Making serious racing games fun is a discipline Codemasters has doggedly been plugging away at for over half a decade now. Whether via Colin McRae Rally, IndyCar Series or the often po-faced TOCA series, it hasn't always been the smoothest ride for the Warwickshire publisher - getting off to a flying start in the latter days of the PSone, and then coming off the track in trying to get to grips with current technology - but all that seems to have changed recently.
Last year's Colin McRae Rally 04 surprised many by making amends for the alarming technological deficiencies of the previous version just a year afterwards, and TOCA Race Driver 2 manages to go even further. Not only does it raise the game in terms of vastly improving on 2002's TOCA Race Driver in technical terms, but it provides a pot pourri racing game that hits that sweet spot between being both a great simulation and almost the perfect arcade racer. It provides a convincing handling model across all 15 of its racing disciplines, some of the best CPU AI ever seen (with often over 20 cars racing against you at once) and a level of fun that ought to come as standard in racing games, but is so often bizarrely sacrifice for some alleged stab at realism.
More than the sum of its parts
TOCA Race Driver 2 is an odd game to behold. Break it down into its constituent parts and it's worth noting that some individual elements have been done better elsewhere. The graphics, for example - as good as they are - can't touch the benchmark splendour of the cruelly underperforming RalliSport Challenge 2. The damage modelling does a fair job, but isn't anywhere near as exact as Colin 04, while the race days can appear to be oddly restrictive, only allowing the player to race a prescribed vehicle, with no control over where you appear on the grid. But somehow the overall package is so well constructed that every doubt you have seems to be erased, and replaced by the simple joy that only a few really great games every year deliver. The truth is, the further you progress into TRD2, the more you feel compelled to carry on.
Codemasters evidently believes in the idea of giving the player the feel of being a rookie driver with Something To Prove. Its initial attempts in this area in the past have felt forced, hamfisted and - to be blunt - a bit rubbish. With lessons of the past learned, TRD2 takes the whole concept forward, reworks it and does a damn fine job of injecting personality and even humour into what could so easily be a straight procession through a myriad of races. Instead you've got the dour pragmatist Scotty doing his bit to kick you up the arse, while agents, media types and fellow racers get in on the act on your rise through the ranks.
As is the norm for heavyweight racing games, it's essential to head straight for the Career mode to stand a chance of getting anything out of TOCA Race Driver 2, and throughout the season you'll be fighting for your racing survival. Ingeniously, TRD2 doesn't expect you to necessarily win everything straight away in order to catch the eye. As the season progresses through 15 different racing disciplines - everything from NASCAR, to truck driving, street racing to super charged circuit racing - you're often merely tasked with finishing ahead of a specific rival. The chances are you'll still have to make a podium finish to be sure of success, but should you happen to cause your rival to utterly spin out thanks to a well-timed shunt, you might well find yourself capable of progressing through a relatively low placed finish.
It's this saner, more lifelike approach to the racing structure that really appeals, making success a more unpredictable and more exciting experience. Rather than do what many games do and force the player to race the perfect race in order to scrape through, TRD2 makes it feasible for you to carry on even when things aren't going as well as you'd hope them to. And even when it does all go wrong, being able to go back to the second of a four race series and retrace your steps cuts out a huge chunk of frustration. Most games would ask the player to do the whole damned series again, no matter how time consuming and pointless an exercise that may be, but TRD2 keeps you fired up - and that's what matters.
Even when performing hopelessly, the time it takes to do a pause/restart is so quick you're never wasting time, hindered by poor loading times or bad menu design. It's simple things like this that eliminate any annoyance, and all you're left to reflect on is your own bad luck or judgement when things go wrong. TRD2 is not a game you'll ever be cursing for bad design. You may well regularly wish you were better at the game - and eventually your wishes do come true - but you're never left pontificating on stupid AI or inaccurate handling. In both areas TRD2 is a master class of what games of this nature should feel like.
Stood next to much-loved games like Project Gotham Racing 2, TRD2 beats it hands down when it comes to the feeling of being in a race. PGR2's relentless drone behaviour, with AI cars never budging from their racing line is never more exposed once you've spent time with Codemasters' epic. Cars don't try and slam into you for a start, and might end up worse off if they get their manoeuvre wrong. In TRD2, defending your position is perfectly possible with a degree of skill and anticipation, while the game gives the player a certain advantage while slamming their way to the front of the pack, allowing you to use other cars as slide shields, which is not only great fun, but a very pleasant change to the usual CPU tactic of making everyone but you vulnerable. Some have argued that this is a demonstration of bad physics, and that may well be true in real life, but in the context of a videogame, it suited us just fine.
