Codemasters invites virtual speed demons to take a run around 38 of the most internationally renown race circuits in Pro Race Driver. The game's 42 available automobiles include models by Toyota and Lexus, Daimler Chrysler and Dodge, Chevy, Ford, Mitsubishi, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot, and more. Choose a favorite car and track, or enter one of 13 World Championship series, including the TOCA Tour, the Southern and Northern European Challenges, and the American All Stars.
The character-based racing game incorporates many elements of cinematic storytelling to draw players in and move them forward through the plot. Action movie production methods are used to bring excitement. The story follows a nine-act structure, just like the great majority of high-grossing Hollywood movies. Story segments are always less then a minute long, to keep the game moving, and scenes are generated on-the-spot so the character's most recently used car is featured for a more personal feel.
Even the most diehard racing game fan has to admit that once you've seen the first few dozen games, you've pretty much seen them all. Progress in the form of better graphics, more realistic physics models, better AI, and career modes are all welcome, but when push comes to shove, the genre hasn't seen much innovation in a long time. Which is why Pro Race Driver was, and is, such a pleasant surprise.
Codemasters -- makers of such fine racing games as the TOCA and Colin McRae Rally series -- hit upon the brilliant idea of mixing racing with role-playing, wrapping a dynamic storyline around a tried-and-true racing simulation. For the most part, it works. The player takes on the role of Ryan McKane, an up-and-coming driver who is the focal point for the narrative. The story is incredibly clichéd -- complete with a love/hate relationship with an older brother and the grizzled but fatherly pit chief -- but due to the freshness of the concept, it manages to entertain. Some of what happens throughout the game is based on what happens on the track -- take out another driver during the course of the race and you might see a scene after the race of the pissed-off driver giving you a piece of his mind. None of this stuff is going to win any academy kudos, but the acting is generally good and knowing that your actions have some greater impact on the game keeps things interesting.
Amazingly, Pro Race Driver's biggest problems appear during the racing, an area in which Codemasters' games usually excel. For some reason, the excellent racing engines from TOCA and Colin McRae were seemingly abandoned, replaced by a lackluster arcade-style physics model that feels like you're driving a slot car rather than an actual automobile. Yes, it's much easier to come to grips with than the previous games, and I fully understand that Codemasters was aiming for a more mainstream audience with this title, but I feel they've taken this to too great an extreme. Control is an issue as well. Even using a high-quality force-feedback wheel, the response feels off, and the force effects are pretty tame; no amount of fiddling and adjusting seemed to better the results, either.
Another usual strength of Codemasters' racing sims is the driver AI. Not here, though, as wacky behavior appears much too frequently, and the computer-controlled cars behave like, well, computer-controlled cars. This is shocking considering how convincing the AI is in TOCA, where it actually felt like you were competing against a group of living, breathing opponents. Much like High Heat 2004, Pro Race Driver also suffers from the fact that its roots are on the console side. When will these game companies understand that it's not acceptable to just port over the same joypad-restricted interface to the mouse-strong PC?
Truth be told, there is plenty to like about Pro Race Driver, not the least of which are the gorgeous visuals. The 42 licensed cars look amazing, and the 38 real-world tracks are a sight to behold. The cutscenes are beautifully rendered, putting this game in the crowded category of "Titles That Look Better Than They Play." Though cars and tracks will be unlocked during the game, there's a huge assortment available right from the get-go, another nice touch. Outside of the career mode, the individual races have plenty of options regarding their customizability.
Multiplayer features are numerous. Unfortunately, the crappy physics modeling makes racing against live opponents only marginally more entertaining than going against the CPU racers. Like any online racing event, you have to deal with a lot of annoying HI (that's Human Intelligence, or lack thereof) and some pretty bad lag reared its head from time to time. The multiplayer features are nice to have, but the meat of this game is definitely its single-player content.
Pro Race Driver is a game that could have, and should have, been a lot better than it turned out to be. I'm still trying to figure out what went wrong on the physics and AI front. It seemed all Codemasters needed to do was transplant the racing model from any of their earlier games and this would have been a resounding success. As it stands, anyone that demands any degree of realism in their driving games is going to be somewhat disappointed with this game. Once you come to terms with the faults, though, you'll find an intriguing idea that I expect to be just the tip of the iceberg. I'm looking forward to seeing more racing games (and sports games) injecting a story into the mix, and I expect things to improve by leaps and bounds in the near future.
People who downloaded TOCA Race Driver (a.k.a. Pro Race Driver) have also downloaded:
TOCA Race Driver 2, TOCA Race Driver 3, TOCA Touring Car Championship, TOCA 2 Touring Cars (a.k.a. Touring Car Challenge), Total Immersion Racing, Test Drive 6, Colin McRae Rally 2005, NASCAR Thunder 2004
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