Written by: Rik

Date posted: January 31, 2009

Extras:

Although the Colin McRae games are arguably Codemasters’ most successful, we’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the TOCA series on FFG. Despite ropey graphics and slightly iffy handling, the first game nevertheless held our attention for a significant period following its release, with the offer of four-player split-screen racing action often representing a more attractive proposition of a weekend than the alternatives available during our teenage years, namely not talking to girls and not getting into pubs. With such youthful hi-jinks (or low-jinks) becoming an increasingly distant memory, we dredged up the old behemoth (Surely you mean “found the CD and put it in your computer?” – FFG reader) a few years ago and found it surprisingly durable. The shinier sequel, meanwhile, improved things technically, even if the absence of nostalgia-tinged memories meant it would never quite hold a similar place in our affections.

Fans of cloud and rain will be pleased to note that not all of the racing takes place in relentlessly cheery weather.

And that was our lot until Race Driver – on PC at least, with a third game, TOCA World Touring Cars, only securing a console release. In the intervening years, the popularity of the real-life TOCA championship took a hit, and Codemasters wisely decided that basing another game around it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense. While Race Driver does feature the opportunity to race in the British TOCA tour, it’s only one of a number of different championships to feature in the game, and the emphasis this time around is on proving yourself in a number of different racing arenas. Although none of the championships are necessarily high-profile, the variety on offer indicates a shift away from the single-event simulation of the previous games in the series.

This change in approach is further evidenced by the inclusion of a storyline, with the main career mode putting you in the shoes of rookie driver Ryan McKane as he tries to make it in the big bad world of racing. While the usual PR hype somewhat predictably touted the accompanying narrative as a revolutionary step forward for the genre, in reality all it amounts to is a few ropey cut-scenes here and there between races. If the story really did lead the development, it certainly doesn’t show, and it has to be said that it looks suspiciously like the whole thing was tacked on as an afterthought. While there is a certain amount of mileage (no pun intended) in describing the shortcomings of this part of the game, we’ll do that somewhere out of the way (see You Can’t Stop The Thunder) – although the story is awful, it’s also fairly unobtrusive, and you can always skip through the cut-scenes if you don’t like them (which you won’t).

Fortunately, the changes to the racing itself have been more substantial, and for the better. While previous TOCA games have suffered from not knowing whether they were in the arcade or simulation camp, Race Driver seems to be a lot more certain of what it’s trying to do. In the past there was a need to be faithful to the real-life British Touring Car championship by accurately recreating the experience of driving a Ford Mondeo around a track on a soggy day in East Leicestershire. Here, though, freed from the constraints of producing an “event product”, Codemasters have focused on producing a racer with broader appeal. The version of the BTCC that we see in Race Driver, for example, is all sunny days and cheering crowds, a million miles away from the dreary reality.

Something’s gone wrong here.

From the outset, Race Driver is set up as more of an arcade game than it’s predecessors. Races now come in manageable bite-size chunks of three or five laps, there’s no qualifying, and each championship has been reduced to a handful of meetings. While this may be disappointing for the hardcore motorsport enthusiast, for everyone else, including the most casual of racing fans, it makes the game an altogether more attractive proposition. Although the system of only being able to save every two races has annoyingly been retained, it’s now a game that you can play in short bursts rather than spending a couple of hours slogging around Brands Hatch only to find yourself in a gravel trap on the penultimate lap of the second race, rendering your efforts for the entire session completely redundant.

On the track, the handling is now fairly forgiving – especially early on, when you can throw your car around with gay abandon. For those with experience of the previous games in the series where a slight nod of the head could, at the right moment, cause your car to unexpectedly lurch from its racing line and towards certain race-ruining doom, this will come as a welcome relief, and as a result the threat of joypad/monitor destruction is reduced considerably. Slight mistakes no longer cause irretrievable damage to your chances (or your car), and brief forays onto the turf can be recovered without sending you into a spin.

That’s not to say that Race Driver is easy. It’s certainly more arcade-y than its predecessors, but at the same time it’s hardly Outrun, and you won’t be powersliding around any corners with the throttle on full. In fact, if you get it badly wrong at any stage, it’s still likely to cost you – make no mistake, you need to practice on a track before you give it a go for real. You still need to slow down for corners, and you can’t slam on the brakes, either, or you’ll risk locking them, and that really does f*ck things up for you.

