Codemasters' TOCA Race Driver series has always been about two things: solid, simulation-based driving, and an insane amount of racing variety. Unlike most other racers out there, TOCA skips the usual methodology of sticking to one main type of racing and overloading the package with a ton of licensed cars. Certainly TOCA does have quite a few licensed vehicles, but they're spread across such a wide assortment of racing disciplines that at times it seems like no two races are ever alike. TOCA Race Driver 3 is the latest game in the series, and it's every bit as good as its predecessors, if not markedly better. The variety of race types has grown significantly, the driving remains a great deal of fun, and the game still presents itself extremely well.
TOCA 3 boasts more than 35 different types of racing, including open wheel, Indy cars, stock cars, GT, historic, off-road, rally, supertrucks, sprint cars, touring cars, monster trucks, and go-karts, among others. While this everything-to-everyone approach might seem like it would lead to a profoundly scattershot experience, it doesn't, because TOCA 3 knows exactly how to handle its business. No one discipline feels neglected in any way, whether it's handling, artificial intelligence, or visuals. But we'll get to all that stuff in a bit. You'll find quite a bit of car variety, with around 70 licensed vehicles in the game. Some races require one specific car type, meaning you won't get your choice in vehicles, but others offer multiple available cars. You can't go crazy and race a Formula Palmer Audi against a monster truck or anything like that, but really, you shouldn't be able to. TOCA 3 is first and foremost a simulation racer, so it maintains some strict guidelines for conduct.
From the moment you boot up the game, you're thrown directly into the action. Once you've created your profile, you actually launch directly into the middle of a race, where you'll start out behind and need to catch up. On the radio, a Scottish gentleman feeds you directions on how best to control your vehicle. Once you've finished the race, you're treated to a cutscene where your Scottish mechanic introduces himself and tells you how things work around there. Mainly, he talks about how true racers exude patience and control at all times. That's good advice, given the way TOCA 3 plays. Sticking to your racing lines and careful driving are rewarded practices, while frequent bumping and cutting corners are often penalized, both with specifically flagged race penalties, and also with what happens to your car when you drive on the infield too much or bump around like a crazy person.
TOCA 3 has some really excellent damage effects, specifically in regards to what damage does to your car, like when you go crashing into a wall at high speeds. For example, your transmission might get jacked up, causing you to shift gears at a slower, more erratic rate; your wheel alignment might go all higgledy-piggledy, forcing you to veer off to one direction or another if you don't hold the steering wheel tight; and your engine might just cut out altogether. Even simply driving onto the infield shows noticeable problems, as your tires start to cool down and collect all kinds of gunk. The visual representations of this damage vary in quality. Open-wheel racers tend to show the physical damage to the car better than most other cars, but if you wreck hard enough, you'll see some nice-looking damage to just about any vehicle.
The actual handling of the cars varies wildly between classes, though one thing remains constant: The faster the car, the more careful you'll need to be. There are 80 different worldwide tracks featured in TOCA 3, and the one thing they all have in common (save for the pure oval racing courses) is that they tend to feature a lot of tight turns that require precise driving to navigate. Even the dirt tracks and similarly offbeat courses need a bit of precision, lest you start sliding all over the place and bust up your car. Watching for turns is key; though, you'll likely experience a fair bit of trial and error with each track as you start to get used to its various curves. The aggressive opponent AI will often take advantage of your mistakes. On normal difficulty, it's not so hard to get back to a decent finishing position if you slide out or wreck, but on hard, it's damn near an impossibility. Fortunately, you can restart any race at any time, and while restarting races over and over again might be somewhat frustrating after awhile, it's a fair bit better than having to complete a race you know you can't win.
Above all else, racing in TOCA 3 just feels authentic. Sometimes cars might feel a bit floatier than they would seem like they ought to in a realistic scenario, and there are times where your car will magically survive wicked looking crashes with little more than cosmetic damage, but generally the feel of the car jibes with the terrain it's driving on, the speed you're traveling at, and most other mitigating factors. The opponent AI also works extremely realistically. They'll stick to their racing lines as steadfastly as they can, but if a wreck occurs right in front of them, they'll do their best to veer out of the way and get back ontrack. You'll see opponents overtake one another, occasionally wreck themselves, and generally behave as a real racer should. On normal difficulty, they do tend to take turns a bit too conservatively, which makes it much easier for you to roll up and overtake a bunch of racers at once. But on hard difficulty, that behavior pretty much goes away entirely.
