TOCA 2: Touring Cars
Ever noticed how delicately balanced our economy is? The moment car prices go down, petrol prices go up. Even the humble Ford Fiesta now gulps more than 20 quid's worth of fuel at the local filling station. Add road tax, insurance premiums and servicing bills, and running a car these days costs almost as much as it does to park it in Central London. Even then, that's not taking into account the stress of dealing with reps in Ford Mondeos and Vauxhall Vectras who think they own the road (pity they don't own the car as well, as they might be less inclined to involve you in their accidents).
Thing is, it's not all that bad. Those of us who used to enjoy tearing around the countryside just for the hell of it can now immerse ourselves in increasingly realistic simulations, with no petrol bills, no road fund licences and no MoT tests to strain our wallets. The only thing you're not spared in TOCA2 is Mondeo and Vectra drivers who think they're on a race track - because in this game they are on a race track.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Codemasters have retained their official Touring Car licence for this latest instalment, which means the game boasts every driver, car and team from the 1998 Championship, along with the new rules and regulations (sprint races, feature races, pit stops and so on). It also hints that everything's going to be pretty much 'business as usual' - so no invincibility power-ups or bananas thrown under the wheels of the guy behind you. And certainly no super-grippy tyres, rainbow-coloured speed boosts or miniaturising ray guns. If you're looking for the silly stuff, try Micro Machines or go buy a Nintendo. TOCA 2 is a serious driving sim first and foremost; a progression of a well-established genre rather than a deluge of new ideas.
Visually, TOCA 2 has been rummaging around Codemasters' parts bin tor its graphics engine. Like its distinguished predecessor, TOCA: Touring Car Championship, and Colin McRae Rally, the race cars are well-modelled, easily distinguishable from one another, and dent convincingly when speared at high speed by a Volvo. The only downside is that they're a bit jagged and a little too similar to the ones in the first game - that is, until you take a closer look. Much more of the vehicle can now be damaged and deformed, meaning it's quite common to be flying round circuits with the rear bumper dragging along the tarmac, a front wing jiggling in the breeze, and the bonnet flapped up against your windshield like the lid of a gigantic toilet.
In this latest game, you can also see through the glass of each car and straight into the interior: dashboard, seats, driver - even chewing gum wrappers in the ashtray and bogies wiped under the steering column (er, if you look hard enough). This may at first sound like one of those useless gimmicks that serves only to supplement the horseshit on the back of the box, but it's actually a major boost to the overall atmosphere of the game. Look down a long line of traffic during a replay, or behind you in the ^ race, and you can see the individual drivers sawing away at their wheels, leaning into corners, jerking their necks, and shaking their fists when you fish-tail them into a concrete barrier. You'll be hitting the rewind button and replaying your dangerous driving techniques more often than you might think.
THE WAY YOU DRIVE TONIGHT
Perhaps the biggest and most obvious improvement is the way TOCA 2 drives. Critics of the old game snivelled about knife-edge handling, iffy steering and a slightly anaesthetised feel to the whole thing; keyboard players and joystick wagglers found it inconceivably difficult, and sloped off to play the easier Formula One Grand Prix instead.
In response, Codemasters have designed not only a thoroughly improved ride, but also a variable physics set-up as well - you can even drive it from the keyboard and not understeer into the kitty litter at every chicane. This means that if you can't get used to the game as a simulation, you can damp down the realism and turn it into more of an arcade racer. For sheer enjoyment, we found that the middle ground between the two is unbeatable.
That's not to say the car has suddenly become a lead weight on rails, just that it's more composed than before. Driving is now the pleasure it should be and not the struggle it once was. During the race, you're no longer worried about lighting up the tyres, cornering flat out or jumping on the brakes at the last possible moment. Even though the tracks are more bumpy and undulating than before, the car holds its position well and doesn't bite back when on the limit. And being side-swiped or nudged from behind no longer sees you swapping ends and facing your antagonist bonnet to bonnet. Flick-of-the-wheel overtaking and the dispatching of back markers are now done with ease, although a lot of this is down to the new, improved intelligence routines (slower cars get off the racing line and out of the way when you come barrelling up behind them). The support championships, with vehicles ranging from the ubiquitous Ford Fiesta and Formula Ford to the Lister Storm and TVR Speed 12, inject variety and should make the game appeal to all driving and motorsport fans. What's more, every car has a unique cockpit view, engine sound and handling characteristics: a V6 Mondeo rasps and booms, whereas a four-cylinder Van Diemen single-seater sounds like a Moulinex food blender.
A WHOLE LOT MORE ACCESSIBLE
Many races follow the same pattern: single-lap qualify, jostle for the first corner, then keep it out of the underbrush until you cross the finish line. So TOCA 2s various support races, challenge tracks and multiplayer options-including a superb four-player N64-style split screen - are a sight for bored eyes. Unlike before, you're now able to race on any circuit (as well as on a private test track where you can experiment with different car setups and do handbrake turns to your heart's content). The previous system that required tracks to be 'unlocked' before you progress has long gone. While some options remain hidden from you until you show that you have sufficient mettle, the game feels a whole lot more accessible, and provides plenty of entertainment straight out of the box. Your view of the race has also been improved, and features an additional interior perspective.
3D card owners benefit from treacly smooth animation inside the cockpit, with a pair of gloved hands turning the wheel, changing gear and flicking V-signs at other drivers with startling realism. In fact this first-person perspective is a workable alternative - so good, in fact, that if you have a large enough monitor we think you'll prefer it to the traditional "tip of the bonnet' camera. Seriously.
In summary, then, TOCA 2 is not the hardened simulation it once was, and instead it provides a pliant ride for everyone and anyone. It's now a thoroughly polished game, with enough playability and sufficient depth to make it one of the more durable classics around.
Download TOCA 2: Touring Cars
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP