TOCA Race Driver 3 Review - 

Often overlooked when people talk about racing games, be they of the simulation or arcade variety, the Race Driver series has kept one thing constant, the quality of the games, and we're pleased to report that number three is no different.

Race Driver 2 was loved by fans because it gave such a huge variety and diversity of racing styles and genres. In number three, this is extended, with 35 motorsports, 120 championships, 70 official vehicles, and 80 circuits. You can't argue with the stats, but fortunately the game plays fantastically as well.

To begin, you have a deep and involving story mode. While not as rich with the plot as in Race Driver 2, you have to marvel at why other developers don't include story driven campaigns in their racers. It puts Project Gotham to shame with its lack of a plot, and carries off the feat rather well.

You have the World Tour mode, which is basically the campaign. It's a tiered system, consisting of at least two distinctly different motorsports all the way through (until the end). We say consisting of, because you have the choice between types. Because the sport is so diverse, and Codemasters have attempted (and may well have succeeded in the task) to include all the sections of motor racing under the sun, you have a huge range of events, from Formula One, to quad bikes, with all the variations in between. It's simply staggering.

You may have the choice between Formula One, Rally, and say, a Mitsubishi vs. Subaru championship. You are free to choose any one of these, and win progression to the next tier, and more diverse racing disciplines in turn. You don't always have to come first, in many of the tougher disciplines, you'll only be expected to finish above fourth (there can often be 21 cars on track however).

The control of the cars is done, by default, using the X button on the Playstation, and this is a slight problem, as you often tire of holding it down (a flaw with the PS2 is that there is little difference between holding the X button down all the way, thus accelerating, and holding it down nearly all the way, and not accelerating) this means you can be decelerating without realising. If you're paying attention then you should be able to avoid this, although it is an annoyance – incidentally, the problem does not occur on the Xbox or PC due to the different button/key design.

The handling of the cars varies immensely between the disciplines. The Formula One and Touring Cars all require one hundred percent concentration, as one wheel on the rumble strips or the grass could easily result in you losing control and spinning off. The handling of these cars are suitably tight, and acceleration great. In contrast, some of the cars encourage off road driving, and motorsports such as the dirt bikes, Baja Beetles, or 4x4 Monster Trucks allow you to completely cut corners (if you're not already on an offroad track), and give you no punishment for it, as is realistic. The back end will slide out on some of the vehicles, some have extended suspension, meaning that every bump slows your car horribly, and you have to learn to slow down before them. Each discipline will leave you learning something new about how to drive the respective vehicle types, and while some, like the street racing varieties, you will be used to, it really will open your eyes to the linearity of most modern racing games.

On the theme of cutting corners, your time for the respective lap will be stricken from the record if you cut on one of the faster, more 'professional' racing disciplines during the qualifying heats. The game boasts many of the official rules of the motorsports, and you'll see the authentic flags appear on your screen if you cut or drive dangerously. These add a wonderful strictness to the race, and while the corner cutting rule can be over the top at times, they do make the races much more realistic. Some flags are waved to warn of accidents ahead, to tell you that you (or the player in pole) are on their final lap, and it shows the knowledge of Codemasters and make the game even more authentic.

Throughout the campaign, you have the cheery Scotsman Rick. Well, he's cheery if you're winning, but rips you to pieces when you lose. Cut scenes involving him or your rivals break up the tiers of the single player, and interestingly, your performance in a race (i.e. if you ram a rival driver) will directly affect the post-race cut scene (i.e. the rival will run up to you and start an argument). These cut scenes are wonderfully animated, and you do feel a lot more involved (the camera for the movies is in first person), and the story, albeit simple, develops.

Your goal is to reach the final tier, in which you will be racing for the Formula One BMW Williams team. This is a hugely satisfying championship to race in, as with all the authenticity of the actual Formula One, and the great physics engine behind it, this is perhaps the first game where you genuinely feel part of the race.

The game does have an arcade feel. Your cars do feel a lot faster than everyone elses, and you often find yourself going into the back of other racers who take the corners much too slowly. Having said that, you always seem able to tell how fast to take the twists and turns. There are signs at the side of the road indicating when you should roughly start braking, but the map is very accurate in helping with deceleration.

