Scary. At 6.30 yesterday evening I fired-up GTR2 intending to grab a few swift screenshots, then quit and begin this review. Around seven that sensible plan somehow morphed into the much less wise 'Let's see how low I can get my TVR lap-times at Magny Cours, Monza, and Donigton Park'. In the end it was gone one by the time I finally managed to drag myself away to bed.
Consider the above anecdote - consider it carefully - before you let this exceptional race sim into your busy life. Your willpower might well be stronger than mine, your taste for shaving slithers of seconds off essentially meaningless lap-times less pronounced, but trust me, GTR2 will still grab you by the throat/knackers given half a chance. SimBin, - part-time modders turned full-time developers - have taken last year's most demanding motorsport recreation and, with a refinement here and an addition there, transformed it into 2006's most enjoyable and believable.
Top of the list of enhancements is the vastly improved grip physics. The tarmac ribbons in GTR often seemed to have the surface texture of freshly-buffed bowling lanes, while tyres had the adhesive properties of repositioned Post-It notes. Cornering with cool slicks, even at milk-float speeds, required surgical delicacy. Things are much more civilised now - dare I say it, much more realistic. You can sense weight shifts better and avert catastrophes far more consistently. When your rear end is planning to initiate a race-wrecking pirouette it now has the good manners to telegraph the fact. Exactly what SimBin have done I'm not sure I could tell you, but the result is less tentative, less exasperating racing. In layman's terms GTR2 is more fun than its punishing predecessor.
Education, education, education
The other major advance is the innocuously titled Driving School. A collection of 140 bite-size challenges, this mode has something to offer drivers of all skill and experience levels. Greenhorns will appreciate the sets of short acceleration, braking, and cornering exercises with their invaluable colour-coded racing lines (brake when the line turns red, accelerate when it turns blue) and ghostly instructor cars. Because tests aren't arranged in fixed sequences there's no danger whatsoever of frustration. If you're struggling to negotiate a particular hairpin or chicane within the prescribed time, just skip it and move onto another.
The lion's share of the school curriculum is made-up of circuit coaching exercises that even the best drivers are going to find useful. Each track in the sim has been chopped into four or more sections, and daubed with that helpful racing line. As each section only includes a handful of corners and can be reloaded almost instantly with a single key press they are a perfect way to learn a new track or polish performance on a familiar one.
Just in case the driving school's compact challenges weren't enticing enough on their own (which they are) SimBin has linked them to custom championship unlocks. Every three or four exercises you complete, a new speciality race sequence becomes available. Model-specific cups, nocturnal race sequences... these supporting acts offer interesting, shorter alternatives to the full-blown 'official' GT championships that are the spine of the sim. Both the 2003 and 2004 FIA seasons are now included. The extra year means we get to race at a couple of well thought-out Asian venues (Dubai and Zhuhai, China) in addition to the dozen or so European ones. It also means there's the opportunity to get behind the wheels of some choice new machines.
Maserati chose the '04 GT season to end a 35-year racing absence. Their Enzo-esque MC12 is the prettiest and paciest of the debutantes. Less mighty but just as exciting are NGT newcomers the Nissan 350Z and TVR T400R (as in real GT racing, fields consist of two classes of cars - GT and NGT - each scored separately). Old friends returning to the fray include ravishing supercars like the Saleen S7 and Lister Storm, and a Monte Carlo casino car-park's worth of Ferraris and Porsches. If you can't find something you like amongst the 25 models on offer here then you are either clinically dead or Jonathan Porritt.
Cars with scars
When bodyshells are this shapely, the sight of a rapidly approaching tyre-wall or brake-light is all the more alarming. Damage modelling has improved dramatically since the last SimBin offering, but don't expect things to fall apart quite as intricately as they do in the likes of Grand Prix Legends or FlatOut. In the course of a long race you usually spot/cause the odd bent wing, detached panel, exposed engine, and wayward wheel but that's pretty much it. Transmissions, engines, and windscreens all seem remarkably resistant to abuse.
Talking of windscreens, one thing you see in GTR2 that you never saw in GTL or GTR is a view of the road ahead distorted by raindrops, although the graphic is actually pretty weak (the drops don't run and your wipers don't wipe). Other weather-related visual enhancements like the blinding glare of a sinking sun or the reflection of cars in drenched tracks are much more attractive. If SimBin could just enliven their faithful-but-slightly-sterile scenery a tad more, and work on their shadows a smidgen, then GTR2 would be vying with the likes of Forza Motorsport 2 in the visual stakes.
Suggesting AI improvements is a trickier task. Maybe on default aggression settings CPU-controlled cars should be a bit bolder when lapping backmarkers. Perhaps they should also be a fraction quicker on the anchors when tailgating careless cornerers like Yours Truly. Overall though, the performance of digital drivers balances naturalism with challenge superbly. Players are usually going to be at the centre of any big pile-ups, but occasionally AI competitors will take to turf and gravel of their own accord. Always nice to see.
The Highway Netcode
For those racers that like their opponents organic there is of course multiplayer. SimBin don't appear to have done a huge amount in this area (rFactor-sized fields, faster loading, and a few more start options wouldn't have gone amiss) but, as in the numerous single-player modes, the improved grip does make a lot of difference. Now you can nudge and jostle a bit without fear of leaving a sea of frantically waving yellow flags in your wake.
Anyway, I think it's about time I wound things up with a pithy concluding quote. After all, the sooner I sign-off with a "Race sims don't come any better than GTR2" or an "If you buy one driving sim this year, buy this one" the sooner I can get back behind the wheel of my lovely burnt-orange TVR 400R and go trim another hundredth of a second off my Donington Park lap record. Wish me luck.