Pro Race Driver Preview

Codemasters' upcoming racing game will have real-world cars and tracks, as well as a comprehensive story. Get the details here.

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In the annals of virtual automotive history, Codemasters has long been speeding toward greatness. Future publishing performance notwithstanding, the company's belt already bears some impressive notches thanks to standout products like Colin McRae Rally and Jarrett-Labonte Stock Car Racing. And though commercial success has largely eluded the British giant in America, purists have kept the dream alive (and lucrative) with enough fervor to inspire a steady stream of world-class simulation releases that continues to flow to this very day.

As with previous editions, the level of graphical detail will be intense.
As with previous editions, the level of graphical detail will be intense.

Anyone who's paid attention to this phenomenon should be instantly familiar with the TOCA Touring Car brand, a heavy hitter in its own right. Yet after several years and a trio of installments, it was obvious the formula had gone stale. So, blessed with a vision and allotted a 3 million pound budget (roughly $5 million--the largest the firm had ever seen) and a new team of development experts, the folks who blew the doors off interactive racing set themselves a new goal. The mission: Reinvigorate, or at least reinvent, not only their ailing champion, but the entire genre as well.

The culmination of years of diligent labor will be Pro Race Driver. Part rubber-burnin' mayhem, part soap opera, the game is intended to be the Days of Thunder of PC and console gaming. Only we mean that in a good way. Seamlessly meshing traditional raceway antics with character-driven narratives, the game will literally toss you into the role of a would-be superstar. An ambitious project, Pro Race Driver is now an 18-month-old concept that will hopefully put much-needed gas back in the tank of arcade-style racing games. Explains Pete O'Donnell, chief game designer, "Look at the best games on the market. Even Gran Turismo 3 doesn't boast fantastic AI or feel like a real race because of it. We want people to be involved, a part of the fictional world. That's why we went the story and character route. Why are motor sports popular? It's the personalities like Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. that draw people in."

Shame you can't spot the gorgeous parallax-scrolling clouds here.
Shame you can't spot the gorgeous parallax-scrolling clouds here.

Along these lines, internal development outfit Juice Studio will cast you as Ryan McKane, a Detroit boy hungry for stardom. Much of the plot revolves around actions between this character, close associates such as Bobby (pit manager and self-styled father figure), and his famed racing family. There's even a love interest. Following his father's fatal crash 15 years prior, Ryan vows to redefine the McKane legacy, never mind that this involves having to get out from under the shadows of his celebrated older brother and rival, Donnie. Biting, often harsh and downright cruel, the professionally penned and animated tale will hopefully grip audiences as so many TV and movie melodramas do. You'll note it's an area where driving games are sorely lacking. Story elements are revealed in bite-size chunks in the form of 17 scripted scenes. Each is reputedly memorable enough, with none lasting more than 50 seconds. Coupled with various minor consequential sequences, such as being assaulted by an angry adversary whose car you've dented one too many times, these novelties will hopefully draw you into the plotline.

Particle effects Pro Race Driver has aplenty.  Plenty of other neat stuff too.
Particle effects Pro Race Driver has aplenty. Plenty of other neat stuff too.

The Starting Line

How well you play the game determines how quickly these scenes are accessed. Still, the game will promise at least 20 hours of gameplay. But don't assume it's all drama and no diesel. "While we're hoping to create an experience that's very personal for the player," remarks O'Donnell, "that isn't the entire game." Honestly, Pro Race Driver is a roadworthy simulator--albeit one slanted toward fun over realism--with a back story developed in parallel, not an interactive movie with gameplay components tacked on. Codemasters wagers the two elements will complement each other nicely, seamlessly creating a unique experience for even jaded fans. As for the role-playing aspects, O'Donnell breaks it down rather candidly. "CaRPG wasn't necessarily a term we wanted to use. From a marketing standpoint, it was good, but we don't want people to think you get skill points or upgrades. The whole game is based around Ryan's life, though. Hence you play a role instead of acting as a faceless wheelman, as in Need for Speed."

If you've been observant, all the references to console titles might have sparked an assumption: This is no longer the hard-core sim it used to be. Hazarding such a guess wouldn't be entirely off base either; TOCA 4, which is what this product essentially is, plays down many of the exhaustive details featured by its forebears, yet sacrifices none. While gearheads and tweak freaks can manipulate dozens of variables in the garage (gears, suspension, tires, downforce, and so on), new pick-up-and-play aspects are a big focus during development. In laymen's terms, that means you can play the game as an intuitive, casual experience or as an intricately modeled representation. However, vehicles will perform as in the real world under any circumstance, so you'll have to brake frequently and exercise a modicum of caution when taking corners. It's a fine line Codemasters is attempting to walk, but it's one that could pay off big in the long run, attracting more casual enthusiasts to the series without alienating current customers.

It's neck and neck out of the gate, at least until AI drivers get aggressive.
It's neck and neck out of the gate, at least until AI drivers get aggressive.

