Codemasters is currently hard at work applying the finishing touches to TOCA Race Driver 2, the sequel to Pro Race Driver, and we were recently invited to the company's UK headquarters to get hands-on with the game and to decide for ourselves if Codemasters' most ambitious motorsports title to date is living up to expectations. The good news is that the game boasts more than enough improvements over its predecessor to make it worth a look for any racing game fan; the bad news is that while the game is by no means easy, it does appear to have been dumbed down in certain areas.
When Pro Race Driver was released, it attracted as much attention for its innovative career mode--in which you assumed the role of a rookie driver named Ryan McKane--as it did for its excellent racing gameplay. McKane's story was well written and well presented through brief cutscenes and allowed you to race for different teams in championships all over the world. Your path through the game was determined largely by which of the team drive offers you accepted ahead of each season and by whether or not you then managed to meet that team's criteria for success. This time around the career mode is structured quite differently.
When you load TOCA Race Driver 2 for the first time, you'll quickly find yourself behind the wheel of a GT40 midway through the final lap of a race. This baptism by fire essentially serves as the game's training mode and allows you to familiarize yourself with the game's controls while your chief mechanic, Scotty, encourages you to experiment with the radio. At the end of the lap you're treated to the first of the game's well-presented first-person cutscenes, and then it's up to you to decide which of the two championships available to you at the start of your career you wish to compete in. These choices no longer come in the form of offers from teams, and you unfortunately have no say in which teams you drive for; rather, there are potential drives arranged for you by an attractive blonde agent who is eager to represent you.
Your objectives for any given championship in the game vary somewhat, just as they did in Pro Race Driver. In the early days you'll primarily be concerned with winning prize money so that your career can continue. Later in the game, though, you'll be competing for lucrative drives against rivals, so your objectives will involve making sure you look good and perform well next to them. As was the case in Pro Race Driver, all of the cutscenes in the game are brief so as not to interfere with your racing, and they definitely make the whole game more absorbing--particularly since you now play as yourself rather than as a character.
Though TOCA Race Driver 2 features enough different events to qualify as a racing collection in itself, as opposed to merely an addition to your racing collection, the game's career mode does feel like a dumbed-down version of its predecessor's in some respects. For starters, you no longer get to do practice or qualifying laps ahead of races. How your position on the starting grid is determined in TOCA Race Driver 2 is anybody's guess--ours being that it's random or perhaps loosely based on your previous performances. This wouldn't be so bad if you were racing in similar vehicles all of the time, but given that you might have just finished a season of truck racing and are sitting in an open-wheel Formula Ford for the first time, it'll often take you a couple of attempts at the first race of a season just to get used to your new vehicle's characteristics.
In Pro Race Driver, not only did you have practice and qualifying options available to you, but many of the teams required you to do a test lap in their car before they'd let you race in it. There are also no options to customize the setups of the vehicles in the game, whereas Pro Race Driver gave you the option to tweak your car's handling and performance ahead of each race. With all that said, though, this game isn't a walk in the park by any means, and even those of you who have completed Pro Race Driver should find the game reasonably challenging.
Even getting off the starting grid can be challenging in TOCA Race Driver 2. You need to hit the gas at the right time and with the right amount of pressure if you don't want to lose positions before the first corner. Subtleties such as the start vary a great deal between the different vehicles in the game, and while the start can seem like a really big deal in some of the street and circuit racing championships, they're much less of an issue in the rally and rolling-start stock car events, for example. The other drivers in the game exhibit behavior that's even more realistic than that in the series' previous entries, and although the drivers definitely make fewer spectacular errors than in Pro Race Driver, you really do get the feeling that every single one of them is out to win the race. You'll see opponents braking late for corners, drafting each other, losing speed as they drift off the circuit, and, of course, losing it completely on occasion. These races are most definitely not a Gran Turismo-style car parade.
As you'd expect, the handling of the numerous vehicles in TOCA Pro Race Driver 2 varies a great deal, but they all have one thing in common: complete analog control. Whether you're accelerating, braking, or steering, the amount of pressure that you apply to the button or thumbstick determines how your vehicle responds. This might sound obvious, but the analog control system is particularly evident here, and those of you who think of your gas and brake pedals as either on or off with nothing in between will definitely want to refine your technique for certain events.
The same goes for steering. It's possible to make it around corners tip-tapping the thumbstick all the way, but if you can master the art of using the stick the same way you would a steering wheel, you'll definitely notice an improvement in your lap times. Mistakes on the track are invariably punished by the loss of a position or three, but unlike its predecessors, this game does allow you to restart any race in a championship quickly and easily. The restart option makes the game slightly less challenging, but it's a welcome addition given that a whole season's worth of good results could otherwise be lost with a single error.
We're currently around 30 percent of the way through the career mode in TOCA Race Driver 2, and to date we've noticed only one actual problem with the game--opposing cars moving jerkily on one or two of the oval tracks during 20-vehicle stock car races. The problem, which will no doubt be rectified ahead of the game's release, was similar to the lag that you might have experienced previously with online games--the irony being that we didn't experience any problems at all when we enjoyed a couple of Xbox Live races with members of the Codemasters development team.
Because the AI of the drivers in TOCA Race Driver 2 is so believable, our brief Xbox Live experience with the game actually wasn't all that different from the single-player game. The mentalities of the game's developers and many of the people you'll be playing against online are sure to be quite different, though, and the potential for players to take each other out of races by deliberately crashing into them seems certain to be an issue. It doesn't take long for damage in the game to have an adverse effect on your vehicle's handling, and we suspect that Xbox Live players looking for a race rather than a demolition derby will be making a point of adding like-minded racers to their friends list when the game arrives in stores next month.