I first wrote up some thoughts on Pod 2 years ago: here. This new review is perhaps triple the length of that old one, though, has a lot more new content than most any of the other redone old reviews I've worked on in recent months, and wasn't in a dedicated thread, so unlike most of the rest of my updated old reviews, I'm posting this on forums as well. .For the other improved reviews, see them on my site.


First, a starting note: in order to access the Oddrock track or two of the cars, you needed to connect to the long-dead Pod online servers. The stuff is on the disc, but it's locked. However, fortunately, there is a way around this: put a save file on your system that already has the track unlocked! I found one on the homebrew Dreamcast save files disc that I have. Look up Dreamcast save files discs, and burn one; it should have the file you need. Anyone seriously interested in Pod 2 really MUST do this, because playing this game without one of the tracks and two of the cars is horrible! The alternative is actually getting your DC online and getting the files from the internet, but that, of course, is much more challenging. Just burn a save-files disc. Don't skip this step! Oddrock is a great track, and the two cars are pretty good as well. The file I used had only a couple of track times and almost nothing beaten, so it's not a completed game, fortunately, it just has the online stuff unlocked. You want the file which mentions that the Oddrock track and Crab and Bulldog cars are unlocked.



At the starting line!
Introduction

The original Pod, for the PC, is one of my favorite racing games. When the sequel was announced as a Dreamcast-exclusive, though, I was disappointed; I wanted to play it on the PC, and didn't have a Dreamcast. I didn't get a DC until 2007, so I couldn't play the game when it came out. The mediocre opinions most Pod fans had of the game greatly lessened my expectations, though, which made me care less.

After getting a DC, though, I finally did buy the game. Pod 2 has several names. In the US, its title is Pod: Speed Zone. In Europe, it's Pod 2: Multiplayer Online. I'll call the game "Pod 2" in this review, though I have the US version. The game was not developed by the same team that made the first Pod, and you can tell -- this game is indeed a shadow of its predecessor, just like all the reviews said. It is a highly disappointing game, one of the more disappointing Dreamcast game for me. However, despite this, I find the game quite fun, and it's probably one of my favorite Dreamcast racing games. How can it be both of these things? Well, it's a very limited game, and is not even close to Pod's level, but what is here is pretty fun if you like this style of futuristic racing game as I do.

Comparing Pod 1 and Pod 2, the only obvious similarity between the two games is that both have "Pod" in the title, are futuristic racing games, have some slightly similar art design styles, have some large tracks with branching paths and dead ends, have car damage of some kind (though the car damage systems are different), have two player splitscreen multiplayer, and had online play on servers that are now long-dead. On that last point, with Pod 1 at least you can still play the game multiplayer via IPX LAN or via direct-IP play, but Pod 2 is splitscreen-only, sadly. Beyond those few things, though, the sequel diverges greatly from its predecessor, to its detriment.

Pod 2 has a lot less to it than the first game did. First, Pod 2 has no circuit mode. The first Pod has many different ways to play the game -- there is a championship mode, with either the original 16 tracks in preset order or your own custom championship of up to 16 races on any track; single-race mode; time-trial mode, extremely popular with a lot of Pod fans; split-screen multiplayer for two players; and online, LAN, or modem multiplayer for up to 8 players. Pod 2, however, has only single-race, time-trial, and split-screen multiplayer, though of course it originally also had online multiplayer as well. The loss of a main single-player championship mode is a big loss. Pod 2 doesn't have an ending, either, unlike the first game. The game has a short introduction, and that's it as far as the story is concerned. Disappointing! The severely limited content is one of Pod 2's biggest problems, along with the low production values and lack of a PC version.


Racing. Nice sky!
Basics: Controls and Interface

Pod 2 is a fairly standard futuristic racing game. The game runs in a modified version of the Speed Devils engine, so it looks and plays as much like that game as it does Pod. The first Pod is a pure racing game; you only race, there are no weapons or turbo boosts. But perhaps because this is a console game, Pod 2 adds turbo boost and item systems. Unfortunately, both are clumsily done, as I will explain. The boost system works like that in Wipeout 3, F-Zero X, and others -- boosting drains your health. The items are few and weak. The game does play well, though. Cars control quite well in this game, and each car really does feel different. However, I don't think this game really controls like Pod. The Speed Devils roots do show here, I think. Pod 2 is sort of one part Pod, one part Speed Devils. I like Speed Busters, but Pod is a far better game. While Pod 2 has good controls, control is better overall in the first game, and is slightly different from how it is here. I do like how this plays, though, just less than the first game.