Too hot to handle?
The handling, meanwhile, is almost beyond compare in any other driving game to date. To build in so many radically different handling models into one game is frankly astonishing. Most games get by with variations on one style of handling, but TRD2 is practically a compendium of different games it changes so much. Jump in a Rally race, and follow it up with a street race, then a truck race and so on, and it's sometimes hard to believe you're still playing the same game. And it's not just the convincing feel that's heart-warming, but the fact that all of this takes place at contrasting speeds on a decent number of tracks. If variety is what you're after, consider TRD2 the Now That's What I Call Driving compilation.
The audio is another area which never fails to deliver, with possibly the best engine noises ever to find their way into a driving game, with a punch that really tests the very best surround set-up and almost worth the asking price on its own. Add to that voiceovers from Scotty that actually bother to vary their instructions subtly to avoid endless repetition, while the between race interludes are nowhere near as cringe-worthily cheesy as you'd expect. At times they're, dare we say it, actually quite amusing, which is definitely a first in a racing game.
Visually it's almost as good as we've seen on the Xbox. Okay, it doesn't quite match the awesome splendour present in Rallisport Challenge 2, but remember that in TRD2 is almost always circuit-based (with the odd Rally track being the exception) and you're competing against as many as 20-odd other drivers at the same time. Something had to give, but you'd be hard pressed to find much to complain about. Even going for it at full pelt, there's never any hint of frame rate loss, pop up, fogging, or any of the usual compromises we're forced to accept as inevitable. It always feels smooth, often insanely fast, has some excellent vehicle models and the familiar tracks that it does include are as well represented as you've ever seen. Obviously, including tracks like Brands Hatch is never going to make the game look as good as it could, but throwing in the odd street-based track more than makes up for it. To be frank you really won't even care after a while. It looks great, it feels great, and while the damage modelling has been bettered elsewhere, it's not exactly something that detracts from the game for more than a few seconds. After that you're simply locked into one of the most engaging racing games ever seen.
Faff no more
Some players might bleat that the race structure in itself is flawed, in that putting the driver into a prescribed car and dumping you on the grid seemingly at random without allowing you to qualify is annoying, and they may have a point. Part of you occasionally hungers for more control over the race days - being able to choose your car and set it up - but in a sense just getting thrown into a scenario or a challenge and being forced to get on with it is very refreshing. It actually takes a lot of the faffing out of the game, and forces you to get on with the meat of the game - the racing. There are, of course, other means of playing TRD2 as more of a true simulation, and those who really desire to tinker around can do so - so there shouldn't really be any complaints.
One area we haven't even mentioned, of course, is multiplayer - one of the most celebrated elements of the whole package. Wrapped up in the beautifully intuitive Xbox Live design, it works a treat, allowing for races for up to 12 players at the same time, with the ubiquitous Optimatch and quick match options allowing drivers to leap into some superbly entertaining races. The premise hinges around a winning or losing points based on your racing performance. Everyone starts off with 1500 points, and it's basically then up to you to attempt to boost your ranking as you see fit. Some players report occasional lag issues, but from our experiences it's no worse than any other Xbox Live game - and everyone's connection status is rated beforehand - with the host capable of kicking laggers off if they wish.
As an added bonus, the Live element is an outstanding part of the experience, and arguably worth it for this alone. Throw in the stupendously entertaining and exceptionally challenging campaign mode into the equation, which is easily twenty, thirty hours on its own (some of the races can take half an hour each to master), with some 31 championships on offer in total, and, well...
Bottom line? Buy it.
It's often hard to get excited about the arrival of yet another racing game when the market is so saturated by them. In fact, the general apathy of there being another racing game to review is part of the reason we've taken so long to get around to devoting serious time to this one, but we're glad our preconceptions have been categorically blown out of the water. TOCA Race Driver 2 is ace, and if you see it going cheap in the summer sales it would be foolish to pass it by. In fact, we'd probably go so far as to say it's the most fun we've had with a racing game for years. Codies continues to nail "seriously fun".