The Wind Beneath My Rear Wing.
Recently, racing games have come a dime a dozen and developers are striving to keep things new and interesting. Sure, cool graphics and more cars are nice, but what are they going to do to enhance gameplay?
Add a story, that's what. Codemasters' Pro Race Driver puts players into the driver's seat of Ryan McKane, an up and coming driver trying to get out of the shadow of some famous relatives. His entry into the TOCA touring car championship and progress during the season adds a great spin on the racing genre, but will it be enough to lift this racer to the podium? Well, that depends on if you'd like a big helping of parmesan with your games.
See, Ryan's an arrogant ass with a cheesy background sob story. His Hall of Fame father was killed in an accident during a big race and his older brother (who is also on the tour) is hogging all of the glory. This leaves us with a brat of a character whose angst-ridden story will make your eyes roll right out of their sockets. I can hear Bette, Barbra and Celine fighting for rights to the theme song already.
But if you manage to look past the after-school special script, the story does indeed add an element that helps move the game along. Games like Apex have touched on the racing story concept before, but Pro Race Driver is the only one that manages to successfully integrate it with the game. A little less cheese and this one could be even better.
The front end takes place in Ryan's office. Kick your feet up on the table and "check your e-mail" to find a job offer for your next race. Different companies will give you a chance to race for them in various tournament events. Each offers a specific car to drive and tournament in which to race. Gain enough tournament points and you'll advance to the next bracket. Simple as that.
Though the main game takes place in a Career setting, you'll never get a chance to qualify for the races you run. That means constantly starting off in a predetermined position that has nothing to do with your skill or performance. I miss my pole position.
I'm also a little disappointed that there's no choice in cars as you progress through the Career mode. Some tournaments have an entire field of one specific car, but even the ones that feature a variety of cars fail to give you a choice in vehicles. With these teams, it's either take it or leave it.
Still, there are plenty of real world rides here from manufacturers like GM, Toyota, and Daimler Chrysler. The chances are pretty good that you'll end up in the ride you were looking forward to, even if you can't choose it yourself.
Between tournaments, you'll be challenged by a random driver who's out to make you look like a chump. Defeat him and you'll be treated to his car in the ubiquitous Free Race, Time Trial and Multiplayer modes.
The racing itself is pretty good thanks to the tight control. It isn't as sticky as an arcade racer or as slippery as a sim. For best results, you'll need to do some fine-tuning to gear ratios and downforce prior to racing - just don't expect to play with any aftermarket parts.
Another interesting note is that manual transmission does seem to be a little faster than automatic. It isn't required for winning, but driving a stick might give you the slight edge you'll need to get to the podium. I've always wondered why some games don't provide this real world reward for learning how to drive manually; it's a pleasant surprise to see it here.
The best part about the racing, however, is the terrific damage modeling. If you're actually trying to win, crashing is probably a bad idea. Accidents will takes their toll on the performance of your car, but boy, do they look cool. Slam into a wall at top speed and you'll see your front end get crushed like an empty can of Mountain Dew. Bounce off rivals and bumpers will fly. Sometimes parts will just dangle off to the side and debris will litter the track until it gets knocked away. You could pass some serious time just smashing into things and watching the car disintegrate.
But while the high poly cars look great, other parts of the game could use some detailing. The characters in the cut-scenes don't look so hot and the rain "effects" are some of the worst I've seen for this generation of gaming. It's a mix of good and bad for sure.
The same goes for the audio. A cameo of "Sweet Home Alabama" and a few other familiar tunes have been licensed, but if that's not your flavor, you won't get a chance to change things up. C'mon guys, this is an Xbox! Show me the audio customization! At least the sound effects and voice acting are well done.
So there you have it. Pro Race Driver may have a generic title, but the story concept and solid gameplay give it a definite edge. While it's not really the caR-PG it sets out to be, there's more than enough here to warrant a try. A little fine-tuning for the next race should go a long way.