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TOCA Race Driver 3

Steering open-mouthed at the PS2 and Xbox versions.

Transferable skills. If we can get away mentioning them without planting the seeds of a dodgy "midnight TOCA" joke, it's all our uni chums ever talk about. On a related note, they all seemed to enjoy TOCA Race Driver 2 a great deal. They can get behind the wheel of anything from a touring car to a truck and they're generally capable of keeping them on the track and competing, yet the disciplines are distinct enough that they need to build on that foundation differently each time. Much as they do in the student union bar when faced with the prospect of shots, pints or cocktails - and probably when they're writing dissertations and fishing around for internships, too, although we wouldn't know about that. Transferable skills: experience points for directionless drinkers.

Um, so, TOCA's is a satisfying model. It takes about half a lap to establish the basics, and then you build. For the third game in the "Race Driver" series, Codemasters has refined this approach - maintaining that accessibility and adding and refining certain disciplines, but also allowing you to take larger steps beyond the basics than before, but only if that's what you want. And just as our chums will be able to spend more time tinkering with gizmos under the bonnet - as they take time out from arguing against globalisation and forming Jaffa Cake Appreciation Societies (true) - Codies has spent time tinkering with gizmos under the game's own bonnet, enhancing the graphic and sound engines to levels that push the current generation of console hardware toward keeling-over-in-the-gutter-ranting-about-student-grants point.

The latest preview build of the game, on display at Games Market Europe last week, gave us a handful of track-and-car combinations to try out in several of the game's umbrella categories - Touring, GT, Classic, Open-Wheel, Oval and Rally - and most were quick to satisfy with evidence of headroom to explore.

Picking up a European V6 and scooting around the full Brands Hatch circuit, it took a little while to establish the best braking distances for each turn and work our way into the reckoning, but the results were pretty gratifying. Running slightly wide into the big, round Druids corner, we found ourselves diving toward the left-hander at the bottom of Graham Hill with enough momentum to zip comfortably around a slower car on the right-hand side and then tuck past another on the left as we sped along the bottom straight toward Surtees. Satisfying.

That's when things went wrong - for Jack!

Slightly harder but perhaps more compelling was the '30s Vintage GP starring a fleet of beautiful Mercedes W25s at Oschersleben. With high top speeds, little downforce and much less traction than some of their modern-day counterparts, the Mercs would clash and send each other flying - cartwheeling, given half the chance - until we took advantage of racer's-friend Pausing And Restarting a few times and gave ourselves more room to brake and paid more attention to the back of the car, at which point the slalom-like cornering became easier to anticipate and it was simpler to establish where best to press the cars ahead of us.

Sadly the build we were playing was set to quite a comfortable difficulty level, so it was easy enough to leave the competition miles behind after a little while, but Codies says the eventual game will logically progress through each discipline and challenge you each time - and you'll develop rivalries with the competition, so can expect a bit of "tat" if you've shown a bit of "tit" on an earlier corner.

It'll be possible to play with all the race rules in place too, including relevant flags, if that's something that appeals to you - with a large number of variables that you can customise here and on the tuning screens. Expect this side of the game to come into its own online if the take-up is good. In-keeping with this theme of greater choice, we were told that the career mode will allow you to choose between several disciplines if success in one area proves particularly evasive. Or if you find the oval racing as tedious as we do.

One area of the last game that needed work in the eyes of critics was the rally stages. Apparently organisers actually had to lobby the development team to show them at all in an unfinished state at GME, but it was worth it to see how they're progressing. They lack the kind of constant rumbling - what we used to call the tremor effect - of Gran Turismo's equivalents, but they slot neatly between intermediate and tricky. Again on Brands - this time using a hybrid circuit that saw us sliding along muddy connecting straights between sections of track - the loss of traction was palpable and the likeness fairly convincing. Certainly more convincing than it used to be. We look forward to seeing how this pans out.

It's too early to draw any kind of conclusion about the career modes and rally sections, mind, but it seems fair to pay TOCA 3 one particular compliment: it is one of the best looking and sounding racing games we've seen on a console.

The flying car mode was eventually scrapped.

Cars may not look quite as shiny as they do in the render-like screenshots dotted around, but they're not far away - and on PS2 in particular it's a strikingly handsome game. The jagged edges on that system give it a grittier feel, and the specular effects on the track - helping the shifting light to accentuate the various bumps and blemishes of the tarmic - combined with the convincing trackside detail, both in terms of foliage and spectators, demonstrate that it's not just the car nuts at Polyphony Digital who can manhandle the Sony console. Dustbusters will have a hard time with the aftermath of a particle-frenzy of rallycross, too. Meanwhile on Xbox, the smoothing of the edges gives it a slicker look and feel, and both versions sit comfortably next to the likes of GT4 and Forza Motorsport. And neither of those games has Scotty the mechanic, do they?

Audio has been another area of concern for Codemasters, and this time the team used studio-quality mixing and high-frequency sound detail, apparently aiming for a 40-fold increase in audio assets. This is clearly lots of folds, and while you might not have an ear for every one, you will find the game's audio sounds a lot dirtier. The cars really growl this time - that much was obvious even in a trade show setting.

Mind you, just as it's difficult to sound convincing in racing games, it's difficult to sound convincing about them too; there are just so many of these multi-faceted efforts doing the rounds nowadays. So let's put it this way: Games Market Europe took place on one of the hottest days of the year, in what can only be described as a Victorian greenhouse, and we still stood there sweating ourselves into an undignified squelch until we'd conquered everything. Games that rob us of our dignity are clearly worth supporting, and TOCA 3 is one.

TOCA Race Driver 3 is due out in February 2006 on PC, PS2 and Xbox.

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