A racing sim that's accessible for anyone? Surely not...
For years, Gran Turismo has been the seminal racing simulation; the game that all racing sims try to be like, and the game that they are all subsequently judged against. The simple formula of buy car, race car, win money, buy better car has been done to death since the original Gran Turismo hit stores in 1998, and apart from perhaps Microsoft's Forza series, nobody has yet managed to do it better. Nonetheless, as refined as the formula has become, nobody can argue against the fact that it has started to get a little tired.
TOCA Race Driver 3, the third instalment in the popular Codemasters series, offers a very different style of racing simulation. Rather than opting for the style popularised by GT and its cousins, TRD3 instead decides to throw everything it's got at you. You won't find any licence tests, credits or prize cars here. The game throws you straight into the thick of it, slugging a DTM touring car round a twisting course. Then, before you know it, you're behind the wheel of a Renault Clio, or a Formula Ford.
This is the appeal of TRD3; the sheer variety on offer. There are two main modes to choose from, World Tour and Pro Career. Both will have you changing vehicles at pretty regular intervals, bringing over 30 different kinds of motorsport to your fingertips. Although this might sound like a metaphorical car crash waiting to happen, the game pulls it off incredibly well. All the cars feel pretty distinctive, and while you'll certainly notice the difference between a cumbersome supertruck and a zippy Formula BMW, you'll also appreciate the subtle differences within each of the game's 6 major disciplines.
None of this would matter if the racing wasn't up to anything, and thankfully it is. In each race, you'll be up against several other vehicles (up to 20 in some cases), all governed by more than competent AI. This is the area where TRD3 delivers the GT series a kick in the teeth. Having 20 cars screeching round a track, all behaving in ways you'd expect, is a huge step forward from flitting past five clumsily-driven vehicles. It also means you have to fight for every place, making races tough but rewarding.
Car control is sharp, and as mentioned you'll have to adjust your style depending on the vehicle you're driving. The default control system is a two analog stick affair, with the left controlling the car's steering and the right in charge of acceleration and braking. If this doesn't suit you, the game's control system can be completely customised. I personally found it easier to switch the car's throttle and brake to the shoulder buttons, but it's all a matter of preference.
The other aspect of racing present in TRD3 that isn't in GT is the inclusion of a largely impressive damage model. This means that richocheting between cars is not an option. You'll have to drive instinctively and sensibly to make any progress. Collisions result in all kinds of damage. A dent in the bodywork will affect the car's aerodynamics, slowing it down slightly. Suspension damage means your motor will be a bit lairy in the corners. A head-on crash into a wall will often take out a tyre, or possibly even a whole wheel. Overall, it's well implemented, and certainly better than Forza's half-hearted attempt.
As previously mentioned, TRD3 has two primary career modes, and you'll find all the features listed above present and correct. On top of this, there's a nice multiplayer mode and online support included. Getting online and finding a race is easy enough, and as long as you stick to the developer's advice and keep racers down to about 6 per room, lag is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. However, there does seem to be a clear dislike online of players without a USB headset. Without one of these, expect to be kicked out of a few rooms.
Graphically, TRD3 doesn't disappoint. All the cars are gorgeous, although the polygon count is nowhere near that of GT. Races hold up perfectly with no drops in frame rate, even with 20 cars on the track. The tracks themselves are convincing, faithful representations of their real life counterparts. There are also some nice touches, like being able to see the gunk collecting on tyres when you veer off onto the infield. The only real graphical problem is some of the damage. Open-wheelers aside, cars never really crumple realistically, and a lot of the major cosmetic damage just looks daft.
Sound is by and large impressive, with the cars themselves being stars of the show. Engines all sound authentic and unique to their respective cars, and tire screeches and crashes all sound pretty realistic too. The voice acting is surprisingly solid, with your Scottish manager sounding appropriately ecstatic, smug, worried or annoyed, depending on the situation. It's also nice to have his input mid-race, adding a little more authenticity to an already impressive package. The menu music is alright, but never really impressive at any point. GT veterans will also notice the lack of music in races, although in fairness it probably would have been out of place. Nonetheless, a few licensed tracks for the menu would have been a nice addition.
Overall, TOCA Race Driver 3 is a very impressive racing sim. It's instantly accessible, but contains a lot of depth for those willing to persevere. It's certainly not perfect. The damage engine, great as it is, could still use some improvement. The graphics are nowhere near in the same league as Gran Turismo, nor does it offer the near bottomless depth of its main rival. It has less tuning options and less cars. It's not quite a GT beater yet, but the arrival of the PS3 could change all that. With the king of racers stuck in a rut, TOCA could well overtake it at the next corner. We'll just have to wait and see.