Still, instead of battling with the car, the real challenge is the racing. With no opportunity to qualify and only a handful of laps to battle your way to the front, the more forgiving handling allows players to adopt the aggressive driving style that becomes increasingly necessary to achieve success. Nudges and scrapes are also an obligatory part of the game, and while a damage model is present and correct, the developers have sensibly decided against implementing a penalty system for getting unduly physical with opponents. Far from resulting in a consequence-free destruction derby, this allows the occasional collision that inevitably comes about when racing with AI drivers – attempt anything too crazy, though, and it’ll end up hurting you more than it does them.

Speaking of the AI, it isn’t perfect, but unlike many racers you do actually get a sense of racing against other drivers rather than a bunch of interchangeable drones that stick loyally to the same racing line. Instead of taking the lead in the knowledge that you’ll retain it so long as you don’t make any serious errors of judgement, you’re often forced to fight off the advances of the cars behind. Bizarrely, there’s no rear-view mirror, so instead you’re warned of the presence of opponents via an ominous red arrow appearing behind your car – and to get a better look, you’re forced to hit the ‘reverse view’ button, which normally confirms your fears that the AI is, indeed, catching you.

After each championship, one of your opponents challenges you to a one-off race in a road car. They’re bloody hard though.

Personally, this strikes me as Race Driver‘s greatest achievement. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the skill of racing is as much about holding your nerve under pressure from your opponents as it is about being able to put in a decent lap. While the attempt to provide a cinematic storyline in the game falls rather flat, there is certainly something quite movie-like about the racing itself – the frantic checking of the reverse view, swerving to block off your opponents, the feeling that a slight lapse in concentration could put you back a few places – which could make you at least imagine that you’re in a below-par film about racing like Days of Thunder or Driven. There’s a real feeling of being under pressure, and there are times when you genuinely wonder, with sweat forming on your brow, how soon it is before you crack.

Your opponents genuinely seem to react to what you’re doing, too, not only when trying to pass or block you, but also when there’s a collision. Virtually every racing game released in the past few years seems to have made some kind of bold claim or other about the AI drivers having different personalities, or that they ‘hold a grudge’ against you if you collide with them during a race, but here it does seem to be true. If you nudge an opponent, you can be damn sure he’ll repay the favour as soon as he possibly can. Still, we did say that the AI wasn’t perfect, so it seems only fair to also point out that your opponents’ cars do seem to do some quite daft things at times, and in particular have a habit of braking excessively for corners.

We’ve spoken in very general terms about the racing thus far, so it’s worth mentioning that the various championships offer an almost embarrassing selection of different races and vehicle types. Unlike later games in the series, this doesn’t extend to off-road or truck racing, but within the realms of modified road cars racing around tarmac, this is about as much variety as you could ask for. Although, as we’ve said, the handling of early vehicles is fairly forgiving, as you progress you’ll have more slippery beasts (the big American cars like the Corvette, for example) to grapple with, and if you don’t treat them right you’ll end up facing the wrong way watching the whole field overtake you. The tracks vary, too, from NASCAR-style ovals to tricksy street-circuits with hairpin bends. Oh, and for those who miss the old Mondeo vs. Vectra action, there’s a championship where everyone drives a Saab. Frankly, it’s got pretty much everything.

What’s the plural of Saab? Is it Saabs? Or just Saab?

Everything, that is, except an amazing storyline. Which in a way is disappointing, because we were promised one. And in most games the point of having a story is to provide a reason to keep on playing even though things are getting tough – just because you want to get to the end, to finish, to see what happens. In an ideal world, that’s what Race Driver could have been. Sadly, it isn’t, and like the vast majority of racing games, you just kind of play until you get stuck, or you get bored, or you just can’t be bothered any more. There are more hours in there, you’ve just seen everything the game has to offer and you don’t want to see it through. That’s how my time with most racing games ends, and it was the same with Race Driver. It doesn’t break new ground.

That said, it does represent a giant leap forward for the series. Codemasters have really gone back to the drawing board and produced a top-notch arcade racer which is both accessible and challenging. There’s enough content in there to keep you going for ages, and even if you don’t see it through to the end, you’ll still get to experience a wide variety of vehicles and tracks that puts most other racers to shame. It’s certainly not perfect, and I wouldn’t like to say whether it’s something we’ll all still be playing in 5-10 years’ time, but in the context of the vaguely old-ish racers we cover here on FFG, it certainly ranks as one of the best.