Written by: Rik

Date posted: December 13, 2004

TOCA’s graphics are most impressive during night races.

Ah, now this one brings back memories. And although most of those memories are of me speeding to victory while my friends/opponents attempted to smash each other into the scenery, we still had quite a bit of fun with this a few years back. With the appeal of Puma waning, the lure of four-way split-screen racing, coupled with easy access to a monster PC and some daisy-chained Sidewinders proved too much to resist and your truly was hastily dispatched to the nearest Electronics Boutique to pick up a copy. Several late nights and childish gravel-pit scraps later, it was a firmly established favourite, even prompting racing cynic and strategy nut Stoo to throw logic out of the window and stump up the cash for the sequel.

The game is based on the British Touring Car Championship, a largely dreary affair which garnered mild public interest over here a few years ago, mainly because it was the most exciting sport the BBC could afford to feature on Saturday Grandstand. Essentially it’s the poor man’s Formula One, with the finely tuned racing machines on offer replaced by a selection of standard family saloons. It was vaguely watchable in a can’t-reach-the-remote kind of way: the same drivers didn’t always win, there was usually quite a bit of overtaking, and you were guaranteed an unsavoury collision or two. Still, it wasn’t something exactly crying out for a gaming franchise, and it has to be said that if Codemasters had knocked out any old toss, no-one would have bought it purely for the opportunity to race Mondeo against Vectra.

HONDA vs. VAUXHALL! No, it doesn’t get the pulse racing, does it?

In fact, not only is it Mondeo vs. Vectra, it’s Accord vs. Laguna and Volvo S40 vs. Primera, all against a backdrop of dull grey skies on tracks in the middle of nowhere. Lucky, then, that TOCA happens to be a pretty good game. First of all, it drives like a serious racer should, and if you want to get anywhere, you’re going to have to do things properly. Not only does this involve braking, you also have to do so gently and in plenty of time while taking the correct racing line all the while. Making it all the way around the track without crashing, usually seen as an achievement worthy of victory in more arcadey racers, is no guarantee of success, and frequently you put in decent laps only to qualify halfway down the field. TOCA also features a fully functional damage model, which means that when you collide with other cars, it matters, and frequently you come off worse after attempting a rash manoeuvre. It’s a game that rewards practice, and after experiencing untold frustration at first, the success that follows is all the more rewarding.

So, TOCA drives like a simulation. Elsewhere in the game however, there are distinct nods to the arcade genre. The most obvious of these is that when you begin the game, only two tracks are available to you. The rest have to be ‘unlocked’ by achieving certain targets in Championship mode. This would be fair enough if the game broke you in gently, but the demands of the first two tracks are a little unreasonable to say the least. For a start, they’re fairly long and tough tracks (Donnington and Silverstone, circuit fans) and you’ll have your work cut out to finish where you need to. However, the format of the TOCA Championship dictates that two races are held at each venue, so you need to put together a couple of consistent drives to progress – in this case literally, because the game won’t let you save between races at the same venue. So after making it to the end of a race in a decent position, teeth gritted and thumbs bleeding, you’re thrown straight back in for another round of qualifying and then another race. If you mess up the second one, you have to do it all again.

You get some information about the cars, but nothing useful.

For the more sensitive gamer, this can all prove a little too much, and certainly breakable plates, mugs or glasses should be kept well away from the PC while racing. Even then, your joypad may still bear the brunt of your frustration, especially in the ‘screwing up the second race’ scenario described above. Even ignoring the levels of skill and concentration required, it can still take a long time to get through a race if you know what you’re doing, especially if you select the full-length championship. As a result, most gamers will probably opt for the shorter option, reducing the strain of the double race, but meaning that mistakes on the track prove more costly, with less time available to regain lost ground.

So, black marks for the unlocking system, then. Another arcade oddity is the fact that you don’t have a rear-view mirror at your disposal while racing; this means that you rarely have the chance to block off an aggressive move by an opponent until it’s too late and they pass you, or worse, shunt you into a gravel trap. You’re also given very little information about the available vehicles’ performance, and once you select one there’s no option to tinker with the setup in any way. No complaints from me here; I’ve never been one for messing around with gear ratios, but there’s no denying that the rest of the game seems inconsistent with the realistic feel of the driving model.

Fortunately many of the most frustrating aspects of the game’s structure can be bypassed by getting one or more friends to join you in a multiplayer session. One of TOCA‘s strong points is a split-screen mode that supports up to four players, something not offered by many other racing games before or since. While four people on one PC may sound ridiculous, if a couple of joypads are readily available it really does work quite well. Of course, it may place too great a strain on some machines, but seeing as TOCA was released quite a few years ago now, most PCs should be able to cope with it. If your computer can’t hack it, or you simply don’t have three friends who’d be interested in this sort of thing, then there’s still some fun to be had with fewer players. However, bear in mind that there are no AI drivers on show here, so a two-player race could get lonely if there’s a significant difference between your driving abilities.

Vorsprung durch technik won’t help you here!

If you manage to work through the limitations imposed by TOCA‘s arcade stylings, you’ll also find that single-player can be a lot of fun, too. It has to be said, however, that time has not been kind to this game. The graphics, always slightly iffy, now look distinctly blocky and basic. TOCA does employ 3D acceleration, but it’s rarely noticeable save for a few decent headlight and weather effects now and again. And while the game still drives well, the handling of the cars is particularly unforgiving, with an involuntary tap of the direction pad at the wrong moment often enough to send your car spinning towards the grass verge. Generally, you never feel totally in control of your vehicle, and as a result you rarely dare push your car very hard: incident-free laps are often the result of a conservative approach which rarely makes for decent times. Qualifying well is tricky; that you are still able to do well in races stems from limitations in the opposing drivers’ AI. The race leaders frequently get hopelessly tied up while lapping the stragglers and also-rans at the back, giving you plenty of opportunity to make up time and pass the lot of them with ease.

So, nostalgic memories of late-night multiplayer aside, is TOCA worth recommending above countless other more recent racers? On the one hand, despite all of its limitations, dodgy graphics and some of the most frustrating moments ever experienced as a gamer, I spent more than a couple of seriously late nights engrossed in races while in the process of replaying TOCA for this review. On the other hand, there’s the fact that TOCA spawned a very successful sequel that also meets the requirements for inclusion on FFG. Without pre-empting the probable review (I’m staring at my recently acquired copy of TOCA 2 right now as it happens) it’s safe to say that while our rose-tinted spectacles will always love the original, logic dictates that we bow to the irresistible force of progress.