Version tested: DS
Driving games are like wasps. You can go for ages without seeing one, and then a thousand million turn up at once. That's how it feels right now, anyway. The last few months have offered PGR4, Sega Rally, Juiced 2, Forza 2, DiRT, Flatout: Ultimate Carnage, while shiny new models of Need For Speed, Burnout and Gran Turismo rev their engines, and rattle their stupidly wide exhaust pipes in the garage, waiting to join the scrum. What does it take to stand out in such an unseemly morass of speeding metal?
Well, appearing on a console that isn't bombarded with new racing games seems to work.
Instinctively, the prospect of cramming the brutal yet technical experience of the Race Driver series into the smallest console on the market seems unwise. Surely Race Driver, which evolved from Codemasters' great TOCA Touring Car series, would lose too much in the transition? Amazingly, thanks to a canny conversion job by Glaswegian developer Firebrand, the game has actually gained features along the way, while retaining the unmistakable Race Driver feel.
Most notably, and as the rather blunt suffix suggests, the ability to create your own racetracks is a major addition, although even without that feature the game would still be indecently packed with gameplay options. World Tour is the meat of the game - at least to begin with - taking you through a tiered championship with races in different vehicle classes. 32 real world tracks are available for these challenges and, while the depiction is basic at best, it's a more than ample selection. The Tour is structured in such a way that you get to drive a varied selection of cars and racing trucks right from the start, so players who dislike having to wade through low-powered hatchback races to get to the meaty stuff are well catered for.
The World Tour is a lot more arcadey than the Race Driver games that have appeared on consoles past, with nippy handling and agreeably enthusiastic cornering. It's not drift racing, but nor is it the sort of unforgiving driving simulation that fans of the series have come to expect. Once you beat World Tour, the Pro Tour unlocks and its here that the realistic damage and precision handling come into play. In fact, so hardcore is this mode that even namby-pamby assists like automatic gear changes are outlawed. The game also deserves praise for resisting the temptation to overuse the stylus. It's a handy way to navigate the menus, and essential when designing your own tracks, but actual race control falls to the reliable d-pad and buttons combo. Too many games feel they need to crowbar the stylus into every aspect of gameplay, and it's refreshing to see it being used in a way that makes sense rather than a gimmick.
Simulation mode also caters for the Race Driver faithful, and showcases the long term flexibility this conversion offers. Huddled beneath the Simulation umbrella are three additional game modes: Free Race, Time Trial and Challenge. Time Trial is self-explanatory, but Free Race offers more than you might think. Not only can you take a spin around any track you've unlocked, you can also create your own custom championships using any combination of tracks and vehicles - including those you've designed yourself. Challenge, meanwhile, is another familiar option - a series of specific driving tests based around braking, steering and other basics of racing - but there's enough gameplay here to make it more than just a throwaway practice session.
The track designer, something which I feared might be a token gimmick, is actually a robust and intuitive tool. You can click-drag specific track pieces from a rather sparse library of straights, curves and trackside features, or you can simply doodle away with the stylus, letting the game work out the wrinkles. Best of all, it's so easy to use that you can rustle up a new track on the bus and be racing on it before your stop. You can take a 3D flythrough of your design at any time - even before it's all joined up - while it's just as easy to hop in a car and test drive it yourself, all from within the design menu. There are, naturally, limited save slots for these creations, but eight custom tracks should be more than enough at any one time.
All of which would be more than enough for a DS racer in most people's eyes, but the cart keeps on giving. There's a carefully thought out suite of multiplayer options, allowing for both local and Internet play. Local games employ cart sharing, so you can still race your friends even if only you have the game, while the online mode allows you to tag preferred opponents as "rivals", so you can keep track of them even if you don't have their Friend Code. The lobby system allows racers to veto track decisions by majority vote, while custom tracks can be pooled so you can share your designs with others and sample theirs at the same time. Stats are tracked from race to race, and drop-outs have their ranking penalised. While online play has never been a particular strength of Nintendo's current platforms, this as fully-featured as it's possible to get without the infrastructure of a PSN or Xbox Live.
The only real gripe is that, graphically, quite a bit has been sacrificed to make room for all this content. You'll recognise the shape of the real life tracks easy enough, but the details are often absent. This can leave the races themselves looking a bit barren, but it's not much of a problem since the handling and AI should ensure that you'll never be in a position to notice the rougher visual edges. If you're the kind of player who buys racing games because of how shiny they look then give this a miss. If you buy racing games for longevity, innovation and the old-fashioned thrill of besting human opponents, Race Driver's DS debut comes highly recommended.
8 / 10