Reviewed: May 8, 2003
Released: April 3, 2003
Regardless of the system you play your games on, there has never been a shortage of racing games, and until now your main deciding criteria has generally been reduced to whether the game is a “sim” or an “arcade” racer. Racing games are generally born from the same mold; throw in a few dozen cars, a dozen tracks, a few racing modes, and out comes yet another racing title.
Codemasters’ new release, Pro Race Driver, finally manages to put a new spin on the genre by including everything we’ve come to expect and something new – a story! That’s right; Pro Race Driver is the first next-gen racing title to actually have a story underlying the basic and often repetitive gameplay of driving your car around in circles for a few laps against computer-controlled drivers. While your goal is obviously still to cross the finish line ahead of the other drivers, the soap opera-like drama that plays out between the races does a surprising job of immersing you in the gameplay.
For the skeptics out there, you should know that Pro Race Driver is actually the next evolution of the critically acclaimed TOCA series. Anyone who has played those games will know what I am talking about, and if you haven’t, rest assured that this is one evolutionary addition to an exceptional series of games.
Pro Race Driver includes an impressive list of features that reads like the bible of racing games:
The movie/story mode of the game is the central core of this title and the story unfolds with a dramatic opening CG prologue that recounts the tragic death of our hero’s father in a suspicious and quite unnecessary racing accident. We jump ahead many years to join Ryan McKane (that’s us) and his brother who have both followed in their father’s footsteps. Thanks to his father’s reputation, Ryan is given an unprecedented opportunity to prove himself as a driver to be reckoned with.
The primary interface is your garage/office and you access the various menu items by moving around this virtual world. Ryan sits at his desk and can read incoming email that more often than not is inviting him to race in some upcoming race or championship series somewhere around the world. You can head to the garage and perform multiple setup configurations for your car, test them out, then head to the track. The designers did a great job of having the interface compliment the game rather than overshadowing the real reason you are here – to race!
Pro Race Driver is refreshingly non-linear. You can browse your email invitations and choose any of the races you qualify for. This means that if one particular series is continually kicking your ass you can perfect your skills on easier courses or drive countless practice laps until you have every turn memorized. This basically opens up the entire game to be played however you see fit, and no two careers will ever be the same.
There is a bit of the business side of racing included in Pro Race Driver. You need to win races and get sponsorship to get money to advance through the RPG-like game system. This progression moves you through several tiered racing brackets that not only increase your prize money, but also the difficulty of your opponents.
Some invitations to race come with a prerequisite test lap that you must finish in a predetermined par time before you can even participate in the race. These races give you 3-4 attempts to match or beat that time and then you are turned away. This can be a bit annoying since you have to reload your previous save game to erase your “strikes” before attempting to join that race again.
Races are your typical big-time sponsored events but occasionally a mini-challenge will be thrown at you. Early in my career I was approached by an aspiring racer who dared challenge me with his muscle car. He did offer a surprising level of competition but in the end his Charger was no match for my racecar. These little challenges appear at random and help to break up the monotony of simply going from race to race.
The story behind the game unfolds through dramatic cutscenes between the various races. These movies are keyed into a timing sequence rather than location so if you reload and replay from a saved game and take a different career path you will still get the movies in the same order at the same time regardless of where you are racing. There are even a few non-story related movies tossed in to keep things fresh. If you are particularly dangerous during a race a rival driver may approach you after the race and give you a verbal bashing. There is even a humorous movie early in the game where Ryan is hitting on a hot girl in the pit area and gets shot down in flames to the ridicule of everyone who witnessed the exchange. All of these little touches help draw you into the story and put you in that flame-retardant racing suit and behind the wheel.
Racing games all boil down to physics and opponent AI and Pro Race Driver excels at both. The driver AI is brutally competitive and even manages to hold a grudge. This was something that Gran Turismo 3 was supposed to do but didn’t, but now you can actually piss off your competition and they will retaliate. If you slam into somebody’s rear bumper or knock them into a wall they will be after you with a vengeance. Unfortunately, their angle doesn’t seem to carry over to future races, so you only have to survive any remaining laps after a mishap, whether intentional or accidental.
