Although GTR 2 was only released a couple of months ago, Swedish outfit SimBin has been working flat out on the follow-up title, Race - The WTCC Game. In many respects the two titles look and feel similar, but there are crucial differences that make Race a compelling game in its own right.
Race's most striking feature is that it displays a wonderful attention to detail. Clearly it's a game that's been developed by racing fans, and if you follow the World Touring Car Championship in real life, you'll feel right at home as soon as the game is loaded. The game has an official license from the sport's governing body, the FIA, so all of the driver and vehicle data is correct as of the end of the 2006 season.
That means that it's possible to race as one of a whole host of real-life drivers--world champion Andy Priaulx included--in a range of car models. Alfa Romeos, BMWs, Seats, Chevrolets, Peugeots, and Hondas are all in there, lovingly re-created from the suspension upward. They all look just like the real thing, and it's fair to say that no two cars drive in quite the same way, whether that be from the differences between front- and rear-wheel drive, the weight of the car, or the number of gears. Jumping between any two vehicles, you'll find a subtly different experience. Something that adds to that feeling of variety is the fully modeled car interiors--with seats, windows, and dashboards all accurate--and you'll even find fully functioning windscreen wipers that will clean away dust on a dry day or wipe away water on a wet one.
Weather plays a big part in the game and can be set to dry, rain, heavy rain, or changeable, and it's possible to see the weather conditions vary as a race progresses. The conditions on the track have a massive impact on how you need to drive, and if you want to stand any chance at all in wet races, you'll need to get your racing line just right, not to mention your braking zones and acceleration points.
But even if you practice all of those excessively, you still need to make sure that the car is set up correctly. As you'd expect from a game that's so detailed, practically every aspect of the car's mechanical settings can be altered--the ride height, the brake balance, the tyre compound, the springs, the wing settings, and much, much more. If you happen to have a degree in automotive engineering, it'll be a breeze. If you don't, it can all be pretty daunting on the one hand, and a severe racing handicap on the other.
The primary problem here is that there's very little explanation as to what any of the settings actually do. There's no tooltip that explains how changing the tyre pressures will affect braking or how the gear ratios can give you better top speed. If you have played similar racing games in the past, from Geoff Crammond's Formula One Grand Prix onward, you might have a working knowledge of the basics, but beyond that, you'll need to put in some serious research time to get to grips with it.
You can make things a little easier on yourself by adjusting pretty much anything you can think of in the game options. If the opposition is proving too tough, simply reduce their ability next time around, or even just have fewer cars on the track. Tailoring the game to your own skill level can take some time to achieve, but when you get it right, you'll feel much more at home.
Once you're on the track and experiencing the thrill of racing, it's possible to forget pretty much anything else other than the sheer fun of driving fast cars around world-famous circuits. Granted, the vehicles in Race don't move as quickly as those in GTR 2, but they do seem to have more of a physical presence--just as in real life, the WTCC drivers aren't frightened of the odd nudge here and there.
The driver artificial intelligence in the game seems to be balanced well. Your opponents will generally be tough to beat at the right difficulty settings, and if you show them too much of a corner, they certainly aren't afraid to try and pass you. In general, they're pretty careful not to send you spinning, and while that's an area you might take advantage of, it's important not to damage your car in the process, as this can have a big impact on the car's performance. Although you can adjust the amount of damage your vehicle will sustain in the event of a shunt, having a real penalty for hitting other cars--or walls--adds an edge to the racing. While you can sustain punctures and lose pieces of bodywork, there are also terminal suspension failures to greet the really careless driver.
Visually, the game stands out as a really nice piece of work. The care that's gone into the car models is mirrored in the surroundings, as well. The tracks have all been re-created closely from real-life circuits, and even if you have played other racing games that claim to feature those tracks, the feeling of authenticity is such that Race shows them in a whole new light. For example, the first two corners of Brands Hatch have never been quite such a roller-coaster ride as they are in this game, and many of the 10 circuits in the game will be new to most people.
The sound in the game has been researched and implemented well, and all of the cars feature some satisfyingly throaty engine sounds, which vary from vehicle to vehicle. Crashing into other cars will reward you with the sickening crunch of crumpling bodywork or the tinkling of breaking glass. Unfortunately, the voice effects in the game are slightly limited. Especially underwhelming is the response of your team over the radio when you finish a race, which retains a solid level of disinterest whether you come in first or last. There is a nice, pumping sound track to accompany the menus to get you in the mood, although the game does well at getting you into the action sooner rather than later.
Adding some nice variety to Race are two additional driving series, one using modern-day Mini Coopers and the other going back in time and featuring the BMWs and Alfas of the 1987 championship. Once again, both types of cars handle differently from the main vehicles, with the '80s racers being simply terrifying in the wet due to their complete lack of driving aids to assist you. No traction control or antilock brakes means that you'll need a fine degree of skill and precision to just get around the track in one piece, let alone beat anybody else along the way.
Talking of skill and precision, there's really no other way to play this game other than on a decent set of racing peripherals. The game does support completely configurable keyboard controls, but it's simply not possible to replicate an authentic driving experience on anything other than an analog input. If you have a steering wheel and pedals for your PC, you're all set--force feedback all the better--but if not, you may struggle to get much out of the game in the long term. Race is a serious driving simulator and requires an investment to match.
Online multiplayer races are fully supported in the game, and it's possible to take on up to 25 other human players across a local area network or the Internet. The lobby system is fairly straightforward, and there's usually an event in progress somewhere to jump into. Many of the race meetings are private events and locked to newcomers, but find one that isn't, and you'll soon discover how much more fulfilling it is racing against real people. Most of the drivers you'll encounter are skilled and mature enough not to tolerate silly driving, so it's wise to attain a decent level of competence before you head online, if only to save your pride from a mauling. The performance of online games is generally good, but it will depend on your connection and those of the other racers.
You can also participate in single-race weekends (featuring all of the practice, qualifying, and warm-up sessions) or jump into a basic one-off quick race. Or, you can take any of the cars out for a practice spin and save your best laps. You'll then be able to send those laps to your friends or even upload them to third-party Web sites for others to race against, which provides another long-term challenge.
The game is currently being distributed via Steam, so you'll need to have access to an Internet connection and register with that service to be able to play the game. However, once you've registered, you can play in offline mode without having to reconnect each time.
Overall, there's plenty of fun to be had with Race, and if you're partial to serious racing games, like the idea of experiencing an authentic re-creation of touring-car racing, and own at the very least a steering wheel peripheral, you won't want to miss out. If arcade racing is more your preference or you have no plans to invest in pedals et al any time soon, you might find it a little less appealing. However, for what it is, Race excels as a benchmark PC racing title.