I also like the variety between the vehicles. The eight cars aren't just palette-swaps, they control very different. Choose your car wisely on each track, because some cars are better on some tracks, and others on others. Cars have health in this game, and when you run out, it's a very abrupt game over. Look out for the health refill pickups, they can be invaluable! They are by far the best of the pickups, in fact; the weapons are weak, and turbo boost is only sometimes helpful. Your shields (health) and turbo are based on meters on screen, so how much you have of each is limited.

On screen, the game shows your shields, boost meter, acceleration, a quite useful minimap, the three items you currently have, your lap times, position, and current lap number. That's it; Pod 1 has far more screen displays. I know that as a console game everything has to be larger, but this is disappointing, as I will explain later.

Basics: Race Types

The game has only two modes, single race or multiplayer. This game would be so much better with circuit championships, such as those in the original version of Speed Devils/Busters! Single races have six cars in each race, down from eight in the original Pod. Pod 2's graphics aren't amazing, either; the DC should be able to handle eight cars for sure. Since the online mode is long-dead, the multiplayer is splitscreen-only. Fortunately the splitscreen mode exists; in Speed Devils Online Racing they didn't bother with splitscreen support, for some stupid reason. It's in this game, and it's fun. I wish that the game had four player support, but two is better than nothing. Both Pod 2 and Speed Devils Online Racing were heavily focused on online play, which have money systems and more from what I've read; the single player is shoddy and limited in content. And then the online mode went dead, leaving not much here. The game does have some progression, though. When I first played the game in '07 or so, I somehow missed that each of the six tracks has three races on it, and you unlock each of the later two by beating the first track. So, after playing the game again because I wanted to improve the review, I decided to win all of the races, and after some effort I accomplished this.

When you start playing Pod 2, there are two options on each track: a Normal race, or Time Trial. Time Trial is just you against the clock with no opponent. In Time Trial, you can save ghosts, but it has no other effect, playing it won't unlock anything. Once you finish in first in each tracks' Normal race, you unlock the Hard race. The Hard races are pretty tough, and some of these took me some time to beat! Beat each track on Hard, and you unlock the last mode, the elimination race. In this race, the player in last place gradually loses health, and once they run out they stop and are eliminated. There are NO powerups on the track in elimination races, so you really need to be careful! You don't get anything for beating all six tracks' elimination races, but I did it anyway because I wanted to beat the game. These races are about even in difficulty to the Hard races, and sometimes actually were easier. They were a nice break from the normal races, and definitely add something to the game.

Basics: Graphics and Sound

Graphically, Pod 2 looks okay, but somewhat average. While this game is a Dreamcast-exclusive title, it definitely does not do a great job of pushing the hardware. Pod 2 runs at 60fps, but that's its only major graphical positive. The game clearly was made on a pretty low budget, I think. The game runs in the Speed Devils engine, but doesn't seem to have been improved much at all over the visuals in the original Speed Busters, a PC game several years old by the time Pod 2 released in late 2000. Pod 2 looks okay, but should be better. The graphics work, but aren't exactly some of the best graphics in a racing game on the DC. Like many DC games, it looks like it wouldn't have been hard to put this game on the N64 or PSX too. Just cut the car model detail, downgrade the textures and framerate, and it probably would work. However, it is worth mentioning that Pod 2 does run at a solid 60fps, and in progressive-scan too -- it is in those two features where it shows that it's a next-gen game when compared to N64 and PS1 racing games, not its per-frame polygon count. Also, the car models are fairly detailed, and are more complex-looking than in many other games of its time. The car models are reasonably nice, and I like many of the designs. Even so, the graphics could definitely have been better. Also, for the most part the tracks do not have the character of the tracks from the original Pod, artistically. A few manage a nice look, but overall they look blander than Pod tracks do. The whole game is like that, though, of course.

There are a few points in the game which stand out and suggest that this game could have been more, though. Particularly cool is the transparent tunnel section in one track; this game needed more nice-looking graphical elements like that! Sadly, for the most part Pod 2 doesn't even try. I like the tracks in this game for their designs, not for their great graphics, because they don't have them. The low production values really show in the very weak turbo effect and the near-nonexistent weapon effects, for example. Cars which run out of health don't even blow up either, they just stop moving and that's it! Pathetic. As for the music, it's techno, of course. I like techno, but this soundtrack is largely unremarkable, unlike Pod's amazing, addictive soundtrack. This soundtrack is okay, but I forget it as soon as I stop playing, and don't really want to track down a copy of the soundtrack to listen to on my PC, while Pod 1's soundtrack is one of my most-played game soundtracks.



In a race.
Content: The Tracks: The Best Thing About The Game!

Pod 2 has only six tracks, a dramatic decrease from the 16 tracks Pod 1 had. It has no downloadable or add-on courses, either, while the first game had 20 more official downloadable tracks that were made available after its release. This is bad. However, on the positive side, the few tracks that the game does have are long and varied. The track designs are quite good. They feel different from the original game's tracks, but they are very well designed and interesting, and all have multiple routes. This is the one thing that saves the game from complete irrelevance -- the track designs are pretty good, and make the game interesting enough for me to want to play Pod 2 despite its numerous, crippling flaws. The game may have a lot of problems, but track designs are not among them. It's obvious that a lot of attention went into the track designs, and all six are well designed, fun, and challenging. I really like all six of the tracks in this game. They are very well-designed.

In the original Pod, tracks were usually complex. The opening tracks started out simple, but the game quickly got complex, and the downloadable tracks particularly are often quite hard, with dead-ends that seem to be the route forward in some cases. Pod 2's tracks split the difference between Pod's simpler and harder courses. Pod 2's tracks have many shortcuts and alternate routes, which is great. They're not entirely straightforward. However, the tracks are never as challenging as the harder tracks in the first Pod, but that's not all bad; the hardest Pod tracks are VERY frustrating, and I'm not sure if I actually like them. No, I don't have much fun in tracks like Parking, and that's not even Pod's hardest track to memorize. So, having some complexity in the track designs, but without the extremely frustrating designs of the hardest tracks in the first game, is, overall, a good thing.

Pod 2's six tracks come in two styles. Two of the tracks are narrow floating paths with walls or fences right on the sides of the road most of the time. The other four have larger, more open environments, with wider shoulders between the edge of the road and the walls.. Both types of tracks. Another thing I like is that the two narrow-path tracks, Volcano and Oddrock, remind me very much like the road type from the first Pod's intro video. That's awesome, because despite the intro, that type of track wasn't actually present in the original game. That track is one of the best tracks in this game, too. However, all six tracks have similar futuristic-world themes; there are none with the interesting, varied craziness of some of Pod's downloadable tracks. This is a natural casualty of this being a console game with just the base courses, though, since the more unique settings, such as the pirate track, were downloadable. Comparing the settings of the original 16 Pod tracks to Pod 2's, they both have a solid amount of variety.

Of course, there is also a lot less of everything else as well, including tracks and cars. Again, Pod 2 has only 6 tracks. Even if the tracks are pretty good, there are so few of them! And I really miss the addon downloadable tracks the original game had and their interesting settings, too. I know that as a console game from the days before hard drives on consoles that was never going to happen, but a sequel, or improved PC port, with more content would have been great! it's too bad it didn't happen. I can't help but count the addon tracks when I think about Pod's courses, and their varied settings, such as the halloween track, the giant casino, or the beach are pretty cool. Even so, overall, the tracks are one of Pod 2's main strengths. I really like all six of them, and they are a lot of fun to play. I've played this game for more time than you might think mostly because of how much fun the tracks are to race on.

Content: Cars and Story

Pod 2 has a lot fewer cars than the first game, too. There are only eight cars in Pod 2. Pod 1 also had only 8 cars originally, but Ubisoft released a full 44 downloadable addon cars for the game, while Pod 2, of course, has none. Yeah, that's a huge downgrade in comaprison. Also, car designs in Pod 2 are compeltely different from the first game; this connects to the story. Pod 2's concept is that the cars themselves are infected with the Pod virus, or something, and you have to race against them... why? I don't know, the story doesn't go anywhere and has no ending. The intro shows a virus, perhaps a version of the Pod virus from the first game, infecting a car. These alien-infected cars are what you drive. Then the game starts, and that's all there is to the plot. So, instead of cars made from industrial parts and junked vehicles, as the base cars in the first game are, this time the cars look semi-organic. It's kind of a cool look, but makes for completely different types of car designs from the original game. All eight cars are based on this one theme.

