Pro Race Driver Preview
We take a look at Codemasters' promising racing game, which combines realistic yet fun physics with impressive visuals and an interesting story mode.
There's a certain feeling you get when you jump behind the wheel of a well-crafted racing game. While your left brain calmly reminds you you're merely sitting at a computer desk, your right brain feverishly attempts to convince you you're actually moving ridiculously fast, carving turns at the very limits of adhesion, and battling nose-to-tail or door-to-door with a gifted and grimly resolute flock of world-class drivers. Precious few games are able to achieve this ideal recipe of vehicular physics, audio feedback, and graphical credibility. But if its late beta build is any indication, Codemasters' Pro Race Driver should come close when it's released this spring.
An evolutionary and revolutionary step forward for Codemasters' closed-wheel sedan Touring Car Championship series--which debuted with 1998's inspired TOCA Touring Car Championship and continued through 1999's Touring Car Challenge--Pro Race Driver is a large and stunningly ambitious project. Even the raw materials are overwhelming. There are 42 individual vehicle models (from the relatively sedate Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 to early '70s muscle cars such as the Dodge Charger and over-the-top powerhouses like the Toyota GT-1), 38 separate circuits (including such disparate venues as Australia's Phillip Island, Germany's Nurburgring, the Bristol Speedway oval, and the hypertechnical Vancouver CART road course), and 13 real-life international championships.
Codemasters' latest racing game to date doesn't follow the typical PC racing formula. In Pro Race Driver, you'll assume the role of aspiring test driver Ryan McKane, the young and only slightly cocky protégé of his father Kyle, who himself was a recognized racing luminary until his suspicious and untimely ontrack death 15 years prior. Through the eyes of Ryan, you'll attempt to emerge from the shadows of both your father's and your brother's successful careers, while at the same time coming to grips with your dad's premature passing and your own personal vendetta.
It won't take long to see that Codemasters has designed the role-playing trappings of Pro Race Driver to be more than just a mere throw-in. When the game opens, you'll witness a dramatic and thoroughly convincing depiction of the day Kyle was killed--a 90-second segment that moves swiftly from the thrill and headiness of victory to a haunting close-up of a young Ryan watching his father's sedan explode and burn in the infield. It's a powerful statement and the first of a number of believable cutscenes you'll see throughout the game.
In action, Pro Race Driver proves to be a likeable and accessible blend of simulation realism and arcade action. The physics model is not as brutally authentic as that of Papyrus's NASCAR Racing series, in which every turn must be carved to perfection and even a momentary lack of attention might result in an early exit from the race. Yet it isn't nearly as simplistic as that of the majority of today's PC racers. It's a comfortable mix that convinces you you're piloting an edgy, race-prepared closed-wheel vehicle but doesn't keep you from enjoying the accompanying visceral thrills.
You'll quickly get a sense that the game's designers are indeed very familiar with the nuances of a real automobile. In Pro Race Driver, you can quite easily lock up your tires under heavy braking and drift off the pavement. Alternately, you can let off the brakes momentarily during a slide and hope the rubber grabs again before all four tires are on the trackside grass. And even if you do find yourself offtrack, the situation isn't completely hopeless. Unlike many of its peers, Pro Race Driver doesn't portray its off-road surfaces as tractionless skating rinks.
The suspension system is very believable, independently compacting or rising slightly in each of your car's four corners as you weave through the circuits, fully elongating at the crest of a hill (where you may just grab a little air), and squishing down hard when you come upon a gully. You can feel and see the effects of weight transfer as you accelerate, brake, or swing hard into a turn. In short, Pro Race Driver effectively deals with many of the handling and traction issues that beleaguered earlier games in the series.
Great Balls of Fire
Pro Race Driver efficiently depicts the visual and practical consequences of what's arguably the most exciting element of auto racing--the collision. Depending on the frequency and degree of your car-to-car contact, you may well limp home with a machine that only marginally resembles the car you began your race with. Windows will shatter, windshield wipers will stop wiping, headlights will go out, fenders and bumpers will deform and detach (and sometimes only partially detach and then hang haphazardly from the car), and doors may well become unhinged and flap lazily in the breeze. After a particularly brutal race, you may find yourself missing tires, doors, wings, and a host of other peripheral items and driving at just a fraction of your car's original capabilities.
In order to see such damage, however, you'll have to force the issue. Generally, Pro Race Driver pilots will do what they can to shun such instances of contact. In fact, the game's artificial intelligence is very good, even going so far as to duplicate typical human driving characteristics. Some drivers handle the pressure better than others, some will brake too late for turns, and others will seemingly lose their concentration just when they seem to have the race well in hand. In our "80-percent complete" version, we also noticed some cars were capable of grabbing ludicrously big leads. Hopefully this issue will be dealt with before the game's release.
New drivers will undoubtedly want to try their hand in the game's free race mode, which allows them to audition courses for future reference and get a feel for the physics and the deep yet essential garage and setup facility. Veterans, meanwhile, will opt for the career mode, in which they'll correspond with associates and prospective teams via e-mail, participate in multiple championships, unlock the many locked vehicles and tracks, and generally drink in all the ambience and role-playing elements.
The game already looks superb. Apart from its multitude of collision effects, we were most impressed with Codemasters' attention to detail. Each of the 40-plus vehicles is seemingly modeled faithfully and accurately, right on down to its reflective finish, head and tail lamps, translucent widows, interior roll cage, and safety netting. Door handles, fuel flaps, and other peripheral items are painted on rather than modeled, but the overall impression is quite marvelous, especially as each vehicle features a very pretty and distinctive paint job and authentic sponsor decaling. Furthermore, the game's superb motion-blur effect really adds a sense of speed to the proceedings, even in the relatively sluggish early rounds. We did, however, lament the absence of rearview mirrors, even though Codemasters has installed a helpful "look back" system and directional indicators.
The environmental conditions are particularly impressive. Sunny midday races allow you to see for miles in any direction, past the gathered throngs of spectators and crowded trackside scenery to the multiple layers of constantly shifting, wispy clouds. Night races are dark but not so gloomy that you can't see the action, even if you headlamps have been destroyed. Wet-weather events feature ominous cloud banks, effectively somber lighting, convincing rain streaks, and shimmering surfaces. In the prerelease edition, rain puddles did not form in low-lying areas and droplets did not adhere to our windshield, meaning our wipers were useless.
The beta version of the game already runs at a surprisingly solid framerate. At 1024x768 resolution and with all video detail options cranked, the beta ran without a hiccup on a test system equipped with a Athlon XP 1600+ and a GeForce3. Good thing, too, because the graphics look substantially less clean when we played with lesser detail.
Certain features of Pro Race Driver may not sit right with some players. Pit-lane driving, for example, is completely controlled by the program. Vehicular damage does not carry over from race to race. And the damage modeling may to be far too forgiving for hard-core simulation fans. Nonetheless, Pro Race Driver seems to have something to appeal to every level of computer racer. That it goes beyond the norm by adding a compelling and smartly presented story line will only add to its appeal. Look for it in March.
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