For this veteran of console racing, SimBin's 2005 PC racing simulator GTR was a bit of an eye-opener. Taking a Ferrari 360 Challenge round Spa, I binned it in the gravel traps at every single corner on my first lap. A seasoned campaigner in the consoles' simulation hinterlands of Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, I never suspected how wide the gulf was between these games and the PC hardcore, exemplified by the Swedish developer's work. I could thread Project Gotham's fastest cars around its hardest tracks with the graceful precision of a ballet dancer, but my performance on GTR looked more like a drunk cat walking into door posts.
This is the risk SimBin takes in bringing its performance-tuned brand of track-day specials to a console for the first time with RACE Pro - the risk that the Xbox 360's mollycoddled audience of sofa pilots just won't be ready. Fortunately, SimBin is. Over the course of six iterative games in three years - GTR, GT Legends, GTR 2, two versions of RACE: The Official WTCC Game and GTR Evolution - it has smoothly expanded the breadth and accessibility of its virtual racing without sacrificing one iota of its depth.
This is not to say that, when sitting down at a force feedback wheel to take a RACE Pro Formula 3000 for a spin at the recent Atari Live, I didn't bin it in the gravel traps on the first corner. I did. But by the end of the first lap, I'd wrestled the car into submission. By the end of the first race, I was mastering Brands Hatch's tricky dips and blind corners. By the second race, I was placing third. At the end of the third race - switching to WTCC touring cars and tougher simulation settings - I was engaged in a jostling, paint-scraping, lap-long battle for the lead.
Much of this is due to SimBin lifting Forza's stroke of genius: the racing line, a graphical overlay for the track that shows ideal lines through corners and, through fading colours, braking and acceleration points. It's an essential teaching aid that gives even better guidance than Forza's, as you might expect from a company founded by a GT racing champion. Loading screens even dispense useful, browsable cornering tips.
It's the handling model that is SimBin's true labour of love though, and even a brief playtest suggests that RACE Pro has jostled straight to the front of the console pack, alongside - perhaps even ahead of - GT and Forza. Braking, traction and stability assists can all be adjusted between low, medium and high settings. On low, handling is pliable, but more realistic than most easy modes, with the punishing understeer at speed that confounds every arcade adept making the switch to simulation.
Medium settings offer tremendous physical feedback, the touring cars lifting wheels and lurching into corners with tangible weight. High, and we're back to paragraph one of this article - but this time we feel like we'll get there. RACE Pro is better-calibrated for Microsoft's force-feedback wheel and less of a handful on it than Forza 2, and - here's the real surprise - it handles magnificently on the pad too.
In terms of content, you're looking at a very similar line-up of tracks and formulas to SimBin's most complete PC package to date, GTR Evolution, which we enjoyed at review. Tracks include mainstays like Laguna Seca, Monza and Road America alongside a tour of Europe's second-stringers - Brands Hatch, Brno, Zandvoort and the like - making up for the relative lack of big names with a few corners you haven't taken a hundred times before.
Car classes, on the other hand, are a comprehensive selection of real racing series, with an equivalent choice to Codemasters' recent Race Driver: GRID. Starting with Mini Coopers and Caterhams, you'll work your way through touring cars ancient (1987 WTCC) and modern, Vipers, Radicals, three GT formulae, Formula 3000 and BMW open-wheelers, to the Gumpert Apollo, Koenigsegg CCX and CCXR and Audi R8 Le Mans car.
There's system-link and Xbox Live (player and ranked) multiplayer, of course, as well the usual single race, time attack and open practice options and a mysterious "Hot Seat" mode for two controllers (we couldn't test whether this was split-screen or not). Career mode has bland presentation, but an interesting enough structure based around team contracts. You need to spend credits to sign contracts with teams, and these often come with tryouts attached - beat a certain lap-time, say - that you can skip by spending more credits.
On the surface of it, RACE Pro's closest competitor is the wonderful GRID. It has to be said this game doesn't even begin to challenge Codies' effort in terms of slick presentation, graphical refinement, or the evocative sense of the grit and glamour of motor racing. The car models are fine, but not up to the high standards of Codemasters or Bizarre, never mind Polyphony (although the sound is great, with admirably beefy exhaust notes).
In your hands, however, SimBin's consummate pit-lane engineers really bring these beasts to life. Where it counts - moment to moment, tyre to tarmac - RACE Pro can easily dice with the glossy GRID or the detailed but somewhat dry Forza in pure handling excitement and depth, or in wheel-to-wheel multiplyaer racing. The only important question mark remains over the quality of the single-player career, which we didn't test. We look forward to doing so at review when the game is released next month.