Most racing games are soft. Sure, they go fast, sure, the tracks are usually tricky and complicated, and many are loaded to the hilt with features. But they're soft. TOCA Race Driver 2 taught me this. Racing is about high speeds and graceful cornering at those high speeds, yes, but there's also fear. Fear of not knowing what's around the corner. Fear of taking a turn too fast, having the car slide out from under you and nailing a wall, putting your very life in danger. Fear of making critical mistakes that can cost you a race even at the last turn. TOCA Race Driver 2 captures fear. Sure, the latest Codemasters' effort is better known for the wealth of racing modes and different vehicles to race, and of course, requisite online play, but the kicker is just this simple thing - TOCA Race Driver 2 captures the fear of competitive auto racing like no other game before it. It may not be the best racing game ever made, but you'll never look at a racetrack the same way again. For the budget price of $30, TOCA is a damned bargain if you're a poor Xbox gamer looking for something that will last a good while.
TOCA features a pair of main modes of play - Career and Simulator. As this is the successor to the oft-overlooked Pro Race Driver (which released for PS2 and Xbox last year to critical, but not economic success), the Career mode borrows much from PRD, as it's storyline based, attempting to capture the drama of the rise of a race driver. You don't play as anyone in particular anymore - instead, you're the main character, watching as sponsors, TV people, and other drivers meddle in your affairs, much to the chagrin of your father-like manager, who grows frustrated and annoyed by all the outsiders and leeches. It's nothing fancy, just a way to progress through the game. Career mode is deep and has different paths at times, when you're able to choose the event you wish to compete in from a few unique ones, using a multitude of real race cars and a huge list of race tracks, from Road America, to Donington, Surfer's Paradise, and the (in)famous Laguna Seca. The events range from basic touring car races, to F1-style races, pickup truck events, rally races (which are crazier than the ones in Colin McRae Rally 04) and the kicker - racing 18-Wheelers around Laguna Seca (you think doing the corkscrew in a Skyline is tough?imagine driving a Mack truck!). No other racer on any system offers the ridiculous variety of racing styles that TOCA offers.
The Simulator mode is just a buzzword for ?other stuff.' Inside here, you can do free races, time trials, and hook up to Xbox Live for 12-player action. XBL is standard and there's nothing really unique here - it's good enough but Project Gotham 2 has nothing to worry about. The Free Race mode is actually worth doing, seeing as you can unlock new cars as you win. Each time you unlock new events in Career mode, they become available in Free Race, and that's always good if you're going to learn the vehicle you'll be racing in the event. The one big problem with Free Race (and time trial, for that matter) is you are unable to just pick a car or a track and go. As each FR mode is a Career event, with certain tracks and cars tied down to it, you're forced to choose that particular car. It's a big downer, as most races offer a pair of cars at the most, with one locked up until you clear all the races within the event by getting 1st place in each of them. It's probably the biggest snag with TOCA's various game modes, one that could have very easily been repaired.
It's on the track, however, where TOCA Race Driver 2 really makes its name. On the surface, it looks like any other racing simulation - bunch of cars on the screen, going really fast, yadda yadda. Then, you take a corner wrong, smack a wall, and destroy your car. Yep, not only does TOCA have damage models with the numerous licensed cars, but you can completely total your ride by driving poorly. As big hits will damage not just the car but also the components, it's possible to ruin the car entirely and be forced to retire from the race. If you don't damage it fully, it affects various aspects of the car, from acceleration to transmission to brakes, which can cost you against the merciless computer AI. The rough part is with so many cars, they all handle so differently, and feel truly like untamed, uncontrollable beasts at high speeds (yet the cars feel fully in your control as long as you're on pavement, and not spinning around in the grass), making the learning curve extremely high as you progress from race to race. Thankfully, there's no fiddling around with parts and upgrades in TOCA, so you can just hop in the designated car and drive as well as possible. Instead, you'll just have to learn the tracks extremely quickly, knowing when to brake (braking can be a major challenge when you're going 150 MPH or more), and when to just let off the gas going around a sharp curve. Seeing as the computer AI is very tough, making few mistakes, you have to be really good, especially at cornering (as the game seems set where you can only really do any passing by taking corners better than they do, not surprising seeing as events usually are either loaded with the exact same car or a few cars of the same power and/or performance) to win, and rarely do you win by more than a few seconds at best.
