Developer: Ambrosia Software
Requirements: Mac OS X 10.2. Universal.
Trial: Feature-limited (only a few cars and tracks)
I don’t own a car or have a driver’s license, and the last auto-racing game I played was Night Driver on my Atari 2600. But one night I felt like trying something new, and so I found Ambrosia Software’s Redline. The next day my right middle finger still felt funny from hours of holding down the “accelerate” key, and I knew I had to write a review.
Redline, like Night Driver, challenges the player to race a car around a track in the fastest possible time. Visually, your car stays pretty much in the bottom center of the screen, and as you steer the track moves around you. Accelerate, brake, crash: it’s pretty simple. That was enough in 1980, but modern computer racers require more. Redline delivers with options galore.
See that wall? Yeah, you might want to turn.
First off, there are several different cars you can race in, each with its own characteristics. Ambrosia was aiming for realism here, and while I can’t say whether their Diablo handles like a real Diablo, I can easily tell the difference between, say, a Diablo and a Golf. As I tried out different cars, I quickly found I had a strong preference for the control of four-wheel drive vehicles; I’m happier driving a car that I can control well than one that goes wicked fast and then spins like crazy on corners.
When you play the game for the first time, you only have access to a few of the cars Redline has to offer. Instead of making all of the cars available right off, Redline makes you earn them in Challenges: you drive the car you want to earn along a piece of track, sometimes swerving around cones, in a predetermined amount of time to earn a Bronze, Silver, or Gold medal. If you can do it (they’re all doable, though some are much harder than others, I’ve won several Silvers but never a Gold), you earn a new car, which you can then use in any of the races in the game. Though at first I wished I could just race any car I wanted to, I came to like the idea of the Challenges: they made me get to know each car a bit before taking out for some loops around a track.
You also have a choice of tracks to race around, and weather conditions to race in. As with the cars, I found myself developing track-preferences. Each track has not just different graphics but different curves and straightaways, and most interestingly, surface conditions: there are city streets and rural roads, rolling hills and level ground, one track even has snow. After playing for a while, though, I started wishing Ambrosia had provided more tracks to choose from: there are only six. A few users have created additional tracks (available as plug-ins on the game’s Web site), but most of the plug-ins are for additional cars.
Hint: Don’t try to drive and take screenshots at the same time.
Other than the challenges, there are three basic kinds of races you can try. The Time Trial—my favorite—lets you keep racing round and round your chosen track, trying to beat your best time. A ghost of your car from your previous loop races around the track, offering a visual clue of how well (or poorly) you’re doing against yourself. The other two options are to race against computer-controlled opponents (you can choose which cars you want to race against, and how many opponents you want) or against other players on the Internet. Both of those options perform reasonably well on my relatively old PowerBook G4.
If all of those options aren’t enough, you can also choose how realistic you want your game play to be. There are two Arcade modes, designed to give you insanely high speeds coupled with unnatural levels of control. They’re great fun, and you can get into some spectacular crashes. Drive up the side of the Canyon track and watch your car fly up into the air and spin on three different axes—or if you’ve got a strong stomach, switch the camera view and put yourself inside the car when it happens! There’s a third mode which offers more realistic speeds and responsiveness, but I quickly found that in the Simulation mode, I could frequently save time by crashing against the walls of a course instead of carefully braking and steering. In response to that problem, a fourth mode with Strict gameplay was added, but it hasn’t changed the way I play the game. (Maybe I just like crashing.)
No, really, I’m fine.
Redline’s weak point, unfortunately, is game control. It’s pretty easy to see the problem: you can accelerate and brake and turn left and turn right, but a real car offers degrees of all of those things. I had a school bus driver once who drove like he was playing Redline: he’d floor the accelerator, then take his foot off the gas and coast for a while, then floor it again, then slam on the brakes…you know, it wasn’t the smoothest ride. Real cars have pressure-sensitive pedals, but keyboards don’t work that way. So unless you buy a supported joystick or steering wheel, you’re stuck driving like my bus driver.
In Ambrosia’s defense, there’s not much that can be done in software to mitigate this problem. They could require a suitable controller, but that would keep the majority of Mac users from ever discovering the game. I did come up with one idea, however: a “maintain speed” key—equivalent to keeping even pressure on the accelerator, which is how most people drive most of the time—would be a great help. Ideally, you could hold down such a key while accelerating: then, take your foot—no, your finger—off the accelerator and instead of slowing down gradually, you can keep going at the speed you accelerated to.
My only other complaint about the game is that when it runs in full-screen mode, it sometimes messes up the icons on my desktop after I’m done playing. (This doesn’t always happen; usually the icons are fine.)
Car-racing games sure have come a long way since 1980. The basic idea hasn’t changed much—I don’t see how it can, at least until we have flying cars—but Ambrosia has given desktop racers a heaping helping of options: choose your car, your track, your opponents, your physics. Whether you like impossibly fast Cooper Minis or hopelessly uncontrollable Deloreans, Redline offers a safe and fun alternative to driving a real Viper into a brick wall at 160mph.