Version tested: PC
The latest offering from the safest hands in sim racing turns out to be another reissue of ageing stalwart Race 07. Last year the Swedish dev added Nordschleife and a host of handsome Grand Tourers, and called the result GTR: Evolution. This year they've bolstered it with American muscle cars, Swedish touring action, and WTCC 08 updates, and called the result Race On. Cynical cash-gouging or welcome horizon-broadening? Let's sift the evidence.
If you caught Top Gear's recent US road trip you're already familiar with half the American additions. The improbably ugly Cadillac CTS-V that eventually won James May's heart has been sim-ified, as has Hammond's ride, the sixties-styled Dodge Challenger SRTS. A Chevy Camaro and another Dodge - the Charger SRT8 Super Bee - complete a contingent that makes up for what it lacks in style and fuel economy in rogue-elephant-with-spear-in-its-side lairiness.
The only thing these bulky V8 brutes have in common with their nimble European touring cars stablemates is number of wheels. The first time I took one for a spin - I think it was the Caddy at Okayama - I went so wide on the first bend I needed to stop and ask directions to find my way back to the track. Frail brakes + low traction control + battleship tonnage = cantankerous cornering. The standard street versions (there are both road and race variants) are particularly fond of turf and gravel, but put in a few laps and spend a bit of time in the predictably well-equipped tuning garage and you'll almost certainly end up enjoying their wayward ways.
Just in case you don't warm to the brash Americana, there are alternatives among the new machines. One of WTCC's warm-up acts, International Formula Masters, make their debut. Between Formula 3000 and Formula BMW in terms of performance, in-game they feel blisteringly fast and remarkably sure-footed. Fun certainly, but for my taste, a little too similar to the game's other open-wheelers.
A similar accusation could be levelled at the handful of new 08 touring cars. Vehicles like the Lada 110 2.0 and Seat Leon TDi will doubtless please ardent followers of the sport and fans of the particular marques, but to many users I suspect they're just going to be extra names on an already lengthy list of Hatchbacks That Go Like Stink And Corner Like Jack Russells. Exhilarating drives, yes, but not especially memorable ones.
The new tracks, on the other hand, should please all. As part of the Swedish touring car content (previously released in Northern Europe as STCC - The Game) you get seven small but entertaining Scandinavian circuits including 'The Valley Of Speed' Knutsorp and... um, some other places you probably won't have heard of unless your name is Lars, Johan, or Björn.
With the muscle cars come a pair of larger and better-known US circuits. Road America is a sprawling four-mile gem, fast and foresty with some splendid sweeping curves. Laguna Seca is 2.2 miles of twisty Californian tarmac rendered unforgettable by an extended hill climb and descent. If you can throw a Charger or Camaro over the blind brow and down the steep chassis-flexing face of the infamous Corkscrew, without a flicker of exultation, you should uninstall Race On right away.
Pine-fringed Okayama, the Japanese stop on the 08 WTCC calendar, is the last of completely new venues, though SimBin has extensively remodelled Imola and tarted up a few of the other circuits with new textures and details. The purely cosmetic changes feel faintly futile. Arriving with warm tyres from a game like Need for Speed: SHIFT, the scenery in Race On looks distinctly haggard. Mutton dressed as lamb. The series' crisp physics and combative AI are as appealing as ever, but oh for some sophisticated shadowing and better vegetation.
We've been grumbling about damage modelling for years too, and that's unchanged in Race On. Panels will buckle and parts detach if the impacts are bone-crunching enough, but contact between vehicles, especially the open-wheelers, isn't always convincingly handled. The jolts and the lurches sometimes have a fudged feel to them.
Yes, Race On for all its compendious richness (if you buy the standalone version, you are getting Race 07 in its entirety as well as the new content) lacks the core improvements it needed to be a truly essential purchase for series fans. Currently it also lacks a sensible pricing scheme. If you already own Race 07 and STCC, and want to buy the new muscle car and WTCC 08 content separately, it will cost you an eye-watering £18 on Steam. That's only £4 cheaper than the full bundle.
For that kind of money I think SimBin should have delivered something a little bolder and more coherent. Assuming this is the last gMotor-powered PC sim from the studio (and surely it is now the Lizard engine is up and running) it would have been great to see them let their hair down a bit. Something historical perhaps. Or whimsical. Let me drag-race or use those American coupes in a car chase scenario. Imagine SimBin's exquisite handling models in an urban setting. Picture yourself racing towards the county line with a gaggle of human-controlled black-and-whites in your rear-view mirror. Bliss. Race On would have been talk of the town.
As it is, this rock-solid Race 07 variant is a difficult game to wholeheartedly recommend, despite being superb in both single and multiplayer. If you're new to SimBin's stark yet strikingly real racing recreations, I'd say pick up a cheap copy of GTR: Evolution or GT Legends instead. They offer much the same level of variety, vim and verisimilitude. If you're an old hand looking for something arrestingly fresh, you may want to think twice too.
7 / 10