Version tested: Xbox 360
Despite being over six feet tall, I used to drive a Mini. A proper old Mini, like in The Italian Job. I loved that Mini. I miss that Mini. As any fan of the diminutive car can tell you, there's something special about them, and you can feel it in the way they drive. The first car you get in the career mode of Simbin's debut console racer is a Mini, and it's a testament to the Swedish studio's oft-acclaimed skill that the digital version retains that unique and intangible Mini feel.
It's the sort of positive first impression that bodes extremely well for the game as a whole, and long-time fans of Simbin's long-running GT series will be pleased to learn that its attention-to-detail and depth of understanding when it comes to the physics and handling of virtual vehicles has crossed the PC-console divide intact. Race Pro may not be the most inspiring title for a game, but it's perfectly apt. This is a game made by people who know racing - Simbin founder Henrik Roos used to be a professional GT Championship driver.
His company's PC series has a devoted legion of fans, but the games are notorious for their unforgiving simulation approach. Are wussy console gamers ready for such ferocious fealty to real life? Actually, as it turns out, they don't need to be. Race Pro has the depth, but it also has a thoughtful training slope to ease you in. It's perhaps the most accessible hardcore racer to grace a console.
The heart of the game, as always, is the career mode. Here you work your way through eight race groups, each containing up to seven different contracts. You must buy into each contract using credits, which you earn based on performance in races. The amount you pay, however, will vary depending on whether or not you pass the tryout time trial for the contract. Pass the test and the cost of entry drops sharply. If you just can't beat the time - or can't be bothered - then you can pay over the odds and get the contract anyway.
The flexibility continues once you're ready to race. You can tackle each contract at amateur, semi-pro or pro levels. The higher the standard, the higher the credit payout for victory. Racing at the top professional tier, however, means that you get no racing assists whatsoever. Amateurs, on the other hand, can make the game as easy - or as hard - as they like, with complete freedom to tweak the anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability assistance and racing line indicator. As your confidence increases, so you can slowly let go of your helping hands in whatever configuration works best for you.
On the track, you'll see just how important these features are. Racing as a professional shows off the phenomenal physics and handling, but will leave most fair-weather racers seething with frustration. You need to not only understand advanced racing concepts but take advantage of them, usually at horrifying speeds. Each car, from the aforementioned Mini through to various Caterham models, Audis, Viper Coupes and Formula BMWs handles noticeably differently from the moment you take the wheel. The pull of inertia as you hit the apex of a turn, the sudden thrust of forward momentum as you slipstream an opponent - these subtle feelings are conveyed effectively and economically, and feel so natural that performance improvements become instinctive rather than cerebral. The challenge ultimately comes not only in mastering each track, but tailoring your approach depending on the car; a familiar corner can be your undoing if you're in an unfamiliar ride.
It all sounds imposing, but played at a lower difficulty level, it's a technical but incredibly playable racer that shouldn't scare anyone weaned on Forza or PGR. It's never less than a sim, but the game is so willing to help you find your groove that improving your performance never feels like work. Where other games bleed the fun out of racing or punish you harshly for straying off the perfect racing line, this is a game that wants you to succeed and leads with the carrot rather than the stick. Before long you've ditched the amateur status completely, and are busy earning your stripes as a semi-pro. Friendly track-specific tips appear on every loading screen and, suddenly, the cliff-face of professional status doesn't seem quite so impossibly daunting.
Having got the stuff under the bonnet so wonderfully right, it's a shame that the game can't quite boast the bodywork to match. It's not an ugly game, but compared to the standard holders on the 360 it's not going to win any beauty contests either. Car models are more than acceptable, but the replays reveal them to be fairly rigid boxes rather than intricate models where you can see each shift of weight in the suspension. Car damage is present, but hardly spectacular. Keep crashing into the barriers at top speed and you might start to see some scuffing and buckling after four or five crashes, but if you're expecting mechanical carnage, you're looking at the wrong game. Trackside details are equally sparse, and the stiff spectators often give the impression that you're racing through a Hornby playset rather than a real race track.
The presentation, too, is less than enticing. The front-end is functional, music almost entirely absent (not always a bad thing, but still notable) and the only human contact comes from a hilariously unimpressed voiceover man who can barely conceal his lack of enthusiasm for your hard-earned achievements. "You won," he deadpans, stifling a yawn. "Very good race."
Multiplayer is much as you'd expect, offering Xbox Live or System Link play for up to twelve racers, on any of the tracks in dry or wet conditions. There's sadly no split-screen option, but what you do get is a very strange two-player "Hotseat" option where you take it in turns during the same race. In the co-op version, control of the same car switches between two players. In versus mode, one player races against an AI facsimile of the other player until the situation is reversed. It's as barmy as it sounds, and not entirely successful, but as a way of allowing two players on the same screen without sacrificing frame-rate it's...well, interesting.
Such unpolished aspects won't do the game any favours when it's competing against the likes of GRID and PGR4, but shrewd racing fans should be able to look past the exterior and appreciate the finely tuned engine beneath. Race Pro is a great driving experience, striking a rare balance between the immediate enjoyment of an arcade racer and the deeper, more nuanced long-term satisfaction of a hardcore sim.
8 / 10