Unlike most racing games where the computer cars will follow a programmed line to the exclusion of common sense or awareness of the cars around them, the drivers in Pro Race Driver are all surprisingly intelligent and act and react as if you were playing against human opponents. The AI is quite unforgiving and there is none of that “rubber band racing” that artificially creates a close finish or allows you to catch-up. One spinout or minor wreck could cost you the entire race and only clean, fast, precise driving will continually reward you with checkered flags. Additionally, the PC version offers 20 cars on the track versus the 8 cars found on the PS2 version. This creates a much more realistic and challenging race atmosphere.
Physics are truly state-of-the-art just as the box proclaims. Not since Gran Turismo 3 have I seen such realistic physics, only Pro Race Driver won’t have you “bouncing” off the walls or other cars. Your car will now take realistic damage that is not only reflected visually but in the way your car performs. If you smack into that wall at 120mph you can rest assured your car will start pulling to the side. Body parts are detachable and bumpers and fenders will fly off on impact. You may even have to dodge a piece of car lying in the track on future laps.
Physics is further reflected in the way the cars handle and feel. Each car has a very distinct handling and you simply can’t jump into a new model and expect to turn record laps. You are going to need to practice and practice until you learn all the nuances of each new ride. Cars all accelerate and brake differently but it’s all totally realistic. Cars will flip, tip and roll creating some of the most spectacular and realistic crashes ever seen in a racing game. Unlike many racers where your performance is based entirely on the stats of your car, Pro Race Driver relies on your skill and abilities as a driver.
As good as the physics are, they are admittedly an exaggeration of real-world physics, so racers coming off games like NASCAR and GPL will likely scoff at this title. Codemasters does offer a code that activate a much more challenging "sim" mode, but the problem with this is that it only affects you and your car, so while you struggle with the "new physics model" the rest of the pack is screaming around the track in their original and surreal phyics model.
One major advantage of the PC version of Pro Race Driver is the abundance of steering wheels and pedals that are available for the PC. Pro Race Driver definitley tips the scale of realism toward the simulation side of things and as such requires a wheel and pedal combo to be played to any degree of success. Sure, you can play and probably even with with the keyboard or even a joystick, but why bother? Get a wheel and do it right! I tried the game with several wheels including my Mad Catz Andretti Wheel and a couple of my Thrustmaster and Microsoft Precision wheels, both with and without force feedback. All of the wheels offered a much-improved control scheme over the keyboard (naturally) and the force effects were surprisingly good.
Pro Race Driver offers some excellent graphics despite a few obvious and even detremental omissions. You are also going to need a seriously powerful computer to make this game really shine. Normally my 1.4GHz with 512mb RAM and Ti500 video card can crank out serious detail at smooth framerates for just about any game going, but I found I had to make several concessions in quality to get a decent framrate. While you can probably get the game to look and play as good as the PS2 version, the amount of hardware and tweaking involved might actually make the PS2 version the preferred format of choice for this title - at least as far as graphics are concerned.
All of the tracks have been recreated with painstaking detail so if you are a real-life race fan you are going to instantly recognize locations like Sears Point, Laguna Seca, and Silverstone just to name a few. The backgrounds are gorgeous with multiple layers that scroll by at variable speeds creating an amazing and realistic sensation of speed. Objects in the distance are blurred just enough then fade into focus as you rush at them at frightening speeds.
Racing fans rejoice! There is an in-car dash view. Perhaps the single most voiced complaint about console racers, Codemasters comes through with a realistic dash view that offers incredible realism as well as obscuring much of your outside view. If realism isn’t that important you can cycle through the three other views that include bumper, chase, and hood view. One good wreck can crumple that hood and block much of your view if you are racing from inside the car.
One huge complaint from many serious racers was the lack of a rearview mirror on the PS2 version. While we expect such concessions on a console game to lock down framerates there is simply no excuse not to have a mirror on the PC. I can only assume the game was never programmed to have a mirror, so rather than removing it for the PS2 and leaving it for the PC, the designers would have had to actually add significant code to "insert" a mirror into the existing game.
