Here is a game based on the greatest race in the world – the Le Mans 24 Hour Endurance race. It’s very much in the Outrun style, and was rather overshadowed by that classic game. I’ve never cared for Outrun. I don’t like the way the graphics jitter about as they stream towards you, and the controls have always seemed “mushy”, giving little feel for the road, even compared to something as simple as Pole Position.
I was reminded of this game by a review I watched the other day (Xyphoe’s Amstrad Le Mans review). The consensus seems to be that this is a very hard game. I decided to dig out my MAME copy to see if it’s hard as he made it look. Quick answer: no, it’s really quite easy. At least it’s much easier to complete a four lap race than it is with Pole Position for example. Here’s tip No. 1 already:- use mouse controls, and turn the sensitivity right down to 1%. Without being able to steer the car smoothly and gently across the track you’re going nowhere.
The race is over up to four laps, with checkpoints dividing it into three sectors, with a bonus of about a minute added after each. The controls are exactly the same as Pole Position: analogue steering, analogue throttle, brakes and hi-lo gears. And just as with the classic you won’t need much finesse for anything but the steering. The graphic style is familiar enough but quite attractive for the time, and as the race is taking place over 24 hours you’ll see the transition from day to night and back via changes in the colour pallette.
The track is based loosely on the real circuit of La Sarthe, in much the same way as Pole Position was on Fuji. Check out Derek Bell’s lap in a Porsche 956 in 1983 to see how fantastic it used to be before the chicanes. You can vaguely recognise landmarks such as the Dunlop curve and Mulsanne straight, but the corners are smoothed out to make the lap flat-out nearly all the way.
Getting down to playing
The first thing I didn’t like was the car design. It looks too tall, like someone had put a “rocketship” aero cover over a pre-war roadster. Really naff, and the worst rendered car in the game. Roadside graphics could have been more appropriate; I would have liked to have seen some grandstands at least. And the day-to-night palette changes could have been more dramatic; Atari’s Enduro generated more nighttime atmosphere even on the VCS. Sound effects are weak, especially the engine, though the other cars do make satisfying (if hardly realistic) explosive engine booms as you pass them.
I wish more attention had been given to getting the circuit right. It weaves from side-to-side and up-and-down in vaguely the right directions, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have made it almost fully accurate. The most iconic view of the real circuit is of the cars approaching from under the Dunlop bridge downhill towards the Esses; it’s even used in the attract sequence here, but in the actual game the downhill run is completely flat.
The kerbs are rather high, but instead of bouncing off them your tyres seem to find a magnetic attraction, slowing you down in a wearisome sort of way. Hitting another car or obstacle gently sends you into a giant end-over-end rolling sequence like you were taking the mick out of Anthony Davidson. Which is fair enough, but a featherlight graze of another car sends you into a sequence with exactly the same penalties of time wasted (half a dozen seconds) and car damage (zero), only you are spinning flatly rather than cartwheeling. How much better if minor knocks rattled you offline or pitched you sideways a bit, giving a skilled driver chances to recover.
Those are the main complaints out of the way (I’m not going to get into stuff like “If the race is supposed to last 24 hours why do you get points for time remaining at the end?”). When you’ve gone through the learning curve and it actually comes down to playing the game I have nothing but praise. You certainly need to get the hang of the controls, but with time the mouse feels so at one with the car that you seem to be controlling it by thought alone. Only the sharper corners need some visual feedback to check the car is turning as tightly as you want.
Master the circuit and, except for two slow hairpins, it’s flat-out all the way. It’s just the other cars you have to deal with now, and here the game really excels. The first time you go through the Esses at full throttle, weaving past the opponents on either side, is as exciting as it is satisfying, and a taste of things to come. This is the key to this game’s success: it flatters the player. Other games have your rivals weaving all over the track or deliberately blocking you, but here they stick to their lanes so you can pass on the best side with confidence. The effect this has on later laps is profound. It’s breathtakingly exciting to flash past trains of speeding cars on the narrow track with inches to spare, though it doesn’t take much skill to do it. You just have to keep your foot in and believe everyone will stay out of your way.
Hints and tips
If there’s one playing tip I had to give above all others it would be be committed. You have to keep your foot to the floor as you gain on another car; if it’s on its own it will stay in its lane and you can be confident of passing cleanly, except on the tighter kind of double bends. Notice there are two models of cars, the sport prototypes like yourself and the slower GT class with the Porsche Turbo body style. These latter should normally be nipped past on the inside of curves, while the faster cars may have to be passed on the outside. This is against your instincts as it means steering to actually hit the car, but don’t worry, you’ll drift safely to the outside of it.
