When it comes to racing sims, Sony and Polyphony pretty much have the market cornered with the Gran Turismo franchise. The recent Forza Motorsport has proven to be worthy competition against the PS2's reiging racing franchise, and establishing a new franchise for Microsoft. But it's not like we haven't seen other companies take the racing sim route before: Namco tried it in 2003 with R: Racing Evolution, Capcom tried with Group S Challenge in 2003, Sega has released a couple of games within the past few years in the racing sim genre, and European developer Codemasters has been doing it for years with the ToCA racing series. But GT has always remained at the top of the heap. Now we have Enthusia Professional Racing from Konami, a good racing game on it's own that compliments the GT games, but not neccesairly improves upon them.
Enthusia, which is perhaps one of the most unsual names for a game to be released in 2005, is a solid, but somwhat anal racing experience for the PS2. You could get away with hitting walls, or driving off of walls in Gran Turismo, but not so much in Enthusia. The main design in Enthusia is based around the Enthu point system. Generally, you have a full bar of Enthu points when you begin a race. If you hit a wall or a car (even if it's not your fault) or go off the track (even if there's still road), you lose points. If you lose all of your points, you'll have to sit out a week (one race equals one week) and recover points. Now, in the beginning, this really doesn't sound so bad, but it does actually have reprocussions. For one, it's hard to level up a car if you make a lot of mistakes on the road. Not only do you lose Enthu points, but you also lose points that allow you to "level up" your car in terms of performance. The other probelm is that each race that you make points (based upon position), that affect your rank. Increasing your rank allows you to enter new race classes. If you sit out a race, you could affect your rank greatly, even kick yourself out of a racing class. While brings a new challenge to the racing, the Enthu point system really isn't effective as the Kudos system in Project Gotham. In fact, it's the opposite, where instead of rewards, you get punished. Had Konami just ripped off the Kudos system, I think the Enthu point system would be more rewarding. As it is, the Enthu point system isn't terrible, I just think it would work better as a reward system.
So, how does the game play? Well, it feels like a mix between the current Gran Turismo games and the original one. The cars that actually have the traction and stabillity controls are much easier to drive than the much of ones without them. Nearly all of the FR and MR cars that lack the stabillity controls feel like driving the Viper or the TVR's of the original Gran Turismo, with so much oversteer that you just don't want to bother. But don't let those cars get you down. Many of the good cars have stabillity control anyway (like the Mercedes and Audis), as well as performance, and 4WD cars such as the Subaru Impreza (which lacks stabillity controls) can perform fine as well. Honestly, it's these cars is what saves the game from becoming a wreck unlike 2000's Vanishing Point. You can upgrade your car's perfromance by leveling up, and it's basic upgrades that include weight, tires and power. It's not as deep as Gran Turismo or Forza, but in it's own little way, it works.
The two main game modes include Enthusia Life and Driving Revolution. Enthusia Life is basically the sim portion of the game. Here, you'll need to claw your way from a rank of 1000 to #1. Along the way, you can unlock cars by placing 4th or better in a raffle after the race (winning cars are completely random). Again, increasing performance is done by leveling up. In Driving Revolution, you need to complete a series of racing challenges that are pretty easy, to ridiculosly hard. It's somewhat similar to Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, except instead of hitting arrows at the right time, you need to hit markers at the right speed. It's pretty addictive and different, and it's not just a tacked on mini-game, either. It's pretty long, and it's the only way to unlock cars for use in the free run and time trial mode.
The visuals for Enthusia are among the best I've seen in a PS2 racing game. Some stages even out-do what Polyphony did in Gran Turismo 4. Many stages, such as Marco Strada, Victoria Garden and Pacific Gateway (except for the brown trees halfway through) look excellent. There are even some real-world courses such as Tsukuba Circuit and Nurburgring. The car models, while not as heavily detailed as GT4, still look really good, but don't take any damage. The framerate is smooth and cosntant, and the lighting effects are done very well. There's not a whole lot of negative things to say about the visuals except for an occasional blurry texture along the way and too many doo-dads on the heads-up display.
The sound is pretty good. The music is all original, and is hit and miss. Some tracks work really well (like the one for Marco Strada) while others consist of cheesey rock more suitable for a Sega game (like the Speediapolis Ring). The engine sounds are good, as well as the effects, but the collsion sounds could have been better and more varied.
Despite what many other critics out there think, I really enjoyed Enthusia Professional Racing. Sure, it's not Gran Turismo, but I really don't think Konami was trying to go in that direction. The design is different, even challenging, and the gameplay sort of reminds me of a combination of GT, Ridge Racer Type 4 and Project Gotham. Sure, the game may be too anal for it's own good sometimes, but for me, this was a fun and addictive racer. Even if you've already played through GT4, I think Enthusia is worth your time, even as a rental. It's a suprise I didn't see coming.