The cars themselves are gorgeous, created with ample polygons to keep everything smooth and realistic then painted with colorful paintjobs and highlighted with realistic reflections typical of a polished racing surface. Interiors are detailed with instruments, roll cage, netting, and everything else you would expect to find inside a stockcar (except that damn mirror).
There are plenty of smoke and particle effects that range from tires burning off on pavement to bone jarring crashes that send body parts (car parts) flying in all directions. Sparks fly when you scrape the wall or start dragging your tailpipe. There is excellent use of lighting effects to accurately recreate specific times of day and adjust your track visibility accordingly. The track will often be cast in long dark shadows only to be blinded by a lens flare as you race into the setting sun. The blue skies are often littered with gorgeous clouds and sunlight filters through them in a most realistic fashion.
The movies and cutscenes are pre-rendered and not as flashy as you might expect. They keep a modest tone about them that helps to blend them with the interface and gameplay graphics. As previously mentioned, the 3D virtual office/garage offers an excellent window to the world of racing, giving you access to typical menu functions in a non-typical visual style.
The PC obviously runs this game at higher resolutions than the PS2 so you can avoid a lot of the jaggies and shimmering effects found on the PS2, but after playing the PC and PS2 versions back-to-back for many, many hours the PC merely looks like a high-res version of the PS2 game. Codemasters should have spent much more time retooling this game for the PC. As it stands, this is simply a rushed-out-the-door port that I'm guessing has more Xbox-compatible code than PC-specific code under the hood.
Once again, Codemasters is keeping things real by not emphasizing music over gameplay. Stockcars don’t have stereos in them so why should you be listening to music when you are screaming around the track at 200mph. There is some excellent scoring for the opening movie and some ambient music that plays during the menus, surprisingly from a radio in your virtual office. Music definitely takes a backseat to the sound effects.
The car sounds are the focus of this game and it’s no surprise that they have been given special attention. Each of the cars exhibits unique sounds that are quite deep and multi-layered. Tires squeal, engines rev, turbo chargers whine, and gears shift. It all blends together perfectly yet you can still hear each individual component. No other game has quite captured the true power of the sound that these high-performance vehicles exude. And just wait until you have that first wreck whether it be into a wall or into a pack of other racers - the resulting sound is literally explosive!
The story mode is quite lengthy offering a massive career path that will generate upwards of 30-40 hours of gameplay. The racing difficulty is on a steady but steep incline so near the end you will be using all of the skills you have hopefully acquired in the previous hours of racing. It’s a very tough and serious game that will reward you with a great sense of accomplishment when you finally manage to beat it.
The multiplayer variations support two and four-player split-screen competitive modes that are admittedly a nice sidebar to the core career mode, but given the serious nature of the game and the skill required to play it well, most gamers will probably not want to share the experience or sacrifice half (or more) of their screen. Fortunately, the computer AI is just as good as most humans you could possibly find to sit next to you on the couch.
The PC version opens up the game to LAN and Internet gaming for up to 20 racers. This certainly adds to the life of Pro Race Driver and finding races and racers on GameSpy is as easy as any other online game, but Pro Race Driver has a few online issues including some noticeable lag that will have you searching for broadband races only. If you are playing on dial-up you will want to limit your field and make sure everyone has good ping rates.
The concept of a story behind the racing is excellent, but I can't help feel that Pro Race Driver was simply pushed out the door with only minor modifications and improvements. While the graphics can be cranked up, the hardware cost is very high compared to the results you can achieve and you seem to constantly fight for graphic options versus framerate. The field is expanded from 8 to 20 racers which enhances the realism and challenge, but these minor improvements are easily overshadowed by all the things that weren't fixed or added that should have been.
Casual gamers and fans of arcade racing games may find Pro Race Driver a bit too daunting, but semi-serious racers are going to enjoy the unique physics and sim aspects of the car setup, and the drama that unfolds between the races will just be icing on the cake. If you are really serious about your racing then you had better stick with the staples from the proven sim leader, Payprus. While a game like Pro Race Drive can do well on consoles, there is just way too much competition in the PC racing genre for this game to stand out.