Apart from being able to do all these types of races in a typical free race mode, TOCA 3 actually offers two distinct career modes. The world tour is similar to the career mode found in TOCA 2, in that it's a story-based affair where you play as an up-and-coming driver new to the scene, and the aforementioned Scottish fellow works as your primary manager, mechanic, and confidant. The story here is mostly incidental. You simply go through the mode's 32 racing tiers bit by bit, placing in certain spots to advance. Cutcenes will often play between races, but there isn't much of a real plot going on in this game like there was in the last one. You'll see a bit of rivalry going on between you and another racer, but that's about it. This isn't a bad Sylvester Stallone racing movie, though, and there doesn't need to be a bunch of manufactured drama. Being able to race through 32 tiers of racing events, and between a wide variety of races, is more than enough. The other mode is the pro career mode. Here, you simply pick a specific racing discipline, like classics or open-wheel racing, and progress through every track and championship that discipline has to offer. It's a nice progression, as you'll start with the easiest cars and move up to the most fearsome racing machines.
There's also standard split-screen multiplayer, system link play, and online on all versions of the game. The PS2 version only supports eight players online, but the PC and Xbox versions support 12. When you're hosting a game online, you can pick from any of your available championships, disciplines, and cars, and you can play through a full series or just go race by race. Like TOCA 2, the game uses a unique ranking system that adds or detracts points to your overall ranking score depending on how you perform. You can also designate exactly how much you want the races to be focused on the rules, so you can severely penalize people for bumping, cutting corners, or just generally racing like jerks. Or you can just let them be jerks--it's entirely your prerogative. The one thing missing from the server browser is a designation of when a hosted game has already begun. As a result, you may find yourself wandering into a few too many games that have already started, and then you'll be forced to go looking again or just wait around until they've finished. The performance between the different versions mostly held up well during our testing. We ran into next to no lag on the PS2 or Xbox versions, and only intermittent lag on the PC version, which mainly occurred in matches against racers from across the pond.
TOCA 3 also features an excellent presentation across the board. The car models in this game look absolutely wonderful, and again, the ways in which they deform are quite amusing, especially with the open-wheel vehicles. The physics are largely realistic, and watching a race replay (provided you didn't drive around like an alcoholic) really is a lot like watching the real thing unfold in front of you. The race tracks are very much representative of the real-life courses, though you'll see decidedly more effort in the actual tracks themselves than the stuff in the periphery. Road textures, like the infield and things of that nature, are all great, but the stands and distant background set pieces tend not to look quite as hot when you see them up close. Granted, the only way you should be getting a look at that stuff is if you've gone headfirst into a wall and can't move, so it's not such a big deal. Even the game's menus are slickly produced. They look clean and are quite easy to navigate. All three versions of the game look comparable, too. With the resolution turned up, the PC version definitely looks the best. However, the Xbox version comes quite close, and the PS2 version suffers only from less impressive textures and drabber color schemes.
The audio is made up of the typical sorts of things you'd expect, with some great engine sounds, tires squealing around the track, loud cracks as cars bang into one another, and the like. The voice acting during the cutscenes is surprisingly sharp, even if it is mostly just one guy talking all the time. He's funny, charming, and informative--the trifecta of what you'd hope for. Even the in-game music is pleasant to listen to, as most of it is groovy, David Holmes-sounding background fodder, and it's all really listenable.
Above all else, TOCA 3 is the kind of racing game that just about any driving game fan could get into. Simulation enthusiasts will love the variety, the challenging higher difficulty level, and all the various tuning options that can be tweaked prior to a race. Those who just want to jump into a race and go can do just that as well, without having to worry about the sorts of minutiae that most pure sim racers tend to require before beginning. TOCA 3 is a racer with a deep, lasting impact, and regardless of what kind of gearhead you profess yourself to be, you're certain to find something to like about it.