The AI takes no prisoners in Race Driver 3. Some are more willing to ram than others, with the truck drivers often nudging the back of your vehicle, but the touring car racers keeping their distance. Crash into them, and you'll be made to suffer. Very rarely do you come off better, even if you escape without a penalty as well.

To make the game more difficult, Codemasters have included a Simulation option. This will lead to all the driving aids being switched off, and the effect is just as dramatic as in Forza Motorsport, with the game becoming much more challenging, but ultimately less fun. It adds a hell of a lot of life to the game, but it is great that the option is there and is not forced upon you.

Adding to these more challenging options for the more hardcore racing gamers, you can tweak and tune your vehicles to the extreme. You can alter downforce, transmission, anti-roll, tyre compound, tyre profile, brake bias, ride height, suspension and toe and camber. While none of this means much to us, we did have a play around with it and found that it does effect your driving, and from then on, never touched it again for exactly that reason.

In some of the Championships, you can upgrade your vehicle (yes, this game has everything). These upgrades can increase horsepower, brake strength, engine performance, structural stability and so on, but have downsides, such as the higher horsepower reducing fuel efficiency. If this all phases you, then don't worry, as none of it is necessary to complete the game. Codemasters obviously just prefer to give people the option, enabling everyone to get as much from the game as possible.

The damage is another part that has been implemented well. The engine boasts superb detail, with Colin McRae beating physics enabling almost every car part to fall off, and in turn get in the way of other racers. In the open wheel events, such as Formula One, you can lock wheels with the opposition. In almost every other game that tries to include Formula One as a subsection, this isn’t possible, as the developers rarely bother to leave a gap in the right place. As it is however, you can get into vicious battles with other cars, often resulting in one of your wheels coming clean off.

Damage affects all the cars differently, and while a slight knock may see the end to a fast, fragile vehicle, the trucks can be used as virtual battering rams, with little repercussion (except from the AI). You can also visit the pits mid-race to stock up on fuel, change the tyres, or generally repair what is needed.

In some of the longer races there will be enforced pit stops, with a certain amount required each race. In this way, a great deal of strategy comes into play as in Formula One, with you having to decide between following an opponent into the pits, or trying to capitalise on their absence will you can, with the clean air in front of you.

As well as the single player game, which should keep you going for well over ten hours, obviously more if you play through again with simulation on, there is Pro Career mode. This focuses on one specific discipline at a time, rather than jumping between them. It also includes all the official rules, with the flags often forcing timed penalties, making you stop in the pits on a certain lap for example. There are also calendars with the events and qualifying sessions you are expected to race in marked down. Qualifying in the campaign is not necessary, as you can start at the back of the grid if you can't be bothered to race alone, although it does put you at a severe disadvantage.

You can of course engage in a Free Race, which gives you absolute specification as for how you want to play. What rules, flags, opponents, cars, qualifying, pit stops – everything.

The multiplayer is available in both the split screen and online variety, with offline play requiring you to unlock the vehicles and championships first. It really is good fun in splitscreen, as if you choose a racing type that neither of you have played before, you can have really close races as you try and get used to the vehicles. Furthermore, the AI can be included in the races too, something which is lacking from all too many racing games.

Online, you can play in the standard races, as well as Elimination. This is, as with many other racing games, the mode where the player who finishes last on each lap is eliminated. It makes for some tense, fun races, and is a nice addition to the standard mode.

Graphically, the game seems to have taken a step backwards since TOCA 2, but in truth, things have moved on since then and the graphics here haven't. The cars and roadways look superb, but textures and scenery in the background looks plain. The Xbox version looks the nicest, but there isn't that much between the formats.

The game sounds superb, with roaring engines, and damage affecting the noise of your car. Ram into a wall, and you'll hear the engine struggling and a clunking sound from somewhere under the bonnet. Keep the accelerator held down, and as well as smoke billowing out from the engine, you'll hear the sound deteriorating and eventually blowing.

When you collide with another car, its just liked Burnout, except without the explosions. Pieces of fibreglass go everywhere. The best tactic is often to restart, even after a minor spin, but this is how games of old used to be played, and we're not complaining about a revisit to that.

TOCA: Race Driver 3 is a great game; there is no denying that. It has few flaws, perhaps only the average graphics and maybe there is too much to do? That leaves you being able to choose the easier events, and takes a bit of the challenge away. Still, a cracking racing game, and a must-own for arcade and sim fans alike.

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