2004 was most certainly a choice year for gaming, but that said, the number of 2004 games that are finding their way onto the PlayStation Portable in 2006 is just a little disconcerting. With updates of NBA Ballers and Monster Hunter already out, and an updated version of Def Jam: Fight for NY coming up, it's like the PSP is living in some kind of bizarre time warp. Codemasters is now in on the fray, too, releasing Race Driver 2006, an updated port of the company's great 2004 racer, TOCA Race Driver 2. The thing that makes Race Driver 2006 extra weird, however, is that Codemasters put out TOCA Race Driver 3 on consoles and the PC earlier this year, making the debut of its predecessor on another platform months later a bit odd. But nonetheless, Race Driver 2006, despite its largely recycled career mode, feels like a mostly new game, thanks to the addition of an all-new single-player mode, some new cars and tracks, and simulation racing that still feels tight and authentic on the PSP.
To be fair, TOCA Race Driver 3 wasn't exactly a gigantic leap forward for the series--more of a great sequel that just happened to add more new content and some driving-model tweaks. So Race Driver 2006, despite being based on an older game, doesn't feel archaic in any way. If you're unfamiliar with the TOCA series, then all these comparisons probably don't mean much to you. All you need to know is that the Race Driver games have all been about bringing the largest variety of racing genres imaginable into one game and simulating them all as best as one game possibly could. Though not as deep as something like the Gran Turismo series, the TOCA series has always had lots of content to play around with, and the racing is inarguably fun, no matter which type of car you choose. Race Driver 2006 is no different.
Apart from all of the car and track content from TOCA Race Driver 2--which included everything from Ford GT racing to IndyCar to Super Trucks--Race Driver 2006 includes 10 new tracks (such as the Nashville Super Speedway and Shanghai), and 16 new cars (including the likes of the Pontiac Firebird 400, Dodge Charger, and Gemballa GTR 750 EVO). And like its console brethren, Race Driver 2006 handles each type of racing deftly. Each car type handles noticeably different. Big, hulking machines are slow to accelerate, slow to turn, and when they build up enough momentum, tough to control. Conversely, open-wheel cars are squirrelly and incredibly quick.
You definitely feel the differences in each car as you play, and what's more, the PSP's analog stick controls each of the cars wonderfully. Many previous PSP racers have suffered from noticeable analog-sensitivity issues when trying to emulate proper steering, but that's not the case in Race Driver. You might notice a bit of floatiness in the handling of some cars that ought not be there, but this was an issue in the console versions, too, so it's not the fault of the system controls. The great damage-modeling system from the original game is available in this version, too, registering damage to five specific areas of your car and ultimately affecting how your car drives depending on the damage each section receives. You bang your car head-on into a wall, and you'll do some serious engine and gearbox damage, slowing you down. You smash the side of an open-wheel racer into something, and one of those wheels might just come flying off. One thing you might miss on the PSP version of the game is the analog acceleration, especially when coming off the line at the start of a race. To counteract the lack of analog buttons, Codemasters has included a sort of build-up acceleration system that slowly builds your accelerator before maxing out. Obviously, this isn't a perfect solution, since you can't half-gas it around turns or slowly drive off the infield after a spin out without at least a little tire slippage. But still, it's a good solution to a system-specific problem.
One thing experienced TOCA players might notice about Race Driver 2006 is that it's not nearly as difficult as the console and PC games tend to be. That's not to say that later races in the game don't provide plenty of challenge, but in the console games, the opponent artificial intelligence could get pretty brutal, as could the precision of the driving mechanics. All that has apparently been toned down a bit for the PSP game, as it's not so tough to get sizable leads and easily beat certain challenges. Again, the game can be difficult in spots, but don't expect nearly the level of cutthroat racing you would have seen in earlier iterations of the game.
TOCA Race Driver 2's full career mode is back in Race Driver 2006 and appears basically untouched. It's a story-based affair where you play as a rookie driver on the come-up in the international racing scene. By your side is a Scottish racing-team manager and an ambitious young sports agent. Interactions with these characters play out through CG cutscenes that play between specific races. The story is a neat way to put you through the paces of a typical racing career, with you entering lots of different international events and essentially sampling practically every type of racing along the way, all the while getting some nice bits of story as you go. Of course, you'll only have limited choices in terms of which races you can pick as you progress, and you're always designated a specific car for a race, but that's how the TOCA series has always been, and you probably won't even mind the lack of choice after a few races.
On top of the career mode, you'll also be able to engage in a brand-new single-player mode called the Trans-World Cup. This mode is basically a series of race-based challenges, including standard races, rival races, time trials, and the like. There are even some unique challenges, such as no-damage races and races that challenge you to maintain an average speed count throughout an entire lap. Few of these challenges take much time to play through, which actually makes this mode an ideal fit for a handheld game. They're all pretty fun challenges, if not the most varied, and you ought to find yourself oddly addicted to this clever new mode.
The one thing Race Driver 2006 does not have that its predecessor did is online play. There is ad hoc wireless play for up to 12 players, but every racer would need to have a copy of the game to use this functionality. Fortunately, there is also a game-share option for up to four players. The game-sharing feature only gives you access to a limited number of race types, and the loading times are exceptionally longer than anything in the offline game, but it is entirely functional beyond those caveats. The absence of online is kind of a bummer, given how great of an online game TOCA 2 was, but there is at least a good list of multiplayer features to be had in the game.
The PSP definitely has more than its share of highly attractive-looking racers, but Race Driver 2006 has to be considered in the upper echelon of that group. The game doesn't look like a dumbed-down TOCA 2. The car models are still extremely realistic-looking, with plenty of model detail and nice damage effects. The tracks don't look much lower-res than they did on the PlayStation 2, and despite all the vehicular and environmental detail, the frame rate holds up throughout the game with practically no fluctuations whatsoever. The camera options are a little more limited than what you might expect, in that there's a bumper-cam view, an internal view, and only one behind-the-car camera view (and it's pretty up-close and personal). The ability to zoom out of the behind-the-car view a little further would have been nice, but as it is, it's a workable view. The audio is basically the same as it was in the console versions, with great-sounding race effects and voice acting, as well as a groovy in-game soundtrack that's peculiarly pleasant to listen to. But if the mellow grooves aren't your thing, you'll be happy to hear that Race Driver 2006 supports the system's custom soundtrack feature.
If you already own TOCA Race Driver 2, and even TOCA Race Driver 3, Race Driver 2006 might be a tougher sell for you since all it really offers beyond what you already have is the Trans-World Cup mode and some additional cars and tracks. But that said, being able to take TOCA 2 with you on the go in a form that feels just about as good as it was on consoles is a great achievement, and that it is the only truly simulation-minded racing game on the PSP makes it that much more appealing.