In many ways, racing games are always about the other drivers, not the track. The tracks are usually tough, but take a backseat to outsmarting other cars. Yet when it comes to rally-style games, they're more about the track as there's no cars to compete with, other than their completed times. TOCA Race Driver 2 combines both in one horrifying package. Not only do you have to compete with tough, relentless (some perhaps would say ?cheap', but it's not like they're supermen, just smart racers) AI opposition, but you have to deal with some of the most dangerous racetracks in the world, at high speeds and ridiculously tough corners. For instance, the famous corkscrew at Laguna Seca - a track, mind you, that's been in dozens of racing games in the past, is the most difficult and detailed rendering of it in game form ever in TOCA. I've seen this damn curve many times, but the way Codemasters assembled the turn - huge crest then a sudden dip down, and bam! you're forced to turn and maneuver without hitting the walls or spinning out blindly. A new player unfamiliar with the track would have most likely rammed the wall and completely destroyed the car and probably screw up the transmission and whatnot.
The reason being is, TOCA is fast. Seriously fast. You can see turns ahead, but they come almost immediately - sure, you can look at the minimap on screen, but take your eyes off the track and you'll probably screw up. Some cars brake like they're on a magnetic field, but others require massive stopping and cornering to get going. And when you're on a track that has numerous blind turns - you'll feel the fear. When a driver is behind you, trailing you, waiting for the right moment, and suddenly there's a huge uphill, sideways crest?you'll feel the fear of not really knowing what's coming. Sure, the map might say a curve, but maps tend to not tell the whole story. So, when you lose control, spin out in the dirt, and lose 5 spots that you'll never gain?you learn the track fast. A lost art in racing games is memorizing the track?nowadays many racers allow you to recover from screwups and compete after a mistake; but TOCA says ?nuh-uh, honey' and screws you over for massive mistakes. Even the oval tracks like Texas Speedway and Pikes Peak are no picnics?you can't merely hold the gas through a corner, unless you like spinning out your Ford F-150 pickup truck and losing a race. And I won't even mention the joy of racing an 18-Wheeler through rainy pavement. Seriously, TOCA 2 requires your immediate attention at all times, or you won't be able to win. Thus, anyone with ADD might just as well stay away and play something else.
While it doesn't have the staggering depth (sure, it has a lot of different race types, but you only get to see them a few times on the whole) or ridiculous amount of cars like Project Gotham Racing 2, TOCA Race Driver 2 is a sharp, challenging racing game that suffers from stupid quirks, but they don't detract from the racing itself. Thanks to numerous championships to compete in, lengthy career play, and of course, XBL support, TOCA has the ability to last a while if you enjoy the game. It's not for everyone - the high learning curve, unforgiving car physics, tough AI, and overall realistic feel will turn off a great many - but fans of games like Sega GT or Gran Turismo, who wouldn't mind a realistic racing sim with a bit less free-form progression and no deep customization/tuning options (other than changing basic things like gears and such) will enjoy this one. Just beware that it will push you to the depths of your skills and probably piss you the hell off more than once while you learn how to handle certain cars. It's not newbie friendly at all (when the print ad says this, they ain't lying), but for the low price, TOCA is a great buy for race fans. Between this and Colin McRae Rally 04, Codemasters has the quality budget racing genre to themselves.
While not reference quality, the graphics of TOCA Race Driver 2 are excellent and represent the Xbox well. Car models are well-detailed (as well as huge on-screen in chase view) and look like their exact real counterparts - but in this case, that's not really the big deal. The big deal is the damage. Cars get bent out of shape, headlights and taillights pop, windshields get bashed in, hell I missed a turn once and it swung the passenger door open and it fell right off after hitting the wall at a weird angle. By the time a race is over, your ride very well could look like it was taken from the junkyard. Best part is, this all is rendered at 60 FPS with no slowdown, even at 200+ MPH. For a game that feels like you're traveling at light speed sometimes, this is an incredible feat, and is definitely noted. Otherwise, the track designs are great, representing the real-life version extremely well with detailed track details, be it the crowds in the stands, billboards, and the dust and dirt kicked up in a rally race or when you just head off the track. Extremely nice visuals, and they seem to get better as you spend more time with the game - the rainy levels are a sight to behold, watching the road get pelted and the backgrounds dark and dreary.
The audio shines as well. From solid voice acting - nothing outstanding - but good enough and able to not fall into unintentional comedy, maintaining a serious tone despite the setting of racing, and great sound effects, it's nice to listen to. Sound effects vary from car to car, and even change when parts get bashed; transmissions struggle to shift gears and make crazy noises, to engines revving in strange ways, the sound fits the errors you've made. There's no in-game music, no soundtrack, but thankfully Codemasters saw fit to stick a custom soundtrack option in, so you don't have to race quietly with just the engines making noise. It makes hearing your co-driver in rallies a bit tough, as well as your manager talk to you during a race, but as they don't talk all that much, having music to use at your leisure is a good call.