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SummaryNeither arcade racer nor pure sim, but a good racing game.
The GoodTOCA Touring Car Championship is the official game of the BTCC, which stands for British Touring Car Championship. I doubt whether a lot of people outside the UK have heard of the BTCC (here in the Netherlands we can receive the BBC, so I had seen a few glimpses of the action), but don't let that spoil your fun. Of course driving a Nissan Primera on the Snetterton circuit isn't as glamourous as let's say speeding through Monte Carlo in your Ferrari F1 car, but I actually enjoyed the fact that the game focusses on a niche. Allmost all the tracks were completely new for me (we all know Hockenheim, Monza and Suzuka by now don't we). Silverstone was the only circuit I'd seen before.
In TOCA there are nine different circuits to race on: Donington (GP and short version), Silverstone, Thruxton, Brands Hatch Indy, Oulton Park Fosters, Croft, Knockhill and Snetterton. The championship consists of 12 rounds of two races each for a total of 24 races. This means you'll have to race four times on certain circuits in a full championship. Since all tracks are located in the UK and are based on real tracks, there's not a wide variety of exotic locations (it ain't Need for Speed). But still, the tracks themselves are quite different. One has a lot of corners (Croft), the other has long straights (Snetterton) another is very short and bumpy (Brands Hatch). I got the impression that Codemasters put a lot of effort in recreating the tracks as accurately as possible.
In TOCA you race in modified versions of common street cars (8 including Honda Accord, Ford Mondeo, Renault Laguna etc.). Each car feels a little bit different. You don't have the option to modify your car. That's fine with me since I take no joy out of changing tire pressures etc. Although all cars are from real brands, the cars take visible damage!! With a couple of hard crashes you can really turn your car into a wreck. Break the windows, demolish the bumpers, loose the hood etc. You can only damage the exterior of the car, it doesn't effect the way a car drives. Car handling is excellent with firm suspension & realistic tire-grip. When you drive on the grass next to the track you will certainly spin (it's rather easy to make a 360) if you don't know what you're doing. You'll need to know how to approach each corner. So there is a bit of a learning curve, but it also feels very rewarding when you have finally mastered the game and have driven a fast lap. The weather conditions (you can choose sunny, rain, clouded, storm or snow) really have an impact on the way your car behaves (driving during heavy rain is even more difficult). You need to stay focused all the time.
One of the best aspects of TOCA is the HeadCam View. This is the first person view, but with a difference. It's like there's a small camera on the front of the driver's helmet which records the action. The trick is that the image produced is not static. When the head of the driver moves your point of view changes, this is incredibly immersive and especially fun when you're hit from behind or spin-out since the camera shakes violently. You can also see both hands (one of them shifting gears) instead of just the steering wheel & dashboard. Every racing game should have this feature.
The other things I enjoyed about the game:
- The great, so called, pack-racing feature. This is driving door-to-door inside a group of cars, four or five AI cars will stick together for a while. It's fun to drive in a group: lots of pushing, shoving, outbraking, overtaking & collisions.
- Computer cars make mistakes, spin out, slam into each other. The crashes are quite spectacular.
- Commentary by Tiff Needell of the BBC before and after qualifications & races in the championship mode.
- The HUD gives you all the info you need like your current lap, best lap, gear, position, how many seconds to the car in front of you. It's all displayed very clearly.
- The sound effects are not really special (the engine sounds are too high, as usual), but what is cool is that the volume of certain effects changes depending on the view you use. The engines are louder when you use the 1st person view instead of the behind the car view, and you can also hear pieces of dirt hitting the underside of your car when you don't drive on asphalt. You can hear your opponents closing in on you.
- Lot of attention to details: The Sparco name on the driver's gloves, the right brand names next to the track, the smoke or dirt or grass coming from the tires (depending where you drive). Sparks coming of cars when they collide, the driver's seat is on the left or right depending on the car you choose.
The BadI have one major problem with this game, the way the championship mode is implemented. As is common these days you don't get all the tracks at once (only two are available at the beginning), you have to earn them by progressing in the championship. You progress by scoring 20 points or more per round (=two races). Even when you've unlocked all the tracks you still need 20 points per round when you start a new championship. The championship mode in TOCA isn't that easy and the fact that you're not allowed to practice on a track until you've progressed past it in the championship mode only makes it harder. Also, you can only save your game after two races. This means that if you compete in the full championship you will have to drive up to 50 laps (including qualification), which can take up to an hour, before you can save your game. It is frustrating to restart a race several times because you need a certain amount of points at each race before you can go to the next one. Especially when completing a round takes that long. Competing in the short championship (fewer laps per race) is not an option since the A.I. drivers perform really well during the qualifying sessions and you'll need a couple of laps to reach the front of the pack.
All this basically forces you to select one the faster cars in the championship mode. Why do game developers seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. Codemasters have made a great racing game with real cars, real tracks & realistic handling and then they go and spoil it all by implenting an arcade-like championship mode. Now that's bad game design. I want to be able to pick the worst car of them all, finish dead last in every race and cheer for the winner!
Some of the A.I. drivers (6 or 7 out of a total 15) are not competitive at all. During some races I managed to be three laps ahead of the worst drivers (in a 25 lap race). These guys drive the slower cars (Opel Vectra, Ford Mondeo, Peugeot 406), but still, these cars can go a lot faster than that. But sometimes these slow drivers are actually very welcome. Because the A.I. drivers are not that good at overtaking they tend to block the race leaders for a while, allowing you to recover some lost ground.
The music is terrible. Some stupid techno tune that one would expect to hear when playing a futuristic arcade racer, it seems inappropriate for this game. I found it distracting and always turned it off to concentrate solely on the sound effects which can give a driver valuable input.
Quite a lot of pop-up of scenery surrounding the track. This looks especially stupid when there's a row of trees next to the track. You get the impression that someone is planting them in front of you one by one at a very fast pace. The cartboard cut-out spectators ain't pretty either. Resolution could've been better. Overall the graphics are O.K. but not spectacular (can't compare it to Need For Speed III and it's shiny Lamborghinis or Motorhead with its awesome environments).