Learn to drive in lanes; use the middle lane by default. This is different to most racing games, but here the ability to keep to a lane on the smoother corners will pay off in safe overtaking. But with the tighter kind of esses there’s no choice but to use a racing line. There are only two slow corners where you need to use the brakes. Approach in the centre lane and hit the brakes early, attempting an easy middle line rather than a racing line. Try and be clean on these corners with a smooth exit rather than a rally-cross approach.
When you are gaining on a pack of cars at a dangerous place on the track, ease off early and hang back for a while rather than get on their tails. Lifting off the throttle briefly can gain enough time to nip past another car cleanly, but going bumper-to-bumper only seems to slow down the car ahead even more, meaning you have to absolutely stand on the brakes to avoid it. As you practise and achieve more consistent lap times you’ll find car placements falling into patterns which are easy to remember.
All-in-all you shouldn’t find it too difficult to finish the race, at least compared to similar games. Remember you have several seconds in hand if you can avoid crashing, so it’s more important to be clean and consistent than to be a maniac on every corner. When you back off the throttle you’re not losing as much time as you think.
This is a pretty basic guide for beginners and people who are struggling with the game, essentially only dealing with the first lap. Note that you may need to restart the game to see the same car colourings as I describe here. Please refer to my video above as well as the inline screenshots. So first off, start in low gear and change up at about 160kmh – it’s not absolutely critcal when. The first challenge is to slip calmly past the Rothmans car (pic #1) on its left and take the gentle curve past the Dunlop bridge. Easy, as long as you have your controls set up right. If you don’t find it easy the only thing you’re going to gain from the rest of the game is frustration.
Challenge number 2 is the Esses: pass on the left at the approach, then move to the right of the slow Porsche (#2). This again should be easy, but does require confidence. There are then two long fast right-handers leading on to the Mulsanne straight. Decide well in advance which side you’ll pass the cars you will always find here. On later laps you may need to back off a little to clear some space. Remember to do this nice and early and you’ll have no dramas.
On the long straight keep to the right. If it’s clear it will stay clear; sometimes another car will squeeze you by cutting a little into the lane but you can handle this. Normally you’ll have no problems, though sometimes violent jinking is needed to weave through the pack of cars that can build up at the beginning of the straight.
After the checkpoint there’s another easy sweeping right-hander, followed by the first hairpin. Approach in the centre lane (#3), brake fairly early and try to stay in the middle of the road, though in fact you will be taking something of a racing line. It’s surprisingly easy to mess this up, so try to be consistent; it will keep you “on pattern” with the other cars.
The end of the next straight will see you gaining on another Rothmans car with seemingly little room for manoeuvre on either side. Pass on the right (#4); it’s easy as long as you can steer accurately and stay in lane.
After the next sweeping right you’ll encounter the first real challenge: a flat-out left-right plunging curve. It will take some practice to do this regardless of any other cars, but once you’ve mastered it you’ll have the problem of the car you encounter on the lip of the exit. If it’s a slow GT car there seems to be no option but to slam on the brakes to give you time to pass on the left. But it should be a fast car, and if you steer to the right so its seems you’re going to ram the back of it you’ll drift safely to the left (#5). Take car not to hit the kerbs.
There follows a long sweeping left on the approach to the checkpoint. This can be a little dicey in traffic, but follow the general rule of passing slow cars on the inside, fast on the outside.
Next is a very long left-hander. Always hang to the right on this, and you can take it flat out. Make sure you steer consistently to the left as much as you can but without ever having to move back to the right to avoid another car. Check that your car graphic is actually turning the full degree (#6) as you approach the end of the turn. I mess this up in the video, for which there is no excuse.
After this there’s a difficult sequence of bends. Stay to the left as much as you can, especially on the entrance (#7) and exit. This part can be done flat-out without too much bother on the first lap, but later you may have to back off in the middle. The short straight ends with a tight left-hand hairpin. Treat it just the same as the right-hand one earlier.
The final sequence is a left-right esse. This is tricky. As a guide you should try to beat a slow GT car into the corner, but hang back a little from the fast cars (#8) before blasting past them on the exit. I always deliberately take this cautiously on the first lap, not just for safety but because I actively don’t want to be too fast here. Passing the purple Porsche before the finish line puts the game into a more difficult pattern for the next lap.
Go and play it
I strongly recommend WEC Le Mans. It’s certainly not innovative, but it is very exciting, and without being as frustrating for less gifted players as better-known games in the same genre.