Strict simulation videogames are usually something of a tough sell on consoles, which is why we don't see many of them on current-generation systems like the Xbox 360 these days. Racing games such as Forza Motorsport 2, however, have come incredibly close to the total-sim ideal while still maintaining a fun air that invites non-fanatics to slide behind the wheel for a few laps.
But Sweden-based veteran PC racing simulation developer SimBin has taken that idea one step further by bringing its unflinching brand of hardcore driving to the Xbox 360. Race Pro is a no-holds-barred racing sim that succeeds in providing some of the most realistic racing ever seen on a console. And whether or not that sounds like a smashing good time to you or not depends on just how excited you get about car physics.
SimBin is legendary for its attention to detail when it comes to the math behind racing. The developer's GTR series is well-known in PC gaming circles for its authenticity, and SimBin has brought that pedigree with it to the console world. The 48 cars in Race Pro are painstakingly modeled after the real-life versions, and the 13 race tracks are accurate down to the degree of each turn. If you're driving a Gillet Vertigo Streiff through the Triple at Oschersleben, expect it to feel just like it looks on television (assuming you have some kick-ass satellite TV).
I'm neither a physicist nor a professional race car driver, but the cars in Race Pro just feel right, which doesn't always help my standings. There are three difficulty settings in the game: Novice, Semi-Pro and Professional. Racing on the Professional setting is a brutal lesson in momentum, force, torque, friction and just about every other chapter in your high school physics textbook. Take a corner a bit too quickly in your Formula 3000, and you'll slide off the road. Correct your steering too much in an attempt to get back on said road, and you'll spin that fat back end right around. It's maddening, bewildering and completely awesome when you get it right.
Race Pro was built with the Professional mode in mind, and it's the default when you fire up the game. But if you're not ready for that level of intensity just yet, head for Semi-Pro, which flips on braking and handling assists to make taking corners easier. Semi-Pro also overlays a colored racing line on the track (you can turn it off if you like) that acts as a handy guide to let you know when to brake and when to accelerate out of a turn. It's a workable system, but I would have preferred a robust tutorial that walks novices through the ins and out of controlling these hair-trigger machines. Grizzled old sim fans will have no trouble, but the vast majority of players will get frustrated and give up.
And why shouldn't they? Race Pro is just as cold and hard as the machines it features. The menu system, career mode, championship series, multiplayer environment and even the manual are stale, drab and uninviting. There's no fanfare when you win a race, you're not given an identity as a driver and the whole experience is just flat. You're not encouraged to try a different tack when you flub a race, and there's no real learning curve to speak of. Again, that's not going to be a problem for many sim fans who just want to get into their favorite race car and drive, but many console gamers who are used to more flair and excitement will be disappointed.
The main draw in Race Pro is the Career Mode, an eight-tier racing season with several multi-race events within each. Racing at the D tier, for example, gives you six events to choose from, each featuring a different car class. So if you were to come in first place in all three races at the Trident series of races featuring the Viper Competition Coupe, you'd earn a gold trophy and 1,600 credits. Those credits can then be used to buy your way into another race, with the coal of completing all eight racing tiers.
In addition to the Career mode, there's a Single Race mode where you can drive any car you've unlocked in a one-off competition; a Championship that simulates a full season; Time Attack, which lets you chase your lap times and upload your best to the Xbox Live leaderboards; a Hot Seat mode, which allows you to race with a friend by passing the controller back-and-forth in place of split-screen; and a Multiplayer mode, which can be played via System Link or over Xbox Live.
Online multiplayer will be a big draw for hardcore racing fans who've been waiting to get their hands on a console sim, and it works well and relatively lag-free in Race Pro. If you want to host your own game, you'll find plenty of options to create custom matches, from weather to brake and tire wear settings. But that's child's play compared to the tweaking you can do to your car before the race.
There are six different modification categories (suspension, brakes, gears, etc.) and multiple options within each. Gearheads will love the under-the-hood action in Race Pro. It's incredibly satisfying to make a change to a car's handling, test it out on the track until you get it right and then win with that setup in a particularly close race.
Despite its lackluster presentation, there's definite excitement to be found in Race Pro. Pushing a 3,000-pound Aston Martin DBRS9 through the narrow streets of Porto at 100 mph was the most harrowing experience I've had in a racing game since slicing through Grid's downtown San Francisco track.
Unfortunately, the drab look and uninspired feel of Race Pro drags the entire experience down tremendously. The graphics are dull when compared to recent console racing games, and there are performance issues like screen tearing and slowdown in places. Overall, there's an unsightly grainy look to the whole graphical package that makes Race Pro nothing special to look at.
In general, there's just no wow factor in SimBin's first console offering, and for me that's a huge consideration. There are a fair number of cars to drive, but I didn't feel a real connection to any of them in the game. Once I raced them in the career mode they were gone – unlocked for later use, but gone nonetheless. While I didn't expect Race Pro to be a car collecting/upgrading extravaganza, I would have like some more to show for my tireless racing efforts than a dry monotone voice that drones,"Congratulations, you won the race" at the end of each event. Where's my TAG Heuer sponsorship and Champagne jam?
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