It’s unfortunate when a good game is compared to another instead of being considered on its own merits. It’s doubly unfortunate when the game it’s being compared to is the best in the genre. In this case, the game is Enthusia Professional Racing and the comparison is obviously Gran Turismo 4. That’s like comparing a $70 bottle of champagne to Cristal; that $70 bottle is still damned good, but you know you’re going to pick the Cristal every time. Yet instead of being a warmed-over imitation, Enthusia is unique in design and has enough of it own charm to seriously vie for dominance.
Enthusia opens with a predictable menu of game modes, including time trials and two-player action. There’s also a training mode, but instead of being timed the drivers are scored on how well they hit markers that describe not only the racing line but also specific speeds. This technical approach foreshadows the main event, Racing Life mode. Thankfully, the training mode isn’t a requirement, and there are no license requirements — either you’re ready for competition or you’re not.
Racing Life is Enthusia’s career mode, and features hundreds of cars from almost two dozen manufacturers across six levels of competition. At the beginning there’s no sifting through hundreds of cars that aren’t even available yet as in other games, just a handful of cars that can be freely chosen. There’s no money involved, so if you ever tire (get it? Cars, tire… okay, I’ll stop) of what you’re driving you’re not stuck with it because of a ridiculously low resale value. If you don’t like it, just hop into something else. The vehicle selection is huge, too. Not pre-surgery Carnie Wilson huge, more like Oprah off her diet huge. It’s hard to name another game that has a Chevy Astro van racing side by side with a 1956 Volkswagen. There are some cars at the low end that seem useless, like the plethora of Japanese minivans, but Enthusia’s ranking system compensates and makes just about every car worthwhile to drive. This isn’t just about beating the competition, it’s about beating your personal challenge level.
In every race, odds for each car are assigned. If a bunch of high-powered sports cars are lined up, your Honda Civic is going to look like a long shot, but if you’re up against five Japanese econoboxes with wheezy motorcycle engines, a Corvette seems like overkill. Ranking points are awarded at the end of each race and multiplied by the vehicle odds, so sometimes it’s best to enter a challenging race and finish second or third than to win an easy first place finish.
Where other games may be all about modifying and tuning, Enthusia is more focused on just racing. From the get-go every car can be tuned down to the spring rates, camber angle, and limited slip settings, but because there’s no cash there’s no shopping for exhaust systems or turbo upgrades. Another point system takes over here, “Enthu Points”, reminiscent of Project Gotham’s Kudos but awarded for clean racing instead of trick driving. It’s a good substitute for vehicle damage, keeping the focus pinned to staying on the road and away from the opposition’s fenders. As points add up, modification levels in weight reduction, power, and tires increase. This seems simplistic, but not having to spend fifteen minutes buying parts is a welcome relief. On the negative side, this makes driving some of the weaker cars a Sisyphean task; they’re hard to keep under control until they’re upgraded, so it seems like any earned points and the upgrades they bring vanish as soon as the driver scrapes a wall.
Progression through Racing Life is smooth and delivers a sense of excitement while unlocking new levels of competition and new cars. Enthusia throws in its own twist here too; upon finishing a race there’s a chance to win any of the cars participating in that race, providing another reason to enter challenging events rather than those which are easily won. The challenge level is also boosted by an attempt at extreme realism in vehicle handling and performance. The developers went out of their way to extensively model weight transfer, even providing an on-screen guide for center of gravity and tire loading forces. The result is unforgiving vehicle physics, but it really evokes an appreciation for how much better certain cars handle than others. It wouldn’t be fair not to mention the courses, since even in the beginning stages they’re demanding and some real tracks are thrown in, like the famous 12-mile Nurburgring – differing weather is also included, exhibiting staples such as night, rain, and snowy conditions.
Not only is Enthusia well designed with an impressive sense of vehicle control (or lack thereof), but it also looks gorgeous to boot. It’s not the pinnacle of PS2 racers, but if Gran Turismo 4 is Jessica Simpson then Enthusia is Zooey Deschanel: not the typical paragon of beauty but undeniably attractive in its uniqueness. Some might take the graphics for granted, but the car models are superb, particle effects from off-road, rainy, and snowy courses are excellent, and there are some impressive reflections. Most importantly, the action is smooth and rock-solid, adding to the overall polish and high presentation value. The forgettable music doesn’t quite live up to the visuals, but engine and tire sounds are noteworthy.
All the praise doesn’t prevent some complaints though. Players looking for a quick racing fix will probably find Enthusia difficult, especially in the beginning with underpowered, poorly handling cars. The penalties for hitting fences and opponents can be frustrating, especially considering that even an opponent smacking you from behind means a loss of points — and getting sandwiched between two cars has disastrous consequences. There are also some balance issues with specific cars that make certain sections of the game too easy. These are minor nits to pick, and once the game is in full swing they’re hardly issues at all.
The true disaster here is the likelihood that nobody will really play Enthusia. Gran Turismo 4’s massive popularity is destined to overshadow it even though both games rank at the top of the genre. If you’re already a Gran Turismo fan, you’ll find aspects of Enthusia enjoyable but you’ll probably go back to the old standby. If you don’t have any particular allegiance to that series, or find that you inevitably have to challenge yourself instead of the game challenging you, this might be just what you’re looking for. In either case, it’s worth at least a rental and will reward anyone curious enough to give it a shot.