Release Date: September 26, 2006
Hollywood's habit for cranking out street racing flicks at a high rate may have dropped out of top gear in the past few years, but the gaming industry continues to keep its production pedal stamped to the floor. Saddened as I am that we won't see Vin Diesel in "8 Fast 8 Furious: Mexican Drift" making its way to the silver screen anytime soon, titles like Midnight Club and Need For Speed Underground have helped fill the void for racing fans who prefer some style with their substance.
In the same vein, Import Tuner Challenge is a game tailored to those of us who aren't content to simply make laps with the same ol' stock vehicles. Developed by Genki, a studio that's always catered to its domestic demographic in Japan (but has a few releases that slip into the states a each year, like Kengo and Jade Cocoon), ITC is a continuation of its Tokyo Xtreme Racer series, which last graced the PS2 in three iterations. Though it has received a much-needed name change ("Xtreme" is so 2003), Import Tuner is right in line with its predecessor, though being on a next-gen console for the first time offers it the opportunity to upgrade.
If you're a fan of the Tokyo Xtreme Racer games, you'll know what to expect in ITC: rivalry-based bouts against local drivers and racing teams played out on stretches of urban Tokyo track, along with a garage full of customization and tuning options. Instead of racing in loops or even point-to-point, nearly all of the driving you'll do in Import Tuner is challenge-based; you'll roam the Japanese highway, eyeing competitors from your car, flashing your high-beams in their rear-view mirror if you'd like to issue a challenge. You'll also visit parking areas located along the highway to mingle and chat with other drivers (in text, at least), as well as issue challenges to racers.
On the road, what replaces racing for time or distance are "spirit points," which are allocated to both you and your opponent. The points are a kind of a life bar that represents your driver's mental vitality, and it degrades if you ram into obstacles or lose position with your auto adversary. The mechanic might sound a tad complex, but it's nothing you can't wrap your gearhead around – it's still just a matter of out-driving the other guy.
There is a wealth of auto-enthusiasts ready to match your motor in Import Tuner, most of which ally themselves with one of more than 200 racing teams in the game. After you've battled your way through the lower members of a car clan, you'll find yourself matched against boss drivers with flashy names like Azure Sniper or Midnight Cinderella, with naturally flashier cars to boot. Out-pace these aces, and your own street pseudonym will improve – you might begin as a "Slow Poke Runner," but find yourself as a "Luminous Baron" or "Tempest Samurai" in no time. It's a nice (and distinctly Japanese) detail that charts your progress throughout the game as you down more and more rivals.
Conceptually, the combination of Import Tuner's free-roam course structure with rivalry-based racing isn't a bad thing. Unfortunately, Genki's execution of these mechanics dampens most of the unique appeal. Whatever turbocharged engine or daunting moniker your opponents might boast, rival drivers aren't that intimidating simply because they lack the "challenge" mentioned in the game's title. They aren't very intelligent or creative, and they're noticeably sans a sense of aggressiveness or recklessness that you'd expect from underground competitors. Beating most rivals is a matter of either making a solid corner, or waiting until they change lanes and ram an innocent vehicle while you speed away. Sure, this isn't universal, and there are instances where you'll get beat handily. But by and large, races lack the neck-and-neck tension necessary to craft a worthwhile racing experience.
The AI wouldn't seem as simplistic if the roadways you navigate weren't equally as such. Accurate as they may be to the Tokyo streets, there isn't anything especially complex or compelling about Import Tuner's environment, even after unlocking more of the roadway as you defeat rivals. As you're essentially speeding through highways (i.e., areas designed for mass transit), 90-degree turns, changes in elevation, and narrow lanes are kind of difficult to come by. Because the playing space is generally so homogenous, you're mostly racing in straight lines, dodging the infrequent sedan every minute or so along the way. Some might interpret this as added authenticity; if you've wanted to race on reproduced models of the Shibuya and Shinjuku highways, they're here. Still, casual racing fans should be wary if they're expecting the dynamic gameplay they could find in Need For Speed Carbon or other mainstream racing titles.
What Import Tuner does well is its multitude of car customization options. Though there are just 18 vehicles from five Japanese brands (Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota) to choose from (you'll also earn custom versions of your rivals cars by defeating them), there's a lot of tinkering to be done, both under the hood and in dressing up your ride with your own personal flare. Adjusting gear ratios, changing the camber angle of your wheels, and even tweaking the angle of your spoiler are a snap thanks to the game's simple menu system. But putting out high-end torque won't mean much if your ride is looking drab, especially if you plan on taking your wheels from quest mode onto Xbox Live. Expect to spend a good amount of time swapping out seats, mirrors, or taillights, adding vertically opening doors, fine-tuning your paint job, or even installing neon lights underneath your body. A nice number of decals and sponsor stickers you can stamp against your doors and bumpers round out a solid suite of customization.
Visually, Import Tuner Challenge doesn't exactly put the Xbox 360's hardware into overdrive. While vehicle models look passable, they're a tad too glossy. ITC does lay down some nice lighting and blur effects as you're breezing under overpasses and past streetlamps, even if it's a little overused. What's missing is an impressive Japanese skyline to set a convincing backdrop for the gameplay – office buildings and other urban structures in the environment don't effectively inspire or immerse you in the scene. Import Tuner's audio is similarly ho-hum, with generic techno tracks that find their way through every menu and race, along with sound effects that get the job done but don't exactly stand out. There's no voice-acting, either, which would've added some much-needed personality to your allegedly edgy opponents.
Online, finding more adept or interesting competition isn't a problem, though it's unfortunate that the Xbox Live modes are limited to battle and time attack, and you'll have to dump a good amount of money into your buggy before it's up to par with online opponents. Overall, we can't call Import Tuner an outright lemon because it does do some things right – namely the array of customization options available to players.
Conceptually, free-roaming racing (even if it's better-executed in Test Drive Unlimited) and challenging rival drivers is something that has a future in racing games as the genre experiments with new ideas. For the time being, however, Import Tuner lacks either the impressive visuals we've come to expect from next-gen games (racing titles, especially), or a well-executed new feature that contrasts it from other offerings in the genre. It may appeal to a group of auto-savvy street racers who delight in leaving relatively simple A.I. in the dust, but Import Tuner Challenge doesn't bring enough visual horsepower or fine-tuned gameplay to make it past its speedy competitors.
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