Total Immersion Racing is a bare-bones rendition of Gran Turismo 3 or Sega GT 2002, albeit without the preponderance of cars and special effects. What's left over is a driving simulation that offers the rich gameplay of these heavy hitters, as well as a graphical show that's nearly on par with them, but none of the frills or splash that would attract casual players in search of a vicarious speed rush. It's a game for people who want to discover what the weekly toil of GT-class competition is really like, who understand that actual racing often entails driving around the same course lap after lap without much fear of hazards or obstacles, and who don't mind that the ultimate reward is the ability to drive a handful of different cars for various teams on tracks located throughout the world.
In most respects, Total Immersion Racing is identical to the majority of other racing simulations. You have a career mode that lets you bounce from team to team at the start of each racing season, a challenge mode where you race for bragging rights with specific vehicles or in specific leagues, and the typical assortment of time trial, single, and two-player split-screen races you've come to expect from this sort of game. Cars are separated into GT, GT-S, and prototype classes, but just like in real life, most races are grand events that include entrants from all three classes. This leads to a more exciting race, since faster cars are competing within their group while simultaneously avoiding the slower cars scattered around the racecourse.
For every championship you win or challenge you complete, you'll unlock an additional car or course to use in the other game modes. Some teams will make you run a test drive before offering you a spot on their roster, which is a nice touch. You won't find 125-plus cars as you will in Sega GT 2002, but the 15 vehicles that are included do represent the major players on the GT circuit, from teams such as Audi, BMW, Panoz, and McLaren. Course selection is decent, with 12 tracks covering a number of real-world venues, from Rockingham in the UK and Hockenheim in Germany, to Springfield in the US and Minato in Japan.
The overall controls and handling are good and are easily equal to what you'll find in other, more recognizable driving games. To get going, all you need to do is press the accelerator and remain near the center of the track, although you'll have to exert careful speed control and brake timing if you actually want to win the race. The cars don't have parking brakes, so in order to slide through turns you have to use quick brake-drift-gas maneuvers to sweep through turns at around 90mph. Sometimes, you'll have to slow down to 30mph in order to navigate sharp turns properly. Acceleration and brake response are pretty good, although the PlayStation 2 version of the game offers finer precision, thanks to the sensitivity of the analog buttons on the Dual Shock 2 controller.
Even though there are only 15 available cars, there is a lot of variety in the way they each handle, thanks to variances in weight and transmission. You can also tweak handling settings in 22 categories. One of the game's more interesting features is its race engineer option. Basically, you can run practice laps and let the race engineer tweak your car based upon your driving behavior. It really works. You can feel the changes during each successive lap as the back end of your car spins less and less when you drift through high-speed corners.
While the driving is exquisite, you may take issue with the course selection. The 12 included tracks are re-creations of actual race venues, which means that they're not necessarily as thrilling as the fictional courses you'll find in other games. You won't encounter surprise obstacles, muddy bogs, or bridges set against waterfalls. There are plenty of chicanes, drops, and U-turns to keep things interesting, however, as well as a good mixture of day, dusk, dry, and wet race environments.
Where Total Immersion Racing tries to distinguish itself is with its emotion system. During the race, you can activate indicators that reveal the mind-set of each opponent. A green color means that your opponent is driving a cautious line and will try to prevent you from passing, but not to the extent that you won't be able to smoke past him on the next turn. Blue means overconfidence, so your opponent may oversteer on the next turn or allow you to pass out of sheer arrogance. A red color signifies anger, which means that your opponent will drive aggressively and attempt to push you onto the shoulder if the opportunity arises. Unfortunately, the emotion system is very subtle, and you won't really feel the effects of it until you're competing in prototype class or endurance races. By that time, the grudges you've cultivated from smacking into various opponents will ensure that cars outside of your class will try to keep you from overtaking the leader within your class. It's a great idea, but it's not relevant enough to warrant consideration until you're into the last few championships.
As you can tell by now, Total Immersion Racing was designed to deliver a clean and pure rendition of professional racing. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the game's visuals. The mist and scattered sunlight that peers through the trees are impressive, as are the body and windshield reflections that mirror and distort the actual surroundings. Car logos, decals, and detailing are fairly good, although the polygon count isn't high enough to produce car models on the same level as those found in Sega GT 2002 or Rallisport Challenge.
The most significant criticism about the visuals rests with the decision to include real-world courses. They're crisp and believable, and the pavement is chock-full of varying hues of cement, but there's also not much going on. You won't see spectators milling about in the stands, birds flying overhead, or streams flowing in the distance. You're racing on courses far away from recognizable cities, and there are no freeways full of traffic. Other than the rainy mist on inclement days and the animated steering wheel in the cockpit view, there's not much to see. The Xbox version generally comes away looking the better than the PS2 version, thanks to a smoother frame rate and crisper textures. One drawback to this, however, is that the Xbox game doesn't employ as much anti-aliasing as the PS2 game, so the low-resolution textures used for pavement and track markers are noticeably more mottled and blocky on the Xbox.
Like the visuals, the audio is fairly natural: excellent, but modest. There are unique engine and tire sounds depending on the make and weight of a vehicle, and they vary depending on distance and environmental obstructions. At the same time, driving through dirt, gravel, and turf sounds much different from when you're sticking to the pavement. The techno music that plays in the background is vaguely European, although it doesn't really stand out as much as a licensed soundtrack would. The lack of an option to use the custom soundtrack feature on the Xbox is also pretty unfortunate. One of the nicer touches is the communication you'll get from your pit crew during difficult turns, position changes, and lap completions. It's not a constant chatter, but it tempers the monotony of the engine harangue and fits well with the overall experience.
If the folks at Empire Interactive set out to duplicate Gran Turismo 3 or Sega GT 2002, they've certainly succeeded. Total Immersion Racing plays wonderfully and delivers the kind of realistic experience that fans of the genre crave. Nevertheless, these other two games have been out for a while, have a wider variety of options and frills, and cost roughly the same. Unless you can't get enough of GT-style racing, there's really no pressing reason to add Total Immersion Racing to your collection.