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Have you ever discovered an old game and then after looking up information about it, you feel like you’re the only one whose never heard of it? For me, POD is one of those games. POD: Planet of Death. In my defense, growing up I never had a PC that could run the latest and greatest games so I relied on consoles. Developed and published by Ubisoft, POD is a racing game released for PC in February, 1997 and it was one of the first games to utilize MMX technology. Evidently, POD is a classic for a lot of people and somehow I’ve never even heard of it until recently. I bought it on GOG, specifically POD Gold which is an extended version of the original game that includes more tracks and vehicles. Since this is an older game, I consulted the game’s PCGamingWiki page and used a guide I found on Steam to make sure I run it properly on Windows 10. I did install the latest nGlide wrapper and PodHacks which is a community fix that resolves some compatibility issues on modern systems. If you’re interested in installing additional tracks and cars, I would suggest you check out the CDPatcher package but beware that installing too many of either can cause the game to crash.
There is actually a plot in POD and it’s really only conveyed in the opening and ending cut scenes. After a mining accident unleashes a deadly virus on the planet Io, there’s a mass exodus and only one seat remains on the rescue ship. The remaining population must compete in a racing championship using vehicles built from parts from abandoned factories and forgotten equipment and the winner gets the seat. These people are literally racing for their lives. The plot isn’t very in depth or anything but it is a nice setup for the game’s unique atmosphere and aesthetic.
POD is purely an arcade racing game. It’s not a simulation racing game, it’s not a combat racing game, and there’s no crazy gimmick when it comes to the gameplay. The ultimate goal is to cross the finish line before your opponents in each race. POD does include a physics system. For example, vehicles will slow down when driving uphill and they’ll speed up when driving downhill. And the vehicles have a good sense of weight. Remember, this game was released in 1997 so that was pretty cool for the time. The controls are quite simple. You can accelerate, brake, turn left and right, and shift if you choose the manual transmission when selecting your vehicle. POD includes three difficulty modes – Easy, Normal, and Hard – and the latter two force damage to be enabled. On Easy and Normal, you can select which type of damage system you want enabled – Global or Sector. You can disable damage altogether on the Easy difficulty and on Hard, you’re forced to play with Sector damage. Vehicles will take damage by crashing into things and bumping into each other and it does affect their performance. With Global damage enabled, your entire vehicle is affected by damage, similar to a typical health system if you will. With Sector damage enabled, certain parts of the vehicle can be damaged independently. You can repair your vehicle by driving through the repair stands found on the tracks.
POD includes numerous single player and multiplayer game modes, including split screen, but I didn’t get to try the multiplayer. In the Single Race mode, you can race with any vehicle and on any track of your choosing. Championship is where you basically race for your life and if you win, you get the seat on the rescue ship. You compete in sixteen races and your finishing position in a race determines how many points you earn. The vehicle with the most points at the end of the championship wins or I guess you could say “survives”. The game likes to tease you with a save button after every race during a Championship but you can only save after four races which isn’t exactly clear in-game. There’s a Random Championship mode where the game determines the parameters and you can also set up a Custom Championship with however many tracks you want and in whatever order you want. In the Random Cars mode, the game will select a vehicle for you and in the Random Tracks mode, the game chooses four random tracks for you to race on. Time Attack is a mode focusing on setting record times and contains three sub-modes – 3 Laps, Free Run where there’s no limit to the number of laps, and Ghost Mode where you race a ghost.
You can only select from eight active vehicles but you can replace them with any extras installed. All vehicles have different stats in parameters like acceleration, brakes, grip, handling, and speed. And you can change these parameters by redistributing the points. You can save your customized parameters and even test the vehicles before making a selection. Now the opponent AI is quite aggressive and one is usually always up your ass unless you’re in last place. They’ll bump or ram into you and sometimes when they pass you, they seem to gain a significant lead. The difficulty does make a difference and races are challenging but fair on Normal and excessively difficult on Hard. I would say memorizing the tracks is the key to winning. Driving properly also helps. Crashing or getting turned around will often result in losing your position or the race but if you know what’s around the next corner and can turn around that corner without an issue, you’ll probably be okay. Although, opponents can still pass you even if you don’t screw up. I found that referencing the radar on the HUD to see if opponents are approaching is a big help. Getting in front of them can stop them from passing you. They may ram into you causing damage, but you’ll maintain your position. And remember, damage does affect a vehicle’s performance. In the Championship and Random Track modes, damage does carry over from race to race so it would be wise to repair your vehicle before finishing a race.
