Before TOCA Race Driver came screeching along, the world of racing simulators was a pretty bleak landscape. Often hiding their complete lack of accessibility behind the po-faced claims of "realistic" handling, they were almost always blighted by the kind of learning curves that made scaling Everest seem eminently doable by comparison.
On the other extreme, most arcade racing games seem determined to be as ludicrously unrealistic as possible, with handling and damage modelling based entirely on providing fun and thrills to literally anyone. No bad thing, but not necessarily for those of us wanting a slice of fun to go with our wedge of authenticity.
Bridging the gap
Evidently realising the vast gaping chasm that existed in the market, Codemasters' TOCA Race Driver series - by accident or by design - has plugged that divide remarkably well. Finding itself with practically an entire sub genre all to itself, it suddenly finds itself under more scrutiny than ever - especially given its simultaneous release across three formats - but no one expected Codies to fail after its last magnificent effort, and it hasn’t.
But like most 'difficult' third releases, its progress and evolution has stalled slightly, most evidently thanks to the decision to stick to current generation platforms. So what do developers do when they can't wow the public with amazing new physics techniques and flashy next gen visuals? Refine the successful formula that got such a critical back slapping last time out and throw in an eye-watering amount of content to make the whole thing last even longer. Easy.
As such, that makes our job of explaining what TOCA Race Driver's about that much easier, because most of you'll know the drill by now. You'll know already that the handling's consistently excellent, that the damage modelling is among the best around, that the graphics are about as good as they get on current gen systems, and what a vast beast of a game it is. Just as before, it's a game that covers all bases but never dilutes the experience. It really is an all-encompassing pot pourri of contrasting vehicles and driving disciplines, and is basically brilliant at making the idea of mastering every kind of four wheel driving discipline around seem hugely entertaining. But you knew that already, didn't you?
Just like before, there's the familiar World Tour mode to wade through, giving racers the choice of at least two (but mostly three) racing disciplines to master in each tier before they can progress on to the next. So, for example, you might decide you're better at Rally driving than Indy Car or Monster Trucks, meaning your path through the game will very much be dictated by your own personal gaming preferences, which you'll appreciate more and more the harder the game gets. In particular, it's this ability to try another discipline and progress via another route that takes a lot of the potential frustration out of the TOCA Race Driver, while also giving you more of what you do want. It's a win-win.
Once again, you've got the guiding hand of Rick behind you (the thistle tongued ageing Scot) barking instructions to you when you're on the track and giving essential driving tips prior to races. Codies has sadly toned down the 'plot' elements that were such a welcome part of TRD2, and as such the game's now a more serious affair than it was. Nowadays the cut scenes are more likely to dwell on sound driving advice than flirty agents and TV crews, but the light-hearted tone helps keep your interest, while the occasional clash with a monkey-faced rival is pure comedy gold on the rare occasions that they occur.
Whichever race discipline you plump for, the formula remains unchanged, meaning there's no qualifying, no choice of which car to drive, a very limited number of laps, a pre-determined position on the grid, and the over-riding requirement to finish at least fourth in the overall table during the three or so races you'll have to clear in each tier. As annoying as some of these restrictions can be, the game's designed sympathetically so that you'll almost certainly be able to work your way into a winning position with skill and persistence. And if you don't... the races really aren't that long so replaying repeatedly them isn't too bothersome - besides, it's a formula that's fun, challenging and realistic, delivering the excitement of the more action focused racing, with much more authentic handling and damage considerations. Needless to say, the faster the vehicle, the more careful you have to be, and the more important it becomes to be familiar with each track.
With such a short-sharp approach to racing, you're never forced to dwell on any given race for lengthy amounts of time, and very quickly this quick fix approach to the World Tour mode makes it as compulsive as any arcade racing game you've ever come across. It also becomes quite a test, too, meaning you really have to throw yourself into the practising the course layout and the unique handling demands of each different vehicle .Once you start making headway, though, don't expect TOCA to be a game that you'll crack easily. More than likely - with 120 championships to beat, 80 tracks to memorise and 35 racing disciplines to suss out - you'll be the one cracking first.
But that's not even half of the story.
For those that want more control over grid position, car choice, car set-up and so on, Codies have concocted an unbelievably huge Pro Career Mode for the really committed types to wade through over the next year or more. Split into eight specific racing discipline categories including Classics, GT, Oval, Touring Car, and Off Road, you get the chance to play any of them, with full racing rules, flags, pitstops and the like to adhere to during races - which certainly put paid to our corner cutting tactics and tendency to barge opponents into the sand traps whenever possible.
The basic driving experience in the Pro Career mode might feel pretty similar to the World Tour mode at first... until you realise that your aggressive driving style cuts no ice with the officials. Qualifying, for example, allows no corner cutting at all, while any crazy driving in-race soon gets slapped down, with warnings and eventually time penalties added. The series of races is much longer too, with roughly nine to compete across, rather than the three or so in World Tour mode. While this certainly makes it easier to win the championship if you're good, it forces you to put in consistently good performances over a greater breadth of tracks. It's certainly not for the faint-hearted, and should test drivers to the limit of their endurance.
Model of consistency
The fact that the game appears to cope with any racing discipline you can throw at it and emerge with so much startling consistency makes you realise just how well executed TOCA Race Driver 3 really is. When most games struggle to pull off one racing discipline with any real aplomb, for Codies to come along and trump the competition in such emphatic style is worthy of serious acclaim. You wouldn't bet against them making tractor racing seem fun if it was an option - in fact the various unlockables (including toy cars, apparently) make it seem like the kind of project where anything's possible. Factor in the huge number of tracks on offer, the high quality of the computer AI and the ability to tinker with Simulation mode and set up your own races and championships to your own requirements and apart from maybe more cars there's virtually nothing more you could want from a racing game.
Okay, so we've not mentioned multiplayer yet, but it's by no means an afterthought, with two player split screen support of up to 12 players on Xbox Live (12 on PC, 8 on PS2). With a decent degree of choice on offer, you get to play through any of the available championships or racing disciplines that you fancy, with the chance to play either an individual race or an entire series. Even better, you get to choose to what degree fellow players must play by the rules, with the chance to mete out penalties for cut corners, prangs and the like, or you can simply race in no-holds-barred fashion. Likewise, if you’re worried about your online Driver Rating, you can choose to take part in races that affect your worldwide ranking. For the real pros this is certainly a big deal. On the downside, being able to join games already in progress is a bit pointless, and a bit of a time waster, but on the whole the multiplayer element works just fine, with no discernable lag issues to report.
Not that anyone will be remotely surprised by this assessment, but Codemasters has really pulled out all the stops to make TOCA Race Driver 3 about as good as it could possibly be on Xbox. Simply, it’s another excellent driving game that puts most of the competition to shame - not just because it's so utterly rammed with so much top-notch content, but that it does so to such a consistently high standard. With an excellent online mode to boot, it really does offer the lot; as far as serious driving games go, this is as good as it gets right now.