In the meantime, at a passing glance, things look well on track for success. Consider the setup, for instance: Beginning as a lowly test driver, you'll enter a lone contest, then work your way up through 11 championships (including licensed properties like the DTM or American series and the fictional Euro Tour), attracting sponsors all the way. The action is hosted by 38 authentic tracks, ranging from Charlotte and Bristol to Sears Point, Vancouver, and a number of global locales. While pursuing goals, such as scoring X number of points or beating a rival organization, you may notice some familiar faces; real-life events incorporate the cars and drivers that racing enthusiasts will associate with them. By the time it's all said and done, you will have clocked in hours behind the wheels of 42 roadsters, including, but not limited to, the Eagle Talon, Dodge Neon, Chevy Cavalier, and Dodge Viper. The exceptionally committed can also face down track champions for use of their vehicle, assuming they regularly place in the top three for each circuit.

On the road, three major enhancements over the last title in the product line, World Touring Cars, quickly manifest themselves. For one, the new physics modeling system. Having felt it couldn't coax more from the PSOne video game console, Juice Studio quite happily set about revamping its engine for more powerful modern-day platforms. A coder who graduated from Cambridge with high honors specifically in the field of physics was given the task of redefining this feature, and hands-on tests prove he's coaxed wonders from the hardware. Every vehicle handles not just realistically, but also noticeably differently from its brethren. As such, Pro Race Driver should also have a lot of replay value.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Pro Race Driver will also have a completely overhauled damage modeling system. Using what Codemasters calls its finite element modeling system, every impact is intricately re-created down to the last dent and scrape. Each part of your car is assigned weights and springs, and based on collision location and momentum, so you'll see everything from bumpers that come off and drag behind the vehicle to smashed window panes to displaced panels that look like they've been to hell and back. "It seems very hollow in titles like Gran Turismo, just hitting someone and bouncing off," notes O'Donnell. You won't be doing that here; cars are actually affected by how you drive. The designers are priding themselves on realism and want people to feel like they're actually in a real vehicle. As for how the concept of crunched cars was successfully sold to previously ambivalent auto manufacturers...that's another story.

Observe how lighting conditions reflect off the track.  This is nothing if not a gorgeous game.
Observe how lighting conditions reflect off the track. This is nothing if not a gorgeous game.

Third, and finally, the last serious revamp occurs in the area of artificial intelligence. "When you race in most games, the cars don't seem real. It's almost like they're riding on rails," O'Donnell suggests. To combat this phenomenon, his team has given computer-controlled racers six or seven distinct characteristics such as cornering, consistency, aggression, and defensive driving that determine how they'll handle themselves on the track. While some determine how many mistakes a driver will make under pressure or his strategy while taking sharp turns, others determine how often adversaries will cut you off or refuse to yield position. And, many times, that makes for bad blood. Says O'Donnell, "With World Touring Cars and Jarrett-Labonte, we learned that people developed grudges against those who bumped them. Even though it wasn't necessarily premeditated. Players read more into the gameplay than is there. The characters don't crash into you based on who you are--it just feels that way. And we've taken that up a notch."

And judging from what we've seen so far, the gameplay will also reach the next level. Speeding beneath gorgeous blue or stormy parallax-scrolling skies, you'll engage in free races, a career mode, time trials, or multiplayer events. All options handle fantastically so far and sport serious graphical novelty value, from the office scene menus throughout career mode to garages filled with bustling pit crews. Rumbling along in pristine or completely thrashed condition, vehicles perform above and beyond the level you might expect. Crisp, high-res textures lend everything a surreal air, with sunshine reflecting off the road and gravel flying sky-high as antics unfold. Subtle braking reveals the game's roots as a simulation, though Pro Race Driver will have reasonable recovery times. The game's courses will vary between painfully narrow and blissfully wide open, which suits the more arcadelike direction that the game is taking.

Multiple camera angles and a robust replay function ensure a picture-perfect finish.
Multiple camera angles and a robust replay function ensure a picture-perfect finish.

Special effects will benefit from these changes as well. Exhaust fumes pour forth in huge gouts as you accelerate. Dirt kicks up in chunks as it's chopped mercilessly by your tires. Loose car parts litter the track, then go skidding off when bumped into. Glass splinters, with cracks forming up and down its surface, before shattering into a thousand shards. There are a lot of little details, including interchangeable color schemes, car liveries, and weather variables all at your fingertips. By the time Pro Race Driver ships, it'll be a handsome game on all platforms--not just the PC, but also Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox. The only differences between editions are higher-resolution visuals on the PC and Xbox and the computerized version's support for 14 or more players as opposed to the console versions' four-player split-screen mode.

Seemingly epic and diverse, and instantly playable yet eminently engrossing, Pro Race Driver may well be a paradox in and of itself. Codemasters has voluntarily assumed the hot seat, sitting behind the wheel of what could be either a first-place finish or a flaming wreck. If nothing else, its obsession has at the bare minimum established that room for growth exists within what many believe to be a stagnant genre. For that much, Codemasters deserves some credit. As for the actual product, we'll all be able to hit the road and judge for ourselves later this summer.

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