Thunderbolt logo

ToCA Race Driver 2

Drive now! What? Look! Go, go, go! You’re in a Ford GT, the awesome sound of the engine rumbling away in the background. Pounding through the gears and hammering the throttle, you get the inside line and overtake your competitor. The adrenaline goes straight to your head and you focus on one thing; driving to win.

ToCA Race Driver 2 catches you off guard. You fill in a profile name and are immediately thrown head first into the action. No menu screens, just the growl of an engine and the glistening of the sun on the tarmac. It’s an unexpected move and makes the point that this is no ordinary racing game.

Drive on and you’ll end a short race, triggering a cut-scene. A friendly Brit chats with you in the pit lane, the crew still working on the car you’ve just been in. Judging by what he’s saying, you’re a new driver and one who’s got a lot of potential. Into his caravan office you go and the talk ends after a brief encounter with a woman whose intentions aren’t too obvious. Introduced to the idea of racing for money to progress, you move to a menu based inside the vehicle. The first person viewpoint throughout the cutscene highlights the fact that you aren’t just some higher force guiding the car, you are the driver.

ToCA‘s history reaches back to 1997 on the PlayStation and PC where the first game and its sequels flourished with their aggressive gameplay and depth to boot. The highlight of the PlayStation trilogy was ToCA World Touring Cars, a truly fantastic racing sim with all of the trademarks of the real life series; a wealth of modified production cars and the most exciting bumper to bumper racing to be had anywhere. Codemasters’ first foray into the next generation, ToCA Race Driver put a storyline into the equation and it wasn’t quite what people expected or wanted. ToCA Race Driver 2 is the British developer and publisher’s latest offering and although it doesn’t better World Touring Cars, it comes very, very close.

Instead of focusing solely on touring cars, ToCA Race Driver 2 plays the field, with a total of fifteen separate racing styles including DTM, rally, hot rod, convertible, ice racing, super trucks and grad prix. The series has always toyed with other forms of motorsport in the past, but never on the scale found here. The problem for the developer is making sure the game is the master of all of them, not a jack of all trades and a master of none.

The player progresses through championships in a series, with the option of choosing between two given along the way so that you don’t get stuck. Championships are made up of a selection of races in which you have to win a certain amount money to progress further in your career. Complicated it is not, but addictive and enjoyable it certainly is. At first, the races prove easy, but move a little up the ladder and you’ll start struggling. Race Driver 2 is unforgiving, with a single crash ending your hopes of a podium position. This is where the Xbox’s tech specs come into play though; you can restart any race instantly, allowing you to try and beat the race ‘just one more time’. The amount of frustration is lowered, as you can always choose to continue with a separate series, or just hop over to another race in the championship. This, the game’s main mode, is well structured and rewards persistence and skill.

The Xbox’s gamepad has been used to Race Driver 2‘s advantage, with the right and left triggers controlling the throttle and brake separately. This gives you absolute control over your car and allows you to just drift into and out of corners with precision. The physics model that runs through all of the cars feels accomplished and hints towards where I suspect it’s been developed from; Colin McRae Rally. Each vehicle doesn’t handle like a rally car – far from it – and maybe I’m wrong, but sometimes it just feels like the cars should have more grip on the roads than they really do. That said, the cars handle convincingly almost all of the time and feel grounded like the ones in the game’s rally-focused cousin.

The damage system has always been a core element of ToCA‘s gameplay, with the numerous cars on the track rarely penalised for ‘accidentally’ pushing each other around. Race Driver 2 takes it up a step, with numerous body parts (the car body, not yours!) falling off as vehicles scrape past each other. Full on crashes can result in the total elimination of your car from the race, for instance if one or more wheels are ripped off in a high speed collisions. Damage isn’t just aesthetic; it also has a dynamic effect on your car’s steering, speed and a number of other attributes. Once they do slide off into the verges, all hell brakes loose. In many games, the gravel and grass are simply different coloured patches of ground, but here gravel sends you spinning around, the loss of traction apparent and overwhelming. It’s a nice little surprise and one that will prompt you to restart the race and make sure you take the corner a little slower next time.

