RacePro isn't afraid to let you know that it's a racing simulator. When you first jump into the Career mode, the difficulty level defaults to Professional, turning off all steering assists and racing lines in the process. But despite its penchant for realism, RacePro is also very accessible. The lower difficulty levels make it easy to pick up and play, and the career structure lets you buy your way into successful teams if you don't have the skill or the inclination to qualify for them. Sadly, the emphasis on realism has been at the expense of presentation, and the sparse menu systems and bland graphics fall well below the genre's high standards. If you can put up with the loss of such luxuries, then the superb selection of tracks, cars, and racing disciplines help make up for it. RacePro ultimately has more to offer the hardcore racing fan than the Sunday driver, but it's still a good console version of a great PC series.
The meat of RacePro is in the Career mode, and the progression here is built around signing racing contracts with various commercial companies. You have the option of earning a place on each team by beating a set lap time and paying a small fee, or you can simply buy your way in for a premium. This is a great idea, and it means that you're afforded some breathing space throughout the 33-contract career. The difficulty model is also brilliantly implemented, letting you increase or decrease the number of assists that you use at any time, with a credit incentive that increases with the difficulty level. Your progress is also incentivised by unlocking new cars for the standard race mode.
This basic structure of the Career mode results in a very rewarding game. You're always in control of the difficulty, and you're being pushed to go that little bit further than your ability. Novices will find the game completely accessible at the easiest level, whereas the semi-pro level offers a great compromise between difficulty and playability. You can tinker with the precise settings of each of the assist levels before you start each race, so you can experiment with reducing the hand-holding as you progress. The highest level is geared toward those who want an authentic experience, and all but the most dedicated of racing enthusiasts will have difficulty controlling the vehicles at this level.
The move to the Xbox 360 has clearly brought more accessibility to the Race series, but there are still a bewildering amount of tweakable options for those who appreciate the science behind the sport. By default, car setups are controlled by the game itself, but you can always choose to tinker under the hood with brakes, aerodynamics, gears and many more. The options are incredibly in-depth, so it's great that you can save these setups, experiment with them in the Practice mode, and then load them whenever you like. The level of customisation also stretches to the control system, with sliders to adjust the sensitivity and dead zones of the steering, throttle, and braking. This will be of particular interest to those with wheels and custom-driving rigs who want to tailor their setup exactly to their specification.
One of RacePro's key strengths is the variety of racing disciplines that it has to offer. The Race series on the PC has been officially endorsed by the World Touring Car Championship, Formula 3000, and Formula BMW, and RacePro continues this tradition by bringing them all to the Xbox 360. There's also GT Racing, Dodge Vipers, and Mini Cooper challenges, the latter of which form a great introduction to the Career mode. The game has only 13 tracks--and none are available in reverse--but the majority of them are rarely seen in racing games, including a few excellent city tracks. We've seen the Nurburgring so many times in recent racers that it's quite refreshing to not have to race it again here, and instead we get new tracks such as a Portuguese street circuit with open straights and tight corners, and a superlong track from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in the USA.
Although the tracks are all well designed, the stars of the show are the vehicles. RacePro offers one of the most realistic physics models we've seen in a racing game, and there is a world of difference between the appearance and handling of all the different models of cars. The lighter vehicles feel suitably twitchy as they corner, and a pack of touring cars weave across the track with that same swarmlike movement as in real life. The car models themselves are also very good, with detailed interiors, but the one area where the modeling falls down is damage. A car can be ruined with a single crash on the highest difficulty level, but this doesn't have a significant visual impact on the car itself. Bumpers fall off, but there's none of the broken-windshield, hanging-together-by-a-thread feeling of the car models that we've seen in other racers.
In addition to the aforementioned Career mode, there are Single Race and Championship modes. There are also Time Attack modes that let you compete against the world's fastest lap times, and the Practice Sessions, where you can concentrate on cutting down those lap times without the bother of traffic. Then there's the bonkers-sounding but actually quite fun Hot Seat mode, which appears in lieu of split-screen multiplayer. Players take control of the game sequentially rather than concurrently, either in co-op, where you take turns driving the same car, or in versus where you drive different cars and the AI takes over in between. It's more fun than it sounds, partly because of its relative novelty, but it's still a shame that there isn't a traditional split-screen multiplayer option.
Thankfully, Xbox Live and System Link multiplayer lets up to 12 players race alongside each other in more traditional form. Xbox Live offers ranked and unranked play, with matches split up by difficulty, so all racers are playing with the same aids. The host chooses options such as the track, laps, and weather, and then people can jump in to practice on the track before qualifying and racing. The multiplayer works well from a technical perspective: pressing the "quick match" option lets you enter a game in without having to wait around, taking a lot of the boredom out of waiting around for people to join. You can also add AI opponents to unranked matches to make up numbers, but it's disappointing to see only standard race options available--we'd have liked to have seen tournaments as well.
The graphics in RacePro are functional, with detailed car models running through bland-looking scenery with very little trackside detail. The shadowing on the cars is also noticeably jagged, and the screen tearing is just plain unacceptable. The rain effects are impressive, especially when they splash on the windscreen in the in-car view, but otherwise everything other than the car models falls flat. The audio is also very sparse, with no music outside of the menus, no commentary, and flat-sounding engine noises. The menu system is way below the par of other console racers, lacking presentational flourishes and serving information in a very matter-of-fact way. Worse still, some information is hard to find; for example, you have to activate the advanced settings in the Single Race menu to change the weather. However, RacePro does some things right, offering specific pointers for each individual track as the game loads up.
RacePro excels in providing a deep experience without sacrificing accessibility, and it has one of the most realistic physics models of any console racer yet. Ultimately, RacePro succeeds in making a hardcore racer accessible to the masses, but the unwelcoming menu system and workmanlike graphics mean that the package as a whole just falls short of the mark. But if you're looking for an incredibly realistic racing game that puts the cars before everything else, then it's worth dusting off your steering wheel for RacePro.