Enduringly popular in Europe, Codemaster's premier auto racing series returns to North America with the release of ToCA Race Driver 3. Designed with a focus on accuracy and detail, the game features six different styles of racing -- GT, Touring Cars, Off-Road, Open-Wheel, Track, and Classic -- all based on real-world competitions, all built on the series' sophisticated physics model and game engine, and all featuring a selection of authentically re-created, brand-name automobiles. In all, more than 70 licensed vehicles are included. Online racing is supported, for up to eight on PS2 and as many as 12 over Xbox Live or on an Internet-connected PC.
The TOCA Race Driver series has always been somewhat of a racing fan's wet dream. The original was one of the best simulations of the TOCA discipline available on the PC. Race Driver 2 added a whole bunch of other motorsports into the mix for you to enjoy. The latest in the series is a veritable orgy of vehicles, sporting over seventy licensed cars spread across thirty five racing disciplines (I read that on the box so it must be true). Wow - that's a lot! Now there's always the danger with this sort of brave attempt that you end up with a game which is jack of all trades but master of none. Thankfully Codemasters have a strong racing pedigree and have used that experience to build on the success of Race Driver 2.
Race Driver 3 starts off in a similar vein to RD2, that is - on a race track. You're in a suitably fast car but somewhere near the back of the pack struggling to catch up. Fans of the series will recognize the voice of everyone's favorite Scotsman, Rick, hollering pearls of wisdom into your ear. Such wisdom as 'slow down for the corners', 'stay off the in-field' and 'finding the racing line makes you go faster'. Gee, thanks Rick! The race only lasts for about three quarters of a lap but it gives you a good chance to get acquainted with the basics of the game. Hardcore racing fans be warned, if you're expecting a true simulation you'll be somewhat disappointed. This is no GTR, GT Legends or rFactor. What it is, however, is as true to a simulation as an arcade racer can get. I play it in pro-sim mode and on the hardest difficulty level, which essentially makes everything as tough as it can be - for example the AI is more aggressive, physics are more realistic and damage is less forgiving. Straying off the track at high speed in the more delicate cars for example will guarantee you serious suspension issues.
Three main solo play modes are on offer in RD3; World Tour, Pro Career and Simulation Modes. Simulation modes offer the standard free race or time trial over any of the disciplines you've unlocked (which is achieved by winning championships in Pro Career or World Tour mode). Pro Career enables you to learn a particular racing discipline, such as touring cars, open wheel or off-road from the bottom up. You start with the easiest vehicle that discipline has to offer, such as the Clio in the touring car discipline and progress through various championships. The higher up the championship ladder you go, the faster the cars and the trickier they are to drive - or to drive well at least! It's a great mode as it gives you the feel for what it'd be like as an amateur starting off in the sport and gradually working your way up into the big-boy's league.
World Tour has to be my favorite mode though. It's also the closest to the old career mode in RD2. Similarly to the Pro Career made, you start of as an amateur racer. The difference here is that you're not restricted to just the one discipline - in fact you'll be exposed to all the disciplines the game has to offer. Working your way to the top involved beating the thirty two tiers of races. Each tier is made up or one, two or three championships, each of a different discipline and you must choose which one to compete in to progress. You can also compete in more than one on each tier if you wish. Each championship is made of several races with an optional qualifying period. When you're playing the game in this mode, chopping and changing between disciplines, you really start to see the handling differences between them. Some cars stick to the road no matter how hard you push them - Renault Clios and Palmer Jaguar JP1s for example. Other are tail-happy over-steering monsters, 70's American muscle cars and Mercedes-Benz W196 (Silver Arrows) are perfect examples. Off-road vehicles make a welcome return too in various guises; Baja buggy, monster tucks, rally cross are all in there. RD2 veterans will be pleased to hear that the lead weights have been removed from the rally car tires and they now handle like, well, stupidly powerful off road cars! In fact, the handling isn't too dissimilar from that seen in the Colin McRae series which is good to see.
The general emphasis within the racing, regardless of discipline, is that of precision. Clearly with slower cars you have more time to react so this isn't as important - but with the fast open wheel racers you'll need to be near millimeter perfect to stay at the front of the pack, especially on the hardest difficulty setting. While this can be frustrating at times, the sheer enjoyment of racing prevents it becoming a show stopper. The AI also seems to be a touch on the aggressive side. I haven't encountered any unfair moments i.e. no barging off the track, but the AI cars will happily lean slightly on your wings through corners in a hope to upset your line or spin you off.
Graphically I'm not too sure how to call this one. It's no next-gen title for sure, but looking at the screenshots and video I'm sure you'll agree that it ain't no dog either. I think coming from Need for Speed: Most Wanted to this has left me slightly spoiled as that looks nothing short of stunning. I suppose the best analogy I can make is that RD3 is the girl next door to NFS: MW's supermodel. She's, toned, blonde with a cheeky air about her and while she's not going to appear on too many cover shoots, you would in a heartbeat. The damage model is functional, if not quite the revolution that Codemasters promised. Think RD2 but a little bit more. The frame rate is highly impressive though - I run it at 1280x960 with all eye-candy, 2xAA and default level of AF - I've yet to see slow down, even at the back of a crowded pack.
The sound is as impressive as the frame rate. Given that the only one of these cars I've ever actually been inside of in real life is the V6 Clio, I can only guess that the engine sounds are accurate. If they're not, it doesn't matter - they're brilliant anyway. It's not just the engine sounds either, all the ambient sounds are spot on too. The crowd cheering, tires screeching, banging of body work, gravel in the wheel arches of the off-roaders - and don't even get me started on the 3D positioning! I game with a pair of Medusa 5.1 headphones and I swear to god, I can tell exactly where the cars are around me without looking in my mirrors. Nothing short of stunning.
Overall then I can't recommend this game enough. Casual racers will love it for the sheer variety. Play on the default difficulty levels without the pro-sim stuff and it's a good, wholesome, fun arcade racer (see that - 'fun' - an element all too often missing from racing titles). Sim freaks like myself can still get a superb racing experience by cranking everything to the hardest setting, as long as you remember that it's not a true simulation and never will be! Sure you can tweak the car setup before you race and stuff like that, but they'll always be arcadey bits (Laguna Seca in the Palmer Jaguar and I only had to brake for the corkscrew and the penultimate turn - I don't think so!). Again though, that's because the emphasis is on fun. Ultimately, there's something here for everyone and not only is this a worthy edition to the Race Driver heritage, it's also without doubt the best in the series.
People who downloaded TOCA Race Driver 3 have also downloaded:
TOCA Race Driver 2, TOCA Race Driver (a.k.a. Pro Race Driver), Grand Prix 4, TOCA 2 Touring Cars (a.k.a. Touring Car Challenge), Colin McRae Rally 2005, TOCA Touring Car Championship, F1 Challenge '99-'02, Need for Speed: Carbon
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