I mentioned the story in the last paragraph, but need to expand on that. What's the story beyond that very basic, and worldless, car-infected-by-virus intro? Considering how the first game ended, this one is surely set on a new planet, which I guess has somehow been infected. But after that, what happens? Is this planet also doomed, or not? Unfortunately, the game doesn't attempt to answer that. The first Pod has a pretty interesting ending, but no such luck this time; Pod 2 doesn't have an ending. There is no closure in this story. There's a bit of backstory in the manual, but that's it.

As for car damage, it is, unsurprisingly, global only this time, and cars can be destroyed. In the original Pod, damage affected car performance, but cars were very hard to actually destroy, if you could at all. This time, though, damage has no impact on car performance, but instead just is a standard health bar. Once that shield meter runs out, you lose automatically. It's nothing like the damage system in the first game. I actually really liked the sector-based damage option in Pod, where each of the six parts of your car took damage separately. There's nothing like that this time.

Content: Weapons and Turbo

In the game, there are five kinds of pickups. The most useful are the shield and boost refill powerups. These do as they sound, and make sure to get the shield powerups if you're touching walls much at all! These pickups are the only way to refill your health and boost; this game does not have standard shield-recharge areas on each course, unlike the original Pod which does have them. These refill items take effect instantly and cannot be stored.

The other three pickups you can actually keep are a turbo-boost, a mine, and a shockwave. You can hold three of these items, and can switch between them to use them in any order. The turbo is decent, it gives you a nice long turbo that doesn't drain the meter. The mine and shockwave are much weaker, though. Neither one does much, if any, damage; instead they mostly just stun enemies. It's a somewhat odd design decision. Considering how easy it is to die from just hitting the walls this is somewhat welcome, but it makes the weapons seem even weaker than they already did. The attack wave has its uses, but only in specific situations. This item will stun any cars close in front of you. It can be useful if someone passes you and you want them to get back behind you, or for knocking someone annoyingly fast back a bit if you close in. But really, most of the time neither weapons is needed, and I ignore the weapons more of then than I use them. Most of the time they are minimally useful. Why bother putting in weapons when they are so pathetic? The shield and boost recharge items are vital, though. You take damage every time you bump the walls, and need frequent recharges to survive; tracks do not have healing areas, the only way to heal is via pickups.



This track branches several ways!
Other Modes: Time Trial and Time Display Information

Now, anyone who knows Pod knows that timetrial mode, and best times, were one of the most popular things in the original game. Many people actually preferred comparing best times to actually playing online, I believe. I've always found races more interesting than time trials, but even so, what Pod 2 has for this category is horribly disappointing. You see, in the first game, your current total time, current lap time, and times compared to the cars ahead and behind you are all displayed on the screen. At the end of the race, you see a table showing the exact finishing times for all racers. Because the game is all about how well you drive, and has no items or powerups, times really do matter a lot.

Pod 2 messes this all up with its turbo-boost system, boost powerups, and very limited time information actually displayed on the screen. The effect of turbo should be obvious -- this means that even if you take the same line on multiple laps, whether you have boost power left or not will have a huge impact on your time. There is a strategic element to this that I like, in saving boost for where it is needed, such as on hills, getting through rough terrain, and such, but it does mess with the purity of Pod's racing. I'm kind of torn here, though; I love futuristic racing games, turbo boosts, weapons, and all. But if you're going to have weapons, you need to do a competent job at it. This game fails at that, as I described above. The weapons here are pretty bad. I like the turbo button, but it wouldn't be needed in a game with gameplay as great as the original Pod has; it's only so nice here because of the general gameplay and design downgrade, I think. And of course, it makes accurate lap or race time comparisons much less even. Ah well.

I cannot defend the serious lack of time information in this game one bit, though. This time, the only time information you are shown during the race are your lap times. Total race time is NOT shown. In fact, your total race time isn't even shown at the END of the race! All you see at the end is your best lap, and that's it. Pathetic! How am I supposed to know exactly how well I did compared to the competition when it doesn't bother telling me how they finished compared to me? Pod 2 also doesn't save much, either. Other than the options menu choices, if you have the "online required" stuff unlocked, and whether you have unlocked the Hard and elimination races on each track, the only actual times saved are the top three race and lap times for each course. The problem is, the ONLY way you'll ever see your race time is if you make this table... and even then, you'll only know which one is your new time if you type in a different name each time! That's right, unlike just about every other game ever, Pod 2 gives you no indication of which of the times on the table is your new one. It's a somewhat unforgivable lapse. There are only three times on each table, sure, but it couldn't have been hard!

