Racing games on the Nintendo DS have been hit-and-miss. Most of them haven't been much to get excited about, but the handheld has seen its share of good racers. Thanks to Codemasters' Race Driver: Create & Race, you can add another one to the "good" category. The game is chock-full of content, and most importantly, it's fun.
Race Driver has a large number of game modes, but you'll probably want to start in the world tour. Not only does world tour ease you into the game with a series of races, but you'll also earn credits to unlock new content. The championship circuits here are similar to many other racing games and are broken down by car type. The game features a large number of vehicles from manufacturers such as Nissan, Audi, and Honda. You participate in a series of races and earn points based on where you finished. In the early races, your goal is simply finish near the top. If you do so, you'll unlock another series of races, either on the same tier or the tier above your current category. If you win the series, you'll earn credits that can be used to unlock a variety of items.
Up to this point, Race Driver may sound like a simulation, but once you hit the track you'll find it's arcadelike. The cars (and even big rigs) accelerate quickly, can handle tight turns with ease, and are very responsive. That's not to say that each vehicle feels the same. You can easily tell the difference between a peppy Japanese compact and a big American muscle car with rear-wheel drive. The game does a nice job of conveying a strong sense of speed thanks to its fast and consistent frame rate--it's amazing to see a DS racing game move so smoothly. In fact, sometimes it feels a bit too fast; the somewhat grainy visuals make it difficult to see approaching turns. You can refer to a map on the bottom screen, but trying to alternate between two screens while dealing with seven other drivers isn't easy.
Your opposition does not do you any favors when taking turns in a pack or pretty much any other time. The artificial intelligence is forgiving for the first few series, but it quickly cranks things up a notch and becomes totally unwilling to share the road. AI-controlled cars take intelligent lines around the track, which is good, but they also could care less if you're occupying the space they want to be in. This means that if you're in a tight pack, you're going to get knocked around like crazy. Not only does this make it difficult to drive, but it also damages your car. There are damage indicators for your gears, steering, suspension, engine, and tires on the bottom screen. If you sustain enough damage, then your car will start to drive poorly and you'll have to take a pit stop. Reckless driving can also be penalized and is indicated by a series of flags. Damage and penalties are all well and good, but you're the only one who ever seems to have to deal with the consequences of swapping paint, so by the end of a race you're fighting to keep your car on the track and the AI cars are zooming merrily around, seemingly just fine. They never seem to get in trouble for slamming into you--you always seem to take the blame.
Even with these issues, the racing is fun and intense. There are 24 licensed vehicles and 32 tracks on which to race, so you won't be getting bored anytime soon. Once you do master the world tour, you can head to the pro tour, which is even more difficult because it forces you to drive with a manual transmission. There's also a simulation option where you can participate in a free race or a time trial. Additionally, you can take part in a number of challenges to improve your skills. Here you'll be put through events that test your ability to brake, steer, follow a racing line, maneuver through cones, and pass other cars.
If you need a break from the rigors of racing, you can get creative by customizing your car or creating your own racetracks. The car-customization options aren't particularly deep, but you can change your ride's colors and apply a number of decals to the hood, roof, and doors. The track editor lets you easily drag and drop pieces of track onto a grid to create your own racing paradise. It's easy to use thanks to the touch-screen capabilities of the DS, and you can finish a basic course in just a matter of minutes.
But wait, there's more. Race Driver features an impressive multiplayer component. Even with a single cartridge, you can play local multiplayer with up to four players and choose from a large number of courses and vehicles. There are even AI-controlled drivers on the course. The game features an online component as well, but we were never able to find anyone to race against to try it out. Assuming that you can find someone to race, there are a wide number of options to choose from, and you can even bring your created tracks online.
It's obvious that the developer's focus was on getting Race Driver to run well, not on making it look pretty. As mentioned earlier, the frame rate is fast and ultrasmooth, even with the occasional smoke and dirt effect onscreen. The car models look nice and are recognizable, but the damage modeling is pitiful. You'll see a few polygons fly off your ride and that's about it. The biggest visual problem is the grainy tracks. It's really difficult to see what's ahead of you, so unless you know a course well, you'll probably miss a few turns or get to know a few walls up close and personal. The game has an instant replay that runs after a race, but it's not very flattering--you'll see cars that appear and disappear, and vehicles that are only half rendered. Nevertheless, even a partially broken replay is better than the game's audio. The cars don't sound like cars, there aren't any other effects other than the occasional tire squeal, and there's no music while you race.
As long as you don't expect a shrunken-down console-racing simulation, you'll find a lot to like in Race Driver: Create & Race. It's obvious that a lot of care went into the game; it's not some quick and dirty way to cash in on an established franchise. There's no shortage of ways to stay occupied and, most importantly, the racing is exciting and fun.