There are sixteen tracks that come with the base game and POD Gold adds an extra sixteen bringing the total to thirty two. Each track varies in appearance, theme, and length. You’ll race on roads, through tunnels, you can drive off jumps, and some tracks include shortcuts or branching paths, many of which lead to repair stands. Some tracks are longer than others and the shorter ones will have you completing more laps. There are objects on some tracks that can slow you down like cones, barrels, and crates, your vehicle will slide on certain surfaces, and you will have to avoid obstacles from time to time. While the tracks are certainly visually interesting, some of them don’t make it clear where you need to go which can sometimes be frustrating. Some tracks include a lot of twists and turns, some include numerous dead ends, and it can be very easy to fall way behind and never be able catch up. This is why I think track memorization is the key to winning because whenever I knew the track layout, I usually didn’t have a problem staying in the lead or at least staying in the top three positions. I found that staying behind an opponent can be helpful if it’s your first time racing on a specific track since they know where to go so you can follow them to learn the track. Also, the Single Race and Time Attack modes are great for practicing and learning the track layouts. There are some tracks where it appears like there’s an alternate path but it really isn’t and it can be very easy to miss certain turns or wind up at a dead end, forcing you to turn around.
When it comes to the visual presentation, POD may just be the most visually interesting racing game I have ever laid my eyes on. And I think that’s what makes POD so great. Everything appears very sci-fi and alien. Everything from the vehicles to the tracks looks unique and interesting. Every track looks different and it really feels like your racing in another world. The vehicles look like something out of a Mad Max movie but more abstract and they will show visible deformities when damaged. You’ll see moving mechanisms in the backgrounds, there’s flashing lights, and some tracks appear technologically advanced while others appear more like space wastelands. Many of them convey a neat dystopian look. Some tracks appear to be set in urban areas, others in industrial-looking areas, the Cocoon track has what looks like giant insects in the background, and the environmental diversity is just incredible. The game does look dated and I only have a couple of gripes with the visual presentation. Pop-in is rampant and I don’t like the HUD at all. Maybe it just didn’t age well. The HUD is very informative but everything is so big. Too big. It can sometimes be distracting. Thankfully, you can disable different parts of the HUD but you cannot resize it which is unfortunate. I also realized the graphical options button was disabled and read that you can’t change them in the 3DFX version of the game which is what the GoG version is apparently. Now POD includes one fourteen minute song heard during gameplay and that explains why I thought there were multiple songs that all sound like they blended together or are just way too similar. It’s a techno-like song that does fit in with the game’s unique aesthetic. The sound effects are generic by today’s standards. You can hear the vehicles moving along the tracks and the sounds of typical bumps and bangs when they crash into something. On the technical side, the game is a bit buggy. In my experience, alt+tabbing crashed the game every time. I added too many extra vehicles once and that also caused the game to crash. I did notice that vehicles will sometimes clip through parts of the environments but I didn’t encounter anything game breaking or that would ruin the experience. On one track I noticed a black portion of the sky and from what I understand this is a known issue when running the game in higher resolutions.
I enjoyed my time with POD. Honestly, it’s the visual presentation that really carries it. If you strip away the game’s unique presentation and aesthetic, I think it would be a very generic racing game. It may still have been great for its time but I don’t think it would have aged as well. The look and feel is what makes POD unique and I would say that’s still the case today. There’s plenty of futuristic racing games out there but none that really have an aesthetic quite like POD. And the fact that it’s moddable is pretty cool, even back when it released. If you know how to create vehicles and tracks for POD, there’s basically an infinite amount of replay value here. I do wish there was actual stat tracking and more customization options when it comes to setting up races outside of the Championship modes. But overall, POD is a fantastic racing game. The challenge can sometimes dip into the unfair category but as long as you have the track layout down and know how to handle your vehicle, you can definitely win and winning a challenging race always feels rewarding.
POD offers plenty of content and plenty of ways to experience that content thanks to the numerous game modes, vehicles, and tracks. It’s fast-paced, it can be challenging, and there’s plenty of reasons to keep coming back. I would absolutely recommend POD to fans of the racing genre. Even today, POD is still fun to play and there’s plenty to see and admire thanks to its unique aesthetic. It may not be as fast-paced as F-Zero or Wipeout or include a gameplay gimmick like anti-gravity vehicles or weaponry to blow away or slow down opponents but it is fun and rewarding. POD is pure racing. It’s got interesting vehicles with customizable parameters, plenty of diverse tracks, each with their own look and feel, and it can be modded which is always a plus. I would love to see a some kind of remaster of this if only for proper widescreen support and bug fixes. Until then, we have to rely on tweaking the original to enjoy it on modern systems. And, thankfully, POD Gold can be acquired from GoG for about six bucks. Definitely check it out.