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TVG gets strapped-in and exits the pits into SimBin's first driving game on a console platform...
- Well balanced throttle/brake controls.
- Realistic driver aids.
- One of few racing sims on consoles.
- Understeer heavy handling.
- A few more tracks would have helped.
- Underwhelming visuals.
On the current crop of consoles, you've got two driving game sub-genres to choose between: the instant thrills of an arcade street racer like Need For Speed and Midnight Club, or the anorak like car collecting of 'driving sims' such as Gran Turismo and Forza. So far, there isn't really a game that has offered the dedicated experience of a refined racing sim. Ever since Codemasters took its TOCA: Race Driver series in a more arcadey direction with GRID, we've been left without the thrills and spills of a specialised racing sim on the next-gen consoles, which is something that SimBin clearly wants to change with Race Pro on Xbox 360.
Having previously developed solely for the PC platform, Race Pro is SimBin's first stab at the console market. The studio's previous games (all of which have been racing sims) were generally well received by critics, with every title receiving a score in the 80s at least on Metacritic and one standout title, GTR 2, getting a staggering 92. However, Race Pro fails to reach the heights of SimBin's previous releases, providing little more than a bland driving experience on a limited range of licensed tracks alongside driver AI that's as unchallenging as it is predictable.
The difficulty is our first major quibble. In order to get any kind of challenge out of the AI, we had to resort to the highest possible difficulty setting the game could offer ('Professional') from the outset. On the medium 'Semi-Pro' setting, it was like racing against a bunch of septuagenarians with the quickness and reactions of a three toed sloth. 'Professional' offered up a starting grid of drivers that were at least moderately proficient. After completing a few championships, it became apparent that 'Professional' level AI had a faster straight line speed than us, meaning that we had to make up time in the corners to get a good run down the straights and gain positions.
This is fair enough, although it would've been more understandable if the AI wasn't so inconsistent in its breaking points for corners. Breaking impossibly late for corners and ramming you in the rear bumper in the process (no euphemism intended) was a common occurrence with the AI, while at other times it would drive so slowly that you could literally make up a few seconds through a couple of chicanes (this was particularly noticeable on the street circuits). An additional downside to this is that when you're driving on the 'Professional' setting, SimBin has made sure that you cannot use any of the driving aids that are available in easier settings (e.g. anti-lock brakes, traction control, and suggested racing lines).
Driving without these aids is a real challenge. If you do use the ABS and traction control, then you can both see and feel when they are kicking-in. To be fair to SimBin, these are fairly accurate recreations of true-to-life technology, while the suggested racing line overlay is spot-on and prompts sensible breaking points most of the time. However, racing without these driver aids is difficult to say the least, which is a factor that becomes even more irritating when the only mildly challenging AI setting ('Professional') also requires that you drive without them.
The handling in Race Pro is particularly understeer heavy (a bit like directing an ocean going cruise ship), with only very light rear-wheel drive cars having even the slightest shade of twitchiness at the rear-end (e.g. single-seaters, such as Formula BMW cars). We can see why SimBin has opted for this handling style, what with other arcade racing games putting an emphasis on showy drifts with unreal oversteer that would have no place in a racing sim, but SimBin have perhaps gone a bit too far in the other direction with Race Pro. You never really trust the cars to go in the direction you're pointing them, and so you'll spend more time grappling with the handling than focusing on threading tight racing lines and nailing braking points at the last possible moment.
When skids do happen, they happen almost uncontrollably and fall away from you painstakingly slowly - there's very little you can do about it by that point, so you may as well just take a passenger seat and brace yourself, and there certainly won't be any turning into the skid power-slide style. Instead, you usually have no choice but to lift off the brakes and accelerator before straightening up the front wheels to let the skid right itself (while inevitably running wide on that particular corner and losing a lot of speed). It's more a case of pre-empting skids rather than controlling them when they happen, which requires a deft use of the Xbox 360's trigger buttons.
As with the driving aids, SimBin has actually done a fairly good job with the throttle and brake controls. Pulling down sharply on the left trigger (brake) will lock-up the brakes, sending the car careering into a corner uncontrollably, while feathering the brakes is a much more advisable tactic to bring your vehicle's speed down at a manageable rate. Similarly with the throttle controls, you'll have to hold the right trigger around a half or three quarters pressed in order to retain speed through the corners, while at the same time being careful not to pick-up too many revs and lose control. It's a tricky balancing act to master, but an essential one if you want to get any enjoyment out of the game by driving on the higher difficulty levels.
All of this gameplay takes place through a rudimentary career mode, additional championships to bolster content, as well as the usual single race and time trial options. As you might expect, you start off as a fledgling driver in the career mode, driving a Mini Cooper in a three race championship that you'll have to qualify for by completing a lap under the stated time limit. This format never changes throughout the career, with the variation coming from the different vehicles that are available in further championships.
At first the cars on offer are fairly tame, such as Caterhams and Radical two-seaters, but soon open up into the likes of Formula BMWs and Dodge Viper GT cars. Highlights at the sharp end of the career include Formula 3000 single-seaters and the almighty Koenigsegg CCXR. All the different vehicles in each championship class require varied approaches in order to succeed, which does keep the challenge fresh, but when all's said and done you still feel like you're rattling through the championships fairly monotonously. The lack of any fancy trim or swanky production values in this game does minimise the entertainment to what's happening on the track and nothing more, which would be fine if the gameplay was exceptional, but it just isn't.
Each championship in the career mode represents a contract, of which there are 33 to complete (although you don't have to finish them all to unlock further contracts). In addition, the championship mode offers up 19 separate competitions to take part, while multiplayer offerings include 12 player online races and a Hot Seat local multiplayer option (where 2 players can take it in turns to race either co-operatively or adversarially in the same race). This is a fair dose of content but, when it's played out through only 13 circuits, the experience soon feels repetitive and affects the appeal of the game. These circuits are a mixture of street tracks (e.g. Circuito da Porto) and racing circuits (e.g. highlighted by Brands Hatch, Laguna Seca, and Monza) and, while it's good to see officially licensed circuits on Race Pro's books, it's a shame that there simply aren't more of them.
The Endless Spanner Icon
Graphically, Race Pro is a monumental disappointment. But let's forget for a second that this Xbox 360 game doesn't do justice to the previous titles that SimBin has released on PC. If we judge it by the standard of other top racing games on the Xbox 360 and PS3, then it barely manages to register as a next-gen game. Many key next-gen visual effects such as HDR lighting, motion blur, and high fidelity particle effects simply fail to register in Race Pro and, if they do, then they're fleeting. Much of the time Race Pro looks like a game from the original Xbox - a point that's never more evident than in its amateur attempt at damage modelling.
One thing you would expect as standard for a hardened racing sim these days is some kind of damage system, but all Race Pro can throw at you is bodywork that crumples in a fairly formulaic way regardless of how hard or at what angle you hit the barriers/other cars. Once you've dented your car enough, illustrated by a squashed front bumper and folded engine hood, you eventually receive a spanner icon on the bottom left of the HUD, indicating that your car is apparently damaged. The only thing is, this doesn't actually worsen the car's handling and you can keep going around and around the circuit without suffering any ill-effects for as long as you like, which begs the question: why bother with the spanner icon in the first place?!
Race Pro's sound effects are no better, boasting the voice-over of a pit mechanic who sounds like he's one step away from topping himself, an unchanging collision effect that sounds like someone scrunching-up an empty packet of crisps, and car sound effects that lack any growl or meanness behind them.
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