Most people who know SimBin know they are the crowned kings of PC racing sims, having developed the highly acclaimed GTR and GTR2.
This is why console gamers have been so overjoyed to hear that SimBin have been creating a racer for the Xbox 360, a platform normally void of simulation racing titles. Will SimBin find its niche with Race Pro, or will stiff competition in the likes of Forza 2 dampen the party?
What becomes instantly clear on booting up Race Pro is that this is a racing sim that doesn’t muck around. The menu alone has a host of options, from your Career, Multiplayer, Championship, Time-Trial, and more.
On jumping into the career you’ll find yourself put first into a Mini, which does wonders to ease you into the simulation handling that the game offers. You’ll immediately become aware of how different the racing feels. Braking points and turn in points have never been so important, and slight throttle adjustments radically change the weight in the car allowing you to keep up your speed whilst negotiating tricky bends.
Braking with the aids turned down is a feat in itself, just as applying too much power will have you spinning off the track. Knowing the tracks is vital, and a missed breaking point will see you run off into the gravel, which will scrub your speed quickly. In Race Pro its the little things that count, and taking the corner just right to get good exit speed makes a considerable difference to your race performance.
Hopefully this won’t scare of all the arcade racers, because Race Pro does offer considerable variation for most skill levels. The wide range of customisable difficulty settings allow you to alter the experience considerably, down to the smallest detail.
You have your overarching skill levels of Amateur, Semi-Pro and Pro, but within these (except for Pro which is locked in at the highest levels) you can alter things such as the aids available to you (TCS, ABS, Stability Control and a racing line). You can also alter things such as the weather, tyre and brake wear, fuel consumption, damage settings, and the AI difficulty. The AI difficulty will most likely be the setting most people will toy with, as on Semi-Pro we found ourselves flying miles ahead of the AI, until we adjusted the AI on to hard. Unfortunately this level of customisation is not available to the career, and only within the Championship’s and other race modes.
This is disappointing, and means the career loses out considerably over these other modes, but it's no great loss.
The career, as mentioned, starts you out in low-powered cars and works you through to the bigger machines. You gain contracts either by beating a time on a track, or by buying into it. However the career is so dull in its composition that there is very little reason to complete in it, and on top of this the unenthusiastic race manager has such monotone lines as “You’re driving in the wrong direction”, which you would normally expect to be delivered with slightly more exuberance.
This isn’t the only area where the game seems to lack immersion and realism; the tracks, although being authentic, lack crowds and the associated furore around race day. The saving grace is the championship mode, which has all the customisation you could dream of, including racing with full FIA race rules.
With the championship, you can choose from a range of car classes, from the official FIA World Touring Car Championship (with all thirteen in-game tracks being official FIA, including Brands Hatch, Laguna Seca, Monza, Oschersleben and Zandvoort), to unofficial championships like R8 Audi, and WTCC extreme amongst many others.
Your choice of vehicles for the game is also considerable, with 48 cars, each with a wide range of liveries to choose from. Included is the Apollo Gumpert, BMW Z4, Volvo S60, Honda Accord, Formula BMW, Formula 3000 cars, Alfa Romeo 156 and many others. Each of the cars handle differently, and you can feel the realistic physics model implemented at work. The Formula 3000 cars are great fun to blast around the track in, but be careful with all aids off, as they have considerable power and all caution is required on the throttle and brakes. Each of the cars is accurately modelled with an in-car view as well, which looks great and is fun to race in.
But what good are all these cars and the physics engine if the AI is poor? Well, the AI is certainly not poor, although some deficits are relatively obvious. The AI race well and are fast on most skill levels, although the jump between medium and hard AI is too great, and this might leave some players high and dry. Then again, it does give you the necessary incentive to draw what you can out of your car and race consistently.
The AI will take almost every opportunity you give them - run a little wide in a corner and you can expect an AI car to attempt to dash up the middle. Passing is certainly not short on the ground and this does make for a very realistic and entertaining race, particularly when you have the full complement of sixteen cars on the track at once. The AI do seem somewhat rigid however, not giving much room to your nudges, and certainly not spinning out (at least not in our
experience) which leaves us wondering what all the official rules and flags are for when all we seem to see are the yellows when you yourself crash out.
Speaking of crashing out, Race Pro has an average damage model at best. There doesn’t appear to be fatal damage, nor can you lose any important parts of your vehicle. You simply smash up your car to the extent that you have considerable performance disadvantage, and then drive through the pits and it all goes away. This feels out of place in what is meant to be a simulation, and considering what other games have achieved in this area this comes off as somewhat irritating, although it may be there to counteract the trouble you will have getting to grips with the controls. Once you’ve mastered them though, you will be wishing for a little more excitement. Damaged cars end up looking pretty scruffy if nothing more, and this fails to really impress when you have games like GRID implementing advanced damage models.
Graphically, the game is not going to blow you away, and there are certainly some racers out there that do a far better job. Though having a full sixteen cars on track at once with no slow down is no small achievement, it's a shame when the there are jaggies all over the opponents cars and some poor textures here and there.
The environments aren’t stunning, they look fine and are all functional, but the tracks lack atmosphere, and other than some animated marshals there is little here. Maybe we are being too critical, or have simply been spoilt lately, but it is a shame that the game is let down in the graphical department. That said, there's some very impressive rain effects and racing in the wet is a whole other experience.
The multiplayer will certainly be a highlight of this title, as it pits players firmly against one another and you can bet there’ll be crashes when players push too hard and miss their braking points. With up to twelve players online at once there is certainly room for mayhem. Unfortunately with our review code there weren’t enough people online to truly give the multiplayer a thrashing, but so long as the lag is kept to a minimum we don’t see why this game wouldn’t be even better online than it is offline.
Overall though Race Pro is a very solid racer despite the average graphics, and the car physics and the level of customisation for the single player and multiplayer component win at the end of the day. It is a sure fire competitor to current Xbox 360 racing titles, and although it does appeal more to the hardcore players than casual, there is enough difficulty tweaking here so that everyone can have some fun. The wide range of car classes to race and the intense racing that comes from sixteen cars on track at once certainly helps, even in the face of the occasionally average graphics the game displays.
The lack of a decent career is certainly very disappointing, however the individual championships make up for this, and are on the whole much more rewarding, although your primary reward will stem from your own performance and mastering of the in-depth physics engine, as the game does very little to acknowledge your effort.