The RACE 07 review code arrived on the same day Team Fortress 2 entered my life. Unfortunate timing. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to drive a simulated Honda Accord round and round Anderstorp when they could be erecting sentry guns, beating medics to pulp with baseball bats, and plunging daggers into the backs of waddling heavies?
Me, it turns out. For the last few days TF2 hasn't had a look in. I've been too busy wearing out the tarmac at Zandvoort and Brno, Brands Hatch and Pau. Too busy bustling through chicanes, nudging bumpers, clipping kerbs, correcting slides, weaving between pranged rivals, and generally driving like a footballer fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run.
I didn't have particularly high hopes for RACE 07. Its predecessor, last year's RACE, didn't impress the way SimBin's earlier offerings GT Legends and GTR 2 impressed. The racing was close and convincing, yes, but there was something missing. Charisma, blistering speed, Cortinas... something.
RACE 07 is much more successful primarily because the devs have taken a leaf out of the Codemasters' design manual and supplemented their conservative core content (contemporary touring cars) with tantalising exotica like Formula 3000, Radical sportscars and Caterhams. When you get weary of the fairly sedate, slightly school-run SEATs, BMWs, Alfas and Chevrolets, you can go jump into something seriously skittish like this or seriously swift like this. Those that like their steeds feisty have access to plenty of feist.
The sim also benefits from the livelier venues on this year's WTCC calendar. Last time around the only street circuit was Macau. In the sequel we get to belt along the concrete-lined boulevards of Porto, Portugal, and the palm-fringed rues of Pau in Southern France. The latter location (and this is a compliment) really doesn't feel like a suitable environment for high-performance automobiles. The roads are too narrow, the corners too sharp, the vistas too quaint. Rounding most bends, you half expect to see a Gallic granny plodding across the road with a wicker shopping trolley in tow.
Caterhaming for all tastes
Less fraught, but just as exhilarating as Pau is Zandvoort. Built amongst the wind-buffeted sand dunes of the Dutch west coast, its undulations and interesting cambers give it the personality that the other new track - Anderstorp - lacks. Not that the odd dull circuit matters much. With variants there's a store of more than 30 courses to choose from. Create a customised championship rather than opting for the recreations of the 06 or 07 WTCC season and you can build a sequence from your favourite tracks, and race it using your favourite car class. I'm currently two races into a fun-sized Caterham season. Five European circuits, single-race weekends, half-length races, smallish fields... it's all very cosy, very me.
Possibly more important to hardcore fans than highly customisable championships is the fact that RACE 07 - at least in its non-Steam incarnation - appears to tolerate a fair bit of tampering. The original RACE was locked up tighter than Fort Knox (which didn't help it make friends). Fans are already inserting new tracks into this edition.
Fancy a game-related anecdote? Well, you're going to have to endure one; it will help illustrate the pleasingly fallible AI.
Picture the scene. Last lap in a damp Radical race at Curitiba. After spinning out earlier Yours Truly is on a charge. He's fought his way back into the points and is now pushing hard - really hard - for a podium place. Half a lap from the finish he takes advantage of a scuffle between the two cars in front to nip through on the inside. He's in second place and quietly congratulating himself when, rounding the penultimate corner, he finds the race leader sideways, smoke-wreathed, and stranded in the centre of the track. There's a split-second of shock followed by a crunching collision. Detached wheels bounce off in several directions. A howl of anguish tinged with disbelief rends the air. The End.
I should point-out that the only reason I was able to claw my way back into contention in the above situation was that I'd cunningly nobbled the AI before the race. As in most SimBin creations there's plenty of different settings you can fiddle with to make the game friendlier. With driver aids like traction control and ABS active, automatic gearboxes and corner indicators on, and cars like the Mini and Leon in the line-up, there's really nothing here to be wary of. Hell, with the surprising efficiency of the mouse steering you can even get away without a wheel or gamepad.
If you are new to race sims you'll definitely want to avoid the bizarre new helmet cam. Available when driving the open-wheelers, it's meant to simulate the view from a crash helmet, but includes so much of the chin-bar you end up feeling like your gazing at the world from the back of a cave. Oh well... tearing away the disposable visors to remove dirt and splattered insects is satisfying.
SimBin are currently working on a new game engine called Lizard. Playing around with the numerous camera options in RACE 07 it's not difficult to see why. Despite improvements in areas like rain effects and bystander depiction, the Gmotor engine is beginning to look rather tired. Crude shadowing and reflections, primitive vegetation modelling, deserted pit lanes... none of this stuff matters that much when weighed against the superlative handling models, strong audio, decent AI, and robust MP, but it does mean I can't bring myself to award this very fine racing game more than a Nascar-mocking 8.