There was a time when racing games primarily involved racing. The realism of the racing differed – there were arcade games such as Outrun and Sega Rally, and there were simulations such as Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix titles – but the core of the gameplay was racing. Then came Gran Turismo and agonising over upgrades, tune-ups and paintjobs in the garage became as important as split-second decisions about braking and overtaking on track.
Gran Turismo remains the template for success for most console driving games (although the absence of the actual fifth game means Forza Motorsport 2 is arguably the most refined version of its formula). While the Burnout series have successfully proposed an alternative take on driving games, they’re not really about the racing either.
Race Pro is a serious, realistic driving game that attempts to put the focus back on racing, which is what you’d expect from Swedish developer SimBin, which is headed up by a former racing driver and has produced the GTR series of racing sims on the PC.
Not that Race Pro seems like a totally uncompromising racer at first. It's an Xbox 360 exclusive, and it really tries hard to look like a good console title. Unfortunately, it’s as convincing as a Ferrari salesman pitching you that an Enzo will be equally at home nipping down to Tescos as it would be whipping round the Evo triangle.
The press material claims Race Pro includes a Forza-rivalling 350 cars, but this is stretching the truth. It’s a bit like 50 Cent claiming his back catalogue addresses a wide range of topics in diverse musical styles. The reality is that Fiddy's all about guns, honeyz and how rich he is, and Race Pro has probably 50 cars which are all available in a variety of colours.
When you first start racing, the game feels like it’s positively throwing achievements at you, with 10G on offer for getting your first contract in career mode (i.e. proving you can point the car forwards), another 10G if you win a race in novice difficulty, and another if you can manage to complete a full lap in Time Attack mode. It’s not exactly challenging.
In fact, it’s staggeringly easy. You begin in a race-outfitted Mini, and there’s a giant green line painted on the track for you to follow, which moves through yellows, oranges and reds to warn you when you’re going too fast. Corners are flagged up with indicators showing the correct gear and the driver aids mean the car feels like it could drive up the walls, stop neatly on black ice and parallel park smoothly at 100mph. Your opponents appear to have the pedals mixed up, too. It’s very, very dull and evinces the same need for speed as the average lettuce.
The excitement factor isn’t improved by the fact there’s almost no music, and that when you inevitably win, the only pit radio chatter you hear is a man announcing ‘you won’ with the emotional investment of someone who’s been told they’re being served said lettuce for dinner. As you plug through several rounds of races to reach the next car class in the career mode, your mind starts to drift to your shopping, doing the ironing or whether to have another cup of tea with your lettuce.
If you take off the training wheels however, it all starts to make sense. Get to the Radical SR3 (entertainingly raced against a plane on Top Gear) at Brands Hatch. Change the viewpoint so that you’re in-car. Get rid of the racing line help. Turn the driving aids down to low. All of a sudden,Race Pro shakes off the torpor of the early levels.
The SR3’s engine sounds as ragged as AC/DC’s Brian Johnson after gargling a pint of barbed wire, the gear changes slam in, as Fiddy would say, like slugs to the chest, and the tyres scrabble for grip. The car hurls itself down the track, and there’s a feeling of barely contained momentum. It’s tremendously fun and extremely challenging. There’s a convincing sense of there actually being a car to control, and that you're really thrashing it round the track. You can really get lost in just lapping a circuit, trying to feel for where there’s an extra half second to take from your best lap time.
At this point, you really wonder why on earth you would need 350 cars - 50 types of car to race is more than enough when the focus is so obsessively pointed at accurately simulated racing rather than collecting. The fact Race Pro’s menus are simple and to the point seems perfectly attuned to the fact that it’s all about going racing.