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Import Tuner Challenge - hands-on

Sliding around Tokyo's C1 Loop in a tricked-out Japanese sports car, we couldn't help but catch a wave of deja vu - this feels a lot like the Tokyo Xtreme Racer series. Turns out it's for a good reason: Import Tuner Challenge is the next chapter, albeit under new branding.

You can't swing a muffler without hitting a game about tuner culture, so ejecting a recognizable name is a bold if not risky move. And though it promises loads of hardware tweaking (from softening the suspension to crazy tire angles) and more positionable vinyl than you can shake a tire iron at, Import Tuner Challenge is banking on the road itself to set the game apart. Welcome to the real streets of Tokyo - your new playground.

The painstakingly recreated freeways are likely to be both a strength and a weakness. Anyone who's ever wanted to experience nitro-injected nights on the Shinjuku line will want to go for a spin, but those same people will undoubtedly have played Need For Speed Underground 2 and Most Wanted. The real problem is that real-life highways can't compare to streets designed solely for the pleasure of gaming. While recreating every hill and twist on a sparsely populated expressway delivers the realism, freedom is the victim. Good luck making so much as a simple U-turn on these hard-wired routes.

What's more, Import Tuner Challenge's vehicle collection and nearly anonymous challengers don't do much to capture the region's unique personality or atmosphere, and the lack of any damage model highlights the too forgiving physics. True to the series' past, many races are instigated on the street by flashing your headlights at a potential opponent. Race for distance or compete in Spirit Point Battles that bleed a meter for fender-grinding mistakes and falling behind.

Hit local parking areas to chat up the locals or challenge racers so hardcore they sport their own logos. Defeat enough of these faceless goons and you'll increase your street cred via a strange rank names like "Fleeting Colonel" and "Sudden Dancer" and open access to improved parts and custom rides. Most racing (online and off) is exclusively one-on-one, though a time trial mode posts your best performance on a global scoreboard.

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