Hands-onPro Race Driver

We check out an almost finished PS2 version of Codemasters' story-driven racing game, also destined for the Xbox and PC.

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We've recently taken delivery of an almost finished version of Codemasters' new racing game, Pro Race Driver. The game, which is essentially a sequel to Jarrett and Labonte Stock Car Racing , is unusual within the driving genre in that you play as a character named Ryan McKane rather than as the car that you're driving.

Much has been made of Pro Race Driver's storyline since the game was announced in July last year, but if the four or five seasons we've completed as Ryan McKane at the time of writing are anything to go by, the "car-pg" tag that has been attached to the game in the past suggests that the plot has a much bigger part to play in the proceedings than is actually the case. This isn't a criticism, however, since the brief cutscenes that serve to keep the story moving along after every few races do so efficiently and without ever getting tiresome--however desperate you are to get out on the track.

Before the career mode starts for real, the intro movie shows a young Ryan McKane witnessing his father's death in a racing accident. And before getting into a racecar for yourself, you'll also learn that Ryan's brother Donnie is an American All Stars Champion and that there's not much love lost between the two of them. Other characters you'll get to meet as you progress include team managers, mechanics, and the requisite love interest, Melanie. Conversations and interactions are well scripted and acted, and the speech syncs very well with the mouths of the in-game characters.

The career mode is split into three tiers: Super Sports, Power Racing, and World Championship. Starting out in the Super Sports series gives you no fewer than seven distinct championships to choose from, each with a possible 60 points up for grabs if you manage to win every race. Since you need 132 points to progress to the next tier, it's fair to assume that you'll be spending a few seasons on the bottom rung, particularly since your opponents want every single one of those points just as badly as you do.

One of the best features of Codemasters' driving games has always been the AI of the other cars, and Pro Race Driver is certainly no exception. The first time we played we got a bad start off the grid and caused a minor incident as the cars behind us struggled to swerve around us and overtake--more impressive still is that the cars ahead of you on the grid are just as likely to become involved in incidents of their own, perhaps even littering the circuit with body panels or bumpers in the process. This isn't to say that the other drivers in the game are reckless though. When playing, the races just feel genuinely competitive, and once the end of a season gets close, we guarantee that you'll have chosen yourself a rival and most likely will be able to spot his or her car out on the track. Deliberately setting out to ruin an opponent's race won't always do you a lot of good though, since the damage in the game is very realistic, and your car's performance will suffer accordingly for the most part.

The handling of the cars in the game is superb insofar as it feels completely realistic without being inaccessible to those more accustomed to arcade racers. By the same token, making changes to your car's downforce, brakes, suspension, or gears in the garage with a little advice from your chief mechanic couldn't be easier, yet the benefits are really noticeable out on the track, and so it's definitely worth investing the extra couple of prerace minutes in. It's also well worth taking the time to take a test drive around each of the game's 38 real-life circuits before actually racing them, because although it's technically possible to use your hand brake and slide around most of the corners in the game, doing so is definitely risky and, at best, significantly slower than sticking to the racing line.

Graphically, Pro Race Driver looks like one of the most impressive PS2 games to date--the car models are detailed, the damage looks realistic, and the circuits are easily on a par with those seen in the Gran Turismo games. The sound is equally impressive, with genuinely useful pit lane messages serving to break up the realistic engine noises and occasional abuse from other drivers.

We've got a long way to go before we complete Pro Race Driver's career mode, and we haven't even tried out the game's four-player mode yet, so expect more coverage on the game ahead of its release in the fall. The Labonte Stock Car Racing of the game is scheduled to release in time for Christmas, although no date has been announced for the game's Labonte Stock Car Racing incarnation. For more information, check out our Labonte Stock Car Racing of the game.

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