Given how much hype TOCA Race Driver has enjoyed during its relatively short spell of 15 months in development, I doubt many of you are coming to this review ignorant of the premise or confused by the concept. Nevertheless, those of you as-yet uninitiated need remember only two things: this is the sequel to those rightly revered TOCA games on the PlayStation, and this time it's found a plot.
But before I get onto that, let's peg down the game's 'vital stats' as it were. We're looking at 42 licensed touring and race cars, from manufacturers like Peugeot, Ford, MG, Mercedes and so on, scaling ever upward in terms of horsepower and aesthetic beauty. You get to race them on 38 real-life courses, from shady country retreats like Brands Hatch to major Grand Prix circuits like Silverstone and all across the globe as far afield as Hockenheim, Vancouver and various circuits in the United States. As you might expect, the licensing doesn't end there, and fans will recognise drivers like Jason Plato, James Thompson and Yvan Muller just as readily as their cars.
Continuing down the path of the expected, you'll find mostly realistic physics (albeit at times quirky and more arcade-oriented than its contemporaries), an advanced damage engine to highlight those discarded bonnets, shattered windscreen and crumpled chassis, and the ability to customise your car setup, either as you like or according to your mechanic's detailed advice.
TOCA Finds The Plot
Yet despite all this conventionality, Codemasters are, if you'll excuse the pun, attempting to drive the genre forward this time around. The big new feature is the plot. The game begins with old, garbled footage of a speedway race, led by a magnificent and unstoppable driver called McKane, who finishes first much to the pleasure of the American "announcers". As he rockets past the chequered flag though, he finds himself sideswiped by a particularly antisocial competitor, and he spins off and perishes in a ball of flames. In the stands, young Donnie and Ryan McKane watch in horror, and twenty years later you step into the shoes of Ryan as he attempts to follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother. So you join a team and get your first season in TOCA off to a start at Brands Hatch, and having first met the players (your English mechanic and porky American backer) you race.
Sadly, the plot is rather forgettable stuff, borrowing from plenty of driving films. It doesn't help that Ryan is a petulant yank with little respect or time for others, nor that your arch nemesis is a ferocious and eminently more likeable Brit with a gruff voice. Furthermore, the game's love interest, the luscious Melanie, happens to walk like a demented penguin and appears to sport a moustache - she does a fine line in comebacks though, but that just serves to make Ryan look like even more of an arse.
Still, the way the Codies have built the game around the plot is quite intelligent. Your office serves as the game's main menu, and from here you can go for a ride, play some multiplayer, admire your trophy collection and examine the world map. Or, you can plug into your computer and embark upon a season's racing, by responding affirmatively to emails from interested teams. Your garage is another menu, and you can tweak your car here, test drive it or just head out for the race.
Lights, Camera, Rolling Start
Your first season is TOCA, and serves as a nice way to get used to the controls, car handling and AI behaviour. Tracks are lifted from real-life, and you start on Brands - one of the simplest and most enjoyable courses there is - but diving into the first corner is still a bit too much like trotting up to the five-metre board during your first swimming lesson. Nevertheless, as you gradually improve you'll finish the season and find yourself inundated with offers from other teams, and invitations to take part in pre-season exhibition races for fame and fortune. Before long you'll have fought enough seasons and picked up enough points to advance to the next tier of competition, where the cars are faster, the AI is tougher and the tracks are further abroad. Your ultimate goal is to win enough races to reach the Lola world circuit and become World Champion.
In the process, the plot will ebb and flow accordingly. Cutscenes are interspersed between races depending on what you did on the track and where you are in the narrative, and although we'd have preferred slightly fewer moaning yanks, the cutscenes are all conducted in their own little engine and very well animated, not to mention surprisingly well voice-acted. Facial detail on every character is as fine as we've seen on any system, and body language (apart from the aforementioned waddling love interest) is decidedly realistic.
The problem with the plot though is that Ryan is a disagreeable young scamp. He's a person I would be unlikely to want to speak to, let alone emulate, and throughout the game I never really felt emotionally attached. Dealing with the loss of a father is tough, but showing a bit of common bleedin' courtesy and possessing emotional depth beyond teenage tantrums is not.
All of which leaves me with what happens on the track, and unfortunately it's a jumble of almost goodness and significant disappointment. The racing does not match the presentation for a start. The graphics look like high-end PSone, and it's clear that all the screenshots we've so admired came from the replays, which cram more detail into the picture but at the expense of a smooth framerate. On the track, textures are simple and invariable and cars are blocky until you get up-close. Roaring down the home straight at Brands or Donnington, you could be forgiven for wondering where all the polygons went.
TOCA plays quite well, but it isn't as realistic as Gran Turismo thanks to the heavily emphasized arcade sentiment, which paradoxically introduces a steep learning curve, and this will probably throw casual racers before it gets exciting. This is mainly because of some abnormal car behaviour - brake late into a sharp bend for example, and avoiding a trip to the gravel is a case of hitting the gas hard and finding some inexplicably convenient oversteer. However, the AI is nicely balanced, and you can pull ahead of it if you drive really well, although at times you wonder if it isn't a bit too limp to deal with you. Grid spaces are allotted seemingly at random to keep the game flowing, so most of the "action" is artificial. Had you qualified yourself to the front of the grid, you would probably never have seen those on your tail.
One thing that does stand true about TOCA though is that all this plot injection, grid generation, vendetta clutching and other hyperbole does help to create and cultivate a genuinely unconventional racing game. Whether or not it hits the spot is debateable, but there is a definite market for this, and we can imagine the sequel learning from its various mistakes and delivering a great deal more.
TOCA Race Driver is a nice step forward for the series, but simulation fans will find the car handling and behaviour off-putting. Compared to GT Concept the visuals are like a trip back in time, and of course there's no shortage of superior racing games available on PlayStation 2 already. On the other hand, we certainly enjoyed the game at times, and if you're sick of choosing between "championship mode" and "time trial" to quench your thirst for speed, you could do a lot worse than give TOCA a look.