This is my entry to the Review Wars III that got me a very satisfactory result - 4th place.
I figured I should've posted this earlier, but I didn't have the review for a while.
So, yeah, enjoy.
Toca Race Driver 2 (PC) Review
Writing a review about a game that has been unjustly forgotten is hard, especially when you're a doubtful cynic like me, who believes that 90% of the forgotten games hailed by some as "cult classics" had a very good reason for not becoming successful. However, the game I've decided to write about undeniably belongs to the other 10%. It is simply a shame that such a well-made, varied and unique masterpiece as Toca Race Driver 2 is not remembered by many.
Toca Race Driver 2 is a 2004 racing game, developed by the good people at Codemasters. It's a sequel to, well, Toca Race Driver, the first racing game this author has ever played which coincidentally (or not so much) happens to be one of his most cherished gaming memories. The first game was more of an interesting concept than a really outstanding title. Sure, the racing was very good and the tracks were lovingly recreated and easily recognisable but it also happened to be the first racing game that understood that what happens off-track is as interesting as what happens on it. In other words, the game tried to show what it's like to be a racer, signing contracts with different teams, constantly trying new vehicles and getting different (at times, absolutely ridiculous) goals from the sponsors. It also had a storyline which was quite cheesy but shockingly effective. Great voice-acting and interesting as ever cutscenes, especially the amazing opening which is forever stuck in my mind due to the excellent dialogue and the oh-so fitting Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Sweet Home Alabama".
It wasn't perfect though, and that's where the second game comes in place. Toca Race Driver 2 is one of the rare cases of perfect sequels, games that balance innovation and staying true to the original. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?
First, the story is still intact. Ryan McKane, the quite memorable protagonist of the first game, has been replaced with a "nameless, voiceless, faceless" character and that's why all the cutscenes are played out from the first person perspective. This time around, the story is much more coherent - no more tragic accidents, no more shadow figures, no more absurd scenes. It is still, however, extremely well-written and quite full of surprises. The fact that the interaction in cutscenes is not limited to just your coach (a token old guy, just like in the first game) and you do get to meet other racers is quite an improvement that adds a lot to the level of immersion, which is also helped by the fact that your coach constantly talks to you in-race by team radio about the different events of the race.
Yet, although the story is really entertaining and unique in its own way, the main part of this game, unlike the first one, is definitely the racing. While the first one did a great job at differentiating the styles of racing, the racing itself was largely the same. Yeah, it had a huge variety of incredibly memorable championships, but all in all it was standard track racing. It all changes here, though, since Toca Race Driver is all about variety. Sure, the circuit racing is still dominating but, apart from it, there is rallycross, truck racing, Nascar-style oval racing, Formula One prototype racing and the absolutely fucking awesome ice tracks that held short drift races between four cars.
As in the last game, there are a few different game modes: you can go through the story, play random championships, partake in time trials or go online. Of course, most of the cars or tracks aren't unlocked until you go through the career so that's basically the main focus of the game.
The career mode itself is much more well-crafted this time around. The progression curve is actually quite sensible (seeing how in the first game some of the first championships were already mind-numbingly frustrating), the levels of variety are staggering and each time (or, at least, in the first half of the game) they offer you a choice of two different championships you can take part in which saves you from getting stuck countless times.
Another saving grace of a feature is the ability to restart the race. Shocked as you might be at this but the first game didn't have this option. Instead the game saved every two races of the championship (which usually consisted of six races) and to replay them, you would have to restart the game. And you would have to replay them. A lot.
However, even with restarts, the game is still difficult and can be quite infuriatingly so at times. Remember, this is before the nice time rewind shtick that appears in most recent racing games so if your car is screwed up, the race is over. Even if it is not and you've just missed a simple corner, it's still over because unless you manage to quickly dive back on track, you'll be stuck - on grass or sand outside the main track the cars are impossible to control.
But let's get back to the gameplay itself. At it's core, Toca 2 is a fairly standard racing game, which, like many, balances on the verge of simulation and arcade-style racing. As such, the controls are fairly easy but responsive enough. As most racing games, it is best played with a steering wheel, but even with a keyboard you should do alright.
The graphics, for the time, were alright yet the game was still really noticeable due to the sheer attention to detail. Toca 2 boasted real fully-recreated racing tracks and a ton of vehicles to control. Yes, it is no Forza Motorsport or Grand Turismo but there is quite enough tracks and cars to keep things fresh. As fir championships, strangely enough, there is no british Toca Touring Cars - the championship that the game is named after, but there are DTM and V8 Supercars, two notable and pretty popular circuit racing series. Also, the voice acting is fine and the music is practically non-existent, one of the few things that haven't been improved since the first game.
You might be asking yourself if this is a perfect game. It probably isn't. The story is overly-convoluted at times, the guys you race against can be quite blandish and stereotypical, the game is really frustrating and there might be some A.I. problems. But all is forgiven, since Toca Race Driver 2 offers an authentic yet accessible to average gamer racing experience. If most other games show you what it's like to drive a car fast, this one shows you what it's like to be a racer. And it does it extremely well.
So, where did the series go after this game? Eh, pretty much nowhere. Toca Race Driver 3 was a solid racing game but had some things absent, most notably the athmosphere, and was, therefore, not as good as the first two. The next game, Race Driver: Grid, fixed most of the problems of the series and was a really good game, but disposed of the fun story aspects and didn't have much in common with the Toca Race Driver series.
As of now, I know it wasn't completely forgotten - some people do mention it while listing other Codemasters racing titles, even here, on The Escapist. But it shouldn't have been like this. Toca Race Driver 2 was a game that admired the sport in racing and, I guess, that was not what people were interested in.