It seems like a stupid idea, really. What's the use of a racing game with a plot, when presumably all the player wants to do is drive the fugging cars? When TOCA Race Driver appeared on PlayStation 2 last year, we were of mixed opinion as to whether or not the plot idea worked. Some eight months later, PC TOCA fans finally have the chance to get their hands on it. Does it live up to their and our expectations?
Angry young man
The plot isn't exactly the deepest or most emotive tale we've encountered, and borrows from racing movies gone by here and there, following the career path of young Ryan McKane, who is attempting to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and late father, the racetrack death of whom Ryan witnessed as a lad.
Ryan, however, is a bitter fellow. Not in the sense that he's out for vengeance as such, we just think he's a bit of a prat. I mean, our mate Ryo in Shenmue witnessed his own father's death and is out for revenge, and although he's not a lad of many words at least he's got time to play some OutRun and look after kittens. C'mon Ryan, don't be such a stick-in-the-mud.
There's even a love interest for our man, albeit one that walks like a penguin, and a far more likeable arch nemesis with a nice goatee and a gruff British accent (because the bad guys are always British, right?). All the while, the press is patronising Ryan's talents as a driver, and so his need to prove himself as his own man starts to become his number one priority.
The various cut scenes that advance the story are interspersed between races, and cleverly differ according to your performance in the current championship. The actors are very well animated and voiced for the most part, apart from the aforementioned lovely lady's waddling problem, and are presented in their own little real-time 3D engine. The actor models themselves look a little rough at times, and we'd even go so far as to say mildly psychotic-looking, but they're passable.
On one hand, the plot idea could serve as a minor irritation to some, and on the other it lends the series - and to a lesser extent the genre - a refreshing new direction. It certainly makes the game unique if nothing else. The fact that your virtual representation in the game is a petulant idiot with the attitude problems of a schoolboy really doesn't help matters much though, and coupled with the floundering and rather disappointing visual presentation on PS2, TOCA Race Driver felt slightly under whelming.
The main coup of the PC version over the PS2, however, is that it that the on-track visuals have been given a massive overhaul. This is no example of cheap porting - the higher resolution that PC hardware affords is only the basis of a wealth of improvements in the engine: car models remain detailed regardless of distance; textures are sharp and beautifully rendered; convincing lighting and reflective effects bathe the cars and environment, even the tarmac, in realism; the employment of motion blur dramatically helps to enforce a sense of speed; and most importantly of all, there's a huge boost in framerate as the engine slings the action round at an occasionally frightening pace.
It feels as if the game really has come into its own here, the racing becoming all the more compelling thanks to mere improvements in the engine. Sadly, though, areas where the original tripped up stand out all the more. While the cars handle well for the most part, the physics can be inexplicably quirky at times and sometimes just downright unrealistic, particularly when things get a little hairy and cars lift off the ground, which is ridiculously rare. A car that takes off seems to glide through the air, land, and skim across the surface of the track without rolling or pirouetting or doing anything you'd expect it to. With the game capable of some enormous speeds, it's disappointing that decent crash physics are absent. Burnout this ain't.
We are the champions, we are
Your overall aim is, of course, to prove Ryan's worth by becoming the World Champion. You achieve this by advancing through a couple of competition tiers before advancing to the final Lola world circuit challenge. The game starts off simply enough on a dash round Brands Hatch to earn your stripes, and then a jaunt in TOCA itself. Once that's out of the way, you have a choice of other competitions to take part in as part of your tier, where your successes determine how quickly you will rack up tier points.
Invitations to come and drive for the various teams in various competitions arrive for you by e-mail on your office computer. Each team offers various cash bonuses in return for impressive performance, and once you've found a deal that takes your fancy, you can immediately set off on the tour of your choice. At the end of the tour, the points you've earned are added to your cumulative total for that tier. Once you've earned enough points, you move up a tier. Additionally, opportunities to drive in single race exhibition events will occasionally land in your inbox, and offer the chance to gain points quickly and easily without getting involved in an entire competition.
The whole approach and progression lends an appealingly comfortable and almost arcade-like feel to the game. The simulation side only really rears its head in the form of the car tuning screens available, but not essential, before each race. Your mechanic can offer a little advice on where the car might need some tweaking for the particular circuit you're about to drive on, and thankfully the game doesn't get bogged down with stats and charts - tweaking things to get the feel of the car just right can become a small sideline distraction in itself.
There are faults, of course. Mainly, the physics really could have done with some more attention, the damage modelling could have been put together slightly more convincingly, and the lack of rear and side-view mirror reflections is quite baffling - instead you can either keep flicking to a rear view camera, or pay attention to the little red warning arrow that lets you know where the guy behind is. Also, the cardboard cutout crowd really looks ridiculous alongside the otherwise tremendous graphics. But issues like these are mostly insignificant, only coming to light after heavy play, and thankfully not immediately irritating.
It's surprising just how fresh TOCA Race Driver feels, and we're quite taken aback at just how compelling the game can be. The races are usually exciting enough to keep you pushing through the championships and tiers, and the story is rather silly but all the more amusing for it. At least it distracts from the mind numbing habit of bounding from race to menu to race, like so many games of its ilk.
A brave effort from Codemasters, then, and one that pays off for the most part. With a little more work on what's been achieved here, a sequel could stand out all the more.