Most racing games put the emphasis solely on the cars and tracks. But racing fans know that it's also the men behind the machines that make the sport so intriguing. After all, racing isn't just about horsepower, it's also about heroes--larger-than-life figures like Michael Schumacher and Dale Earnhardt, not to mention the unsung experts behind the scenes who build and keep the cars running. With Pro Race Driver, Codemasters has created a racing game that puts drivers in the spotlight without sacrificing exciting ontrack action.
Pro Race Driver isn't a hard-core simulation, but it does let you try out various different racecars in fast-paced, arcade-style competitions that have enough realism to keep things interesting and challenging. The game was released on the PlayStation 2 last fall, and its console origins are apparent in this new PC port, though not always in a good way. Codemasters left the original console game's interface in the PC version, so you have to navigate it with your keyboard instead of your mouse. The game suffers from a number of other faults that marred the generally fine PS2 version, and some of the problems have seemingly gotten worse. Still, whatever its faults, Pro Race Driver can hold its own in many ways, not the least of which is its incorporation of an interesting story.
Most racing games offer little to nothing in the way of story or characters. Not so with Pro Race Driver, which features a career mode that focuses on a single fictional driver, Ryan McKane. Pro Race Driver uses the cinematic touches found in other game genres to let you watch and take part in McKane's life in racing. The game opens with a flashback sequence that shows McKane's father--a legendary driver--barely winning a race, only to have his car intentionally clipped by a young upstart driver right after crossing the finish line. Young Ryan and his brother look on in horror as their father dies in a fiery wreck.
In Pro Race Driver's career mode, you get to lead Ryan McKane in the footsteps of his father and his brother, who's also grown up to be a pro race driver. Through occasional cutscenes, you'll see Ryan join his first team with some help from his brother and then try to live up to the family name. Some of the cutscenes also tie directly into the races instead of just serving as a general framework for the action. If you viciously slam into an opponent during a race, you'll get to watch a nasty exchange of words between the two drivers when the race is finished.
While all this could easily have ended up being nothing more than a gimmick, it generally works pretty well. The cutscenes are mostly well written and directed, which makes all the difference. Pro Race Driver does a great job of establishing McKane's character early on, showing you a man brimming with the surly arrogance of youth. Other characters, like his seasoned crew chief and brash manager, also seem unusually realistic for game characters, thanks to their smart and well-delivered dialogue.
The continuing story of McKane's career helps set Pro Race Driver apart, but the story alone is hardly worth buying the game for. You obviously want to have solid racing action, too. Fortunately, Pro Race Driver generally delivers on that front. You'll get to drive 42 different real-world cars (after unlocking them all), including the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the MG Lola Le Mans, the Audi TT-R, the Lotus Elise, and the Dodge Viper GTS-R. You'll also get to race on 38 real-world circuits, like Sears Point, Bristol, Monza, and Silverstone. This means you'll get to try your hand on tiny NASCAR ovals, dense and twisty road courses, and everything in between, including multiple configurations of the same venue, like at England's exciting Brands Hatch.
In addition to the career mode, which takes you through tiers of varied racing series, you can test yourself in time trials and enter free races. While some of the free race tracks are initially locked, a surprisingly large number of them are open for playing right from the start, which is a very welcome change from the way most games handle such "extras." Unlike in the career mode, there's a difficulty slider in the free race mode, as well as options to set the number of laps from one to 60, select the weather, and more.
Like the PS2 version of Pro Race Driver, the PC version supports split-screen play for up to four players, but it also adds LAN and Internet multiplayer support for up to eight players. However, the game's online multiplayer seems to have problems with lag, and the lack of a proper mouse-based interface makes using the game's integrated server browser unnecessarily difficult.
When playing the single-player game, you'll have to deal with the most problematic aspect of the game: the AI. Not only has the PC version not improved on the AI from the PS2 version, but it also seems to have worsened it. You'll face up to 20 AI competitors at a time--more than in the PS2 version--and they'll put up a tough fight that will keep you racing hard. But they often behave erratically or suspiciously. If you get in the path of their racing line, they'll frequently and unrealistically plow right into you in a mad effort to stick to that line. It can be extremely frustrating to be leading a race and then have an AI-controlled car knock you off the track when it could easily have gone around. When AI drivers aren't slamming into you, they're often crashing into each other. In fact, some races can end up turning into a game of bumper cars, particularly on tight street courses. What's worse, computer-controlled racers will also frequently catch up and pass you with improbable speed, as if they had some kind of top-secret, rocket-powered boosters attached to the back of their cars--even though there's no such thing in the game.
Despite these problems, Pro Racer Driver offers a thrilling sensation of speed, something a surprising number of racing games don't get right. It can be a lot of fun to go roaring over a blind rise or brake at the last moment to overtake another car as you come barreling into a turn. Coupled with the high speeds, the bumper-car aspect of the game can actually become perversely fun on the tight courses, where you can slam and jostle your way to the head of the pack. If nothing else, Pro Race Driver can certainly be an action-packed game.
However, the game's physics model probably won't seem too impressive to hard-core racing fans who expect sophisticated, real-world handling from their vehicles. The way Pro Race Driver's cars handle is inconsistent. Sometimes you have to work to make your car slide or spin, but other times your car will fly out of control at the slightest twitch. You can try using a steering wheel controller, though you may find the handling to be overly sensitive if you do, and there's no easy way to adjust the peripheral's sensitivity.
As you might expect, Pro Race Driver offers relatively simple car setup options, at least when compared with the best hard-core racing simulations on the PC. Often, your cars are set up poorly by default and will suffer from improper gear ratios for the track at hand, or from too much oversteer or understeer. Also, you won't get to race in qualifying laps to determine your starting position in career races, which is frustrating, since this is an essential part of professional racing. You won't encounter yellow or black flags in races, either. The game just ignores major wrecks and lets you drive off the track to cut off other cars in the turns.
While you won't get black-flagged for intentionally pushing an opponent off the track, your car will suffer the consequences. Not only will you see the damage to your vehicle, in the form of flying glass or mangled bumpers left on the road, but you'll also notice the effects on the car's performance if you bash it particularly hard and frequently enough. Eventually, you might end up limping across the finish line, though you have to be especially hard on your car to reach that point.
Fortunately, the PC version of Pro Race Driver looks much better than the PS2 version, which suffered from badly aliased graphics, or "jaggies." The PC version of the game generally has cleaner, higher-resolution texture, though the opening movie seems exactly the same, and like in the PS2 version, the characters in the PC game's cutscenes look rather blocky. While Pro Race Driver certainly never reaches the same visual heights set by the recent NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, it's still attractive overall, thanks to its nicely detailed car models and generally convincing scenery.
The audio was good in the PS2 version of Pro Race Driver, but the sound in the PC version is better, thanks to solid EAX support. Whining engines, screeching brakes, and crunching metal from accidents usually sound convincing. Many of the voice-overs in the game are superb, which really helps bring the characters to life. The game's soundtrack is an improbable mixture of Iggy & The Stooges, Thin Lizzy, Al Green, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others.
Despite its problems, Pro Race Driver usually does a fine job of integrating storytelling and dramatic, varied racing, rightfully putting the spotlight on both men and machines. If you can look past its quirks and the accident-prone AI, you'll likely enjoy Pro Race Driver.