Following the recent glut of driving games (OutRun Europa, F1 Grand Prix, Lotus 2 etc), all that we've been missing is a Nitro-style overhead-view scroller to complete the set, and now that gap's been filled by Champion Driver.
Set on 50 Grand Prix tracks from around the world, the game starts you off as a go-kart racer, with the objective of rising through five categories to become a Formula One star. This you do by the simple expedient of beating a variety of computer-controlled cars in 10 three-lap races per level, the only complication involved being a limited fuel tank, necessitating fairly frequent trips to the pits if you're not going to be left sitting embarrassingly in the middle of the track at a complete standstill.
In a similar vein to Nitro and Hot Rod, you can also use prize money to buy improvements for your vehicle (bigger engine, better tyres, the usual kind of thing), which will help you counter the increased speed and improved opposition of the later levels.
The first thing you notice in Champion Driver - and the importance of this can't be overstated - is the quite staggeringly bad copy protection system. This kind of thing makes a game a real chore to get into and can seriously affect your feelings towards it before you even play - you find yourself thinking 'Sod this for entertainment, who do they think they are anyway, putting a poor player through such torment?'Well, that's what it does to me, anyway. If I hadn't had to review it, I would have got as far as the protection and thrown the whole thing away in disgust. I don't fork out £26 on any product to be treated like this, and neither should anyone else.
But I'm digressing rather wildly. Once past the copy protection, what you find is an unexpectedly great little racing game with attractively understated graphics and a perfect handling feel. From the start screen you can either jump straight into the game proper, or practice a single race on one of the four harder levels - a clever and effective way of maintaining interest by way of a tempting carrot, where otherwise you might get a bit dispirited by lack of success. Here, you can always get a tantalising glimpse of what it is you're striving towards.
In play the game is fast and smooth, with lots of variation in the tortuously twisting tracks and well-judged difficulty curve. The lack of a multi-player option knocks potential lasting appeal down a bit, as does the essentially repetitive nature (especially when, unlike Nitro and Hot Rod, the graphics don't change significantly between levels), but it's demanding enough to make you work pretty damn hard to get anywhere, which should keep your interest high for a while at least.
We've had (even) more arguments in the office about what mark games should be getting than usual this month, and I know for a fact that a number of people disagree with me, but I'll say it anyway - this is a highly entertaining game that I really enjoyed playing, but if you're looking for something to keep you going into next year, look elsewhere.