If you live on the western side of the Atlantic, you might not have a clue about the British Touring Car Championship. But don't let that stop you from trying your hand at Touring Car Challenge, a highly addictive racing game from UK developer and publisher Codemasters that marks a great conclusion to one of the best years for PC racing simulations in a long time.
Touring Car Challenge focuses on the 1998 British Touring Car Championship season and features 17 real-life drivers competing on eight different tracks. Since most Yankees have never heard of BTCC stars like James Thompson, David Leslie, Yvan Muller, and Peter Kox, you'd think that driver bios and profiles would be in order. But all you get is an in-game rundown of basic data such as date and place of birth, career wins, and where each driver placed in the 1998 standings. The in-game track info is slightly better - at least you're shown the recommended passing areas on each circuit - but it doesn't come close to making up for the manual's lack of detailed information. Fortunately, the game itself is a lot of fun.
One of the most appealing features in Touring Car Challenge is the selection of cars you get to drive. They are mass-production cars just like the sort you might buy for your family, although not many American car buyers are likely to get a Renault, Peugeot, or Vauxhall for their second car. Other manufacturers represented in the game include Ford, Nissan, Honda, Volvo, and Audi, and all must conform to BTCC regulations: four doors, 2-liter engines, 8500rpm maximum, and a mechanical gearbox.
Touring Car Challenge offers some pretty exciting action on the track. You powerslide through turns, bump and tap your opponents, and hit top end on straightaways while the engine's screaming as you push it to its limits. Races are fairly short, but once you see just how torturous the competition can be on a car, you'll understand why. Cars take visible damage - you'll see cracked windshields more often than you'd care to - and it eventually affects your car's performance. You can undergo repairs during the mandatory pit stop in the longer of the two races at each venue, but it significantly increases your time in the pits. In addition, the game effectively renders weather effects such as rain, although they don't seem to have quite the impact you'd expect on your car's handling.
Car setup options in Touring Car Challenge are rudimentary - you can change tire types (but not tire pressure), adjust bias toward front or rear brakes, adjust downforce (presumably by adjusting the rear wing, but you can't specify a particular angle), set gear ratios (of course), and make the suspension harder or softer on each wheel. If you play in novice mode, you can head out for a first-place finish without tinkering with your car - but when you crank the difficulty up to standard and expert modes, you can count on having to make adjustments to shave precious seconds off your lap times. Unfortunately, Touring Car Challenge makes it difficult to race practice laps because there's no way to put your car through the paces before qualifying for a single race or a race in championship mode. The only workaround is to head to the main menu and use the time-trial mode to learn the tracks and figure out what adjustments you should make.The championship mode, which consists of two races at 13 events, is clearly where Touring Car Challenge provides its most intense action - especially since you have to rack up at least 15 points (based on your finish in both races) before you can move on to the next races. There's also a great two-player team mode in which you and a friend must work together to get 27 points to advance. But there are also all sorts of other race types in Touring Car Challenge to keep things interesting. There's the time trial, which includes a ghost car that mirrors your last lap to give you an idea of where you went wrong; the support car championship, in which all drivers are given identical cars (you can unlock exotic cars like the Lister Storm and Jaguar XJ 220 if you win); a single race on any of the available tracks (including hidden tracks); and a generic test track.
At first, the graphics in Touring Car Challenge seem a bit blocky. But the visuals grow on you after a while because of the high level of graphical detail in all the cars. Smoke effects are nicely rendered as well, and trackside objects, which are oftentimes the weakest part of a driving sim, are as good as can be expected in Touring Car Challenge. The animation is smooth on a fairly fast system; the only time the game's frame rate dropped down was during a huge bottleneck in a curve where a lot of drivers were slamming their brakes and kicking up a lot of dust.
Just the thought of driving a blisteringly fast four-door sedan in a bent-for-hell race against human opponents is enough to get any race fan's heart pumping, and Codemasters has included every conceivable type of multiplayer support possible. But the manual is totally mum on how Internet play works. It turns out your best bet is to join the Touring Car Challenge chat room and exchange IP addresses with other players. But that best bet never paid off for me - it was difficult to find any willing competition, and there's no way to see who or how many gamers are even in the chat room at one time.
However, Touring Car Challenge is one game for which you really should expect to see more drivers looking for online competition in the future. The game has a few minor setbacks, but many of them are directly related to its origins as a console game: It has no mouse support in its menus, humdrum force feedback, and a lot of initially hidden tracks and cars. But all such problems are alleviated by the excitement and sheer fun that Touring Car Challenge has to offer. If you got a kick out of racing games like Sports Car GT and Viper Racing, then Touring Car Challenge is a must-buy.