishers have to get permission from the auto makers, who don't like negative images. And they'll want money for the right to use their trademarks.

"Some car companies won't allow you to race off tracks or deface their vehicles," explains Noguchi. "When you bump into cars, you don't get a ding, scratch or anything.

However, Project Gotham Racing, by Microsoft Games for the Xbox, has been able to work out an agreement with the car makers. "Using multi-polygons allowed us to give more detail to the damage, not just squashing the car," said Bill Nielsen, group product manager for sports and racing at Xbox. The realism of the car damage intrigued the companies, he says. "But we agreed not to damage the passenger cabin, so doors don't dent in, windshields won't break."

"We convinced them that the damage made sense with the concept of the game, and it was done in a tasteful manner because of the quality of graphics we could do. We just wouldn't give up."

Racing games that are ahead of the pack

If you're looking to break some speed limits - or sound barriers for that matter - there are hundreds of games to choose from. Here are a few of our favorites:

* ATV Offroad Fury, SCEA for Sony PlayStation 2

More than 10 ATVs to choose from, each based on real vehicles by Honda, Polaris, Kawasaki and Yamaha, to name a few. Players can customize their bikes, changing tire friction, gear ratio, front and rear shocks and springs. The 3-D graphics are a bit jagged, but the overall effect is impressive. For example, if your jump is out of control, the rider will scream when he or she flies off the bike. Run over another player and you'll feel the bump (if the controller vibration is on). But going fast is not the only objective. Extra points can be scored for performing stunts. In certain events, it's all about the tricks.

* Burnout, Acclaim for Sony PlayStation 2

Aggression and daring rack up the points in this one. Drive down the wrong side of the road - the more oncoming traffic you can weave through, the more you earn toward a turbo boost. Other "skills" you can perfect include powerslides (when you lock up the brakes and slide through a turn), close calls (how close you come to hitting another car), and running your competition off the road, or better yet, into a head-on collision. This is a great way to get rid of pent up road rage - if you have to get into an accident, try to involve as many vehicles as possible.

* Extreme G Racing III, Acclaim for Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation 2

Get out of the car and climb onto a futuristic, supersonic motorcycle armed with weapons that let you debilitate competitors. The twisting, roller-coaster tracks are almost enough to make your stomach turn. The graphics are beautifully done, with creative sci-fi scenery, superb lighting and environmental effects (some courses can leave raindrops on your screen).

* Project Gotham Racing, Bizaare Creations for Microsoft Xbox

If you want the latest in reality-based auto racing, Gotham is a must have. But speed is not the only skill you'll need to win these races: The game features kudos - points given for style and stunts. Not only are the details of the cars technically correct, this game uses almost every graphics trick in the book; reflection effects, steam, headlight beams, shadows, skid marks and sunlight that is sometimes blinding. Although your vehicle starts out showroom-new, it can wind up with heavy battle scars.

- Andria Yu

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