Other Modes: Multiplayer (and more on the absence of better single player)

Also, because this is a console game, you had to connect to Ubisoft's servers in order to play online. Of course, the servers were turned off a long time ago, so now the game cannot be played online. With Pod 1 you can play online today via LAN emulation or direct IP, but for a console game like this, the only way to play online after it was shut off was for people to have saved all the information the game sent to the server, and replicate what the server did based on that data. On the Dreamcast, this was only done for Phantasy Star Online, so Pod 2, and all other DC games which had online play, are now offline forever. Tragic! Of course, a PC port of this game could have fixed the whole problem... ah well.

As I said earlier, though, the game does have splitscreen, and two player splitscreen races of Pod 2 are pretty fun. This isn't the best racing game, but it is a fun one well worth playing sometimes with friends who like arcadey racing games. Still, the absence of a fuller single player mode is really unfortunate. But with Speed Devils, even though Speed Devils Online Racing is unforgivably limited -- it doesn't even have splitscreen, much less any championships! -- at least with that game, you can go back and play the original Speed Busters (PC), aka Speed Devils (Dreamcast); it has splitscreen and a full championship campaign. Pod 2 has no such equivalent. All it's got are three races to beat on each track, and then you're done. The worst thing about Pod 2 is how differently it plays versus the first game, but the extremely limited single player is second worst.



Beta version screenshot. The simpler interface design is almost better than the final one... it's kind of busy.
Overall

So, on the whole, Pod 2 is a failure. The game has limited content, questionable design decisions, shoddy production values, only a handful hours of play in single player, limited replay value thanks to the lacking time-display information and two player splitscreen only multiplayer, and more. It's all Ubisoft's fault, of course, for putting the game on a console while the fanbase for the original game was on PC, and for changing the game so much by having only a few tracks and cars. However... despite this, I like Pod 2! I really do. Pod 2 is a fun game, and I've come back to it again and again because of that fact. The tracks are few, but they are really well designed, interesting branching tracks. I love the shortcuts and alternate routes in each course. Try them all, they add great variety and some may be faster, I like the differences between the cars, too. The elimination races are a fun challenge as well. But despite how fun it is, the game really does have a lot of issues. The turbo boost is one controversial one. Its addition was and unnecessary attempt to attract console gamers. When boosting the increase in sense of speed barely exists in another sign of the low budget showing through, too. However, as a futuristic racing game fan I like fast games, so I don't mind this as much as most Pod fans do. Still, it doesn't really make the game any better. Clearly on the bad side are the missing story championship mode. Yes, it's great that there are three races to win on each of the six tracks, and it was fun and challenging to win all the races, but for me, that's no match for a good championship mode, and when the previous game had one, its absence is a big problem. The complete lack of an ending is also kind of annoying, and the limited number of tracks as well. Et cetera. I won't repeat every flaw yet again, but they all hurt.

Even so, Pod 2: Speed Zone is a fun game that is absolutely worth playing for fans of arcadey or futuristic racing games. I like it despite itself. It really goes to show that good level designs can go a long, long way! Make some great tracks and you can have a good racing game, even if outside of that the game disappoints. I kind of wanted to like Pod 2, and do. In fact, wanting to play this game was a major factor in why I finally bought a Dreamcast in summer '07 -- Pod 2 is a DC exclusive, and despite hearing a lot about how poor it was, as such as huge fan of the original Pod, I simply had to play it sometime... and that meant getting a Dreamcast, so I did. And once I did, I didn't regret it. Pod 2 is a fun game to play for a while, as you explore the tracks and try to improve your times. Even if it's only a fraction as great as the first Pod is, Pod 2 is de, but it is a good game. It's just a very poor sequel to the amazing original game, and because of that it's a serious disappointment even if it is probably one of my favorite DC racing games. I give it a B; non-fans probably would give it at least one grade level lower or maybe even less (the game got a Metacritic average of only 6.9), but... I can't help it, as much as I hate Pod 2, I like it as well.


Videos

http://www.ign.com/videos/games/pod-speedzone-dc-14680 IGN has some videos. It's on Youtube too, but most either look even worse than IGN's, such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SU-wP6Fac0 or have people talking over them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2gbgVTH_q4 .