It was at last year's Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Washington, where I was first introduced to Indianapolis 500 Legends for the Nintendo DS. It was while covering the Destineer booth that I stumbled across this odd little racing series. After playing the game on both the Nintendo DS and Wii I wasn't sure what to make of it. Here was a standard racing game that decided to try something completely new and original. This is a racing game that decided that having a lot of tracks was overrated. Indianapolis 500 Legends is the kind of game that fascinated me and worried me all at the same time.
It was while hanging around the Destineer booth that I first learned that Indianapolis 500 Legends had solved the problem of driving with the touch screen. You heard me, Destineer adamantly stated that this racing game was the first to get the touch screen controls right. That's quite a bold statement considering the history of Nintendo DS racing games, one look at Ridge Racer DS or Burnout Legends should be enough to demonstrate that racing games and touch technology is a lethal combination. But Destineer claimed to have made a racer that felt good when playing with the touch screen.
Unfortunately now that I've had some time to sit down with Indianapolis 500 Legends I'm not sure I agree with Destineer's PR department. Yes, Indianapolis 500 Legends' touch controls are better than Ridge Racer DS, but that's like saying that moldy bread is better than sewage water. Thankfully Indy fans won't have to put up with the touch screen if they don't like it (you can play the game just fine with the D-pad), but at the same time I was kind of hoping that this would be the game that convinced me that the touch pad was good for racing games.
Believe it or not, Indianapolis 500 Legends isn't as dull as the title lets on. The game is presented as a history of the classic race, taking us from 1960 all the way up to 1971. Along the way we are introduced to some of the masters of race driving, including A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford and many, many more. Toss in some extremely cool (and extremely dangerous) cars and you have the makings of a solid racing game.
There's just one big problem, the game only has one track. I know I'm said it before, but it bears repeating a few more times. When I say that the game has one track I mean it, there's no mirror mode or alternate path here. Instead you get the same track that some of the greats made history on. If you're the kind of gamer who could care less about the history lesson and wants diversity in your game, then you might want to check out one of the other racing games on the console. However, if you're the type of gear head that wants to go back in time and recreate some of the best racing rivalries of all time, then Indianapolis 500 Legends may be worth your $40.
The good news is that this racer isn't nearly as monotonous as it sounds. My greatest fear was that this game was going to force me to race a 200 lap race eleven times in a row. As much as I love racing games, I'm not sure I could handle sitting there and racing one of these vehicles for 200 laps straight. Even if it was the best racing game in the world, the idea of doing the same thing 200 times just sounds incredibly boring.
Thankfully that's not what Indianapolis 500 Legends asks you to do. Instead you get something called the "Mission Mode" which assigns a bunch of unique tasks to each racer and each year. One of the common missions is to finish off a race, which means that you will take control when there are only two or three laps left in the 200 lap race. In another mission you will need to swerve out of the way to avoid multi-car pile-ups. In yet another mission you will need to pass a certain amount of cars in order to advance, a mode that was taken directly from the Burnout series. There's even a mission/mini-game that has you using the Nintendo DS' touch screen to change a tire and refill the gas tank. For the most part these various missions are a lot of fun and do a good job of adding some diversity to the theme. Unfortunately you'll be asked to do most of these missions over and over again, so eventually the monotony will start to creep back into the overall racing experience.
Indianapolis 500 Legends also comes with a more traditional "Classic Mode," which allows you customize a race to your liking. Not only can you set the game up for two players (no four-player support here), but you will also be able to choose the number of laps you want to play (all the way up to 200), whether or not you want to run a qualifying race and what year you want all of this to take place in. For some strange reason the developers have decided to lock all of the years out from the get-go, so you're going to have to go through that single player mission mode and unlock everything. While I'm sure there's a good reason to do this, it's sad that people just looking for a fun two-player game have to go through the single player experience to unlock the most crucial parts of the game.
Outside of the two main modes there's not much else to do. Beyond viewing your profile and changing the options, the only thing left for you to do is check out the Indianapolis 500 Museum. As you can guess from the name, the museum is a collection of photographs from the race's history. While this isn't the kind of thing I look for in a racing game, I'm sure there are plenty of Indianapolis 500 fans who love seeing this kind of nostalgic footage.
As I mentioned earlier in the review, the controls are kind of a mess. Basically you have two different options, one that involves you trying to play with the touch screen, and a traditional mode where you play with the D-pad and face buttons. While neither control scheme is perfect, there's definitely one that is a lot better than the other. The touch screen control scheme is a little awkward, it involves you using the screen to steer the car and the d-pad to accelerate or brake (assuming you're right handed). At first playing this way is a bit awkward, but after awhile you'll start to get the hang of it. But don't confuse getting the hang of it with it being a better alternative to the standard racing controls. It's definitely possible for somebody to play through Indianapolis 500 Legends using the touch screen, but I found using the D-pad just felt more comfortable and was more precise.
Besides the questionable controls, the game does have a few other problems that dog this otherwise entertaining racer. For one thing the graphics aren't very good, especially when compared to what we saw on the Wii. While I certainly understand that the Nintendo DS has its limitations, I didn't feel that the hardware lent itself well to this kind of game. In the Wii version it was interesting to watch the course change over the years, however in this game a lot of that nuance is completely lost. Thankfully it's not all bad news, it's worth noting that Indianapolis 500 Legends moves at a brisk pace and keeps the frames per second locked.
Another minor complaint is that this game doesn't offer download play. Given the niche audience this game is targeting it would have been nice for this game to allow me to play multiplayer with only one card. I was also disappointed that this game wasn't all that different from the slightly better Wii version. I suppose a lot of this translates well to the Nintendo DS, but it would have been nice to see a few added modes or something.
Indianapolis 500 Legends is not a bad racing game; it's an average racer that has a unique (but ultimately flawed) premise. It's hard to make a full game out of only one track, and Indianapolis 500 Legends proves that. While I definitely like some of the ideas that the developers put into the game, I found myself getting bored of the experience after a few short events.
With its poor controls, ugly graphics and limited track list, Indianapolis 500 Legends is not one of the better Nintendo DS racing games. Then again, it's not one of the worst. This game does a few things well, but none of it can save it from being just another average racing game with an interesting gimmick.