Easily one of Race Driver 2‘s impressive features is something you don’t usually expect to be so good in racing games – the A.I. Codemasters’ marketing and PR departments would have you believe that you’ll find it difficult to differentiate between real and computer controlled drivers, and you know, it isn’t that far-fetched. The CPU drivers make mistakes just like you would. They fight amongst themselves and won’t let you get away with smashing up their teammates along the way. Their behaviour is convincing, and more so than many other racing games. Just look back at Gran Turismo 3 and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Playing on your own isn’t where all the fun can be had though. Apart from the obligatory single race and time trial modes, there is full split-screen, system link and Xbox Live support. Codemasters have been playing with the Live concept for a while now, building up to a full blown inclusion in one of their games and the support in Race Driver 2 is just that. Up to twelve players can race at once, with the whole host of features that you’d expect to find in any Live game – Optimatch, QuickMatch, friends lists and so on. The game also includes some features that respond to the lessons learnt in the early days of the online system, with the option to disable collisions if the driver is going the wrong way. The interface is as easy to use as any other Live game and voice communication is a key inclusion as usual. Ultimately though, it’s the gameplay that makes the experience, and here ToCA is second to none.

You might have noticed that ToCA Race Driver 2 has only been announced for the Xbox and PC. The reason? I have a sneaky suspicion that it might just be something to do with the graphics. Simply put, the game looks fantastic. The sun glints off of the tarmac and the polished bonnets of the vehicles, with shadows struck across the mangled bodywork of your opponents. Flames and smoke are present in all their glory, along with dynamically created tyre marks and a variety of moveable track-side objects. The cut-scenes are surprisingly good and have some filter imposed on them that makes them appear more realistic. I can’t fathom exactly how they’ve done it, but the colours, textures and light levels just make it seem far more realistic than most cut-scenes. The red arrow also returns, a brilliant little feature that shows you where the person who’s behind you is and how far they are away from you. It’s the little visual details that makes ToCA shine and show that it’s not afraid to chase after the big guns in the genre.

I’ve managed to go this far without mentioning the competition, but the comparison with Project Gotham Racing 2 is going to pop up sometime. ToCA used to be based on a niche motorsport, the British Touring Car Championship, and that alone. The series has now gone mass-market, with a whole variety of car types and this puts it in direct competition with Microsoft’s own racer. Yet jumping to conclusions about Codemasters copying the software giant’s game concept is both short-sighted and thoughtless. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and you know, ToCA holds its own throughout. PGR 2 may have a longer single player replay value, but ToCA‘s gameplay is more rewarding and ultimately more fun. I could go on for hours on the subject, but I’ll leave the final decision up to you since you are, after all, the one who’s going to have to part with the money.

Now on a personal note, I can’t help thinking that the ToCA series has strayed a little. It used to be about touring cars and that only, but now it’s turned away to spread its wings amongst other motorsports. I’m sure many will enjoy ToCA Race Driver 2‘s sheer variety, but I can’t help thinking back to ToCA World Touring Cars and wishing that a modern day equivalent was available. Touring cars is a fantastic sport in its own right and a game that does it justice could better any other racer, be it Project Gotham or Gran Turismo. Maybe next time we’ll get just that game.

The slightly unexpected content aside, ToCA Race Driver 2 is an awesome racing game. It looks great, handles convincingly and has enough variety to please the fans of the genre. The superb A.I. and carefully crafted learning curve provide a real challenge and rewarding experience that can rarely be matched elsewhere in the genre. Xbox Live support just adds to the fun, extending the lifespan even more.

While Gran Turismo is still in the pits tuning up its latest model, Project Gotham is leading the pack, with ToCA poised to overtake. It’s nearly level, but there’s a corner ahead and it needs that extra turbo charger to get past Billy G’s speed machine. If the mechanics were to drop some ballast or fine tune the engine, then old Bill might not have such a smile on his face any more.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

Gentle persuasion

Think you can do better? Write for us.