TOCA Race Driver 2

Less is more, see? And yet, when I submitted these brief but, God, so incisive words, things became profane. It was suggested with some measure of force that I might sod off and write many hundreds more. So clearly there's still some debate about the point: equally clearly, TOCA Race Driver 2 may have to work to convince everyone it's a step in the right direction.

Race Driver 2 is not a brief or even easy game, but there's less of it. There are fewer cars and your championship choices have been dramatically cut. There's a story once again but there's not even a lead character, no new Ryan McKane - it's done in first-person, so the character is you. Those obsessed with quantity may even now be preparing to unleash terrifyingly misspelt rants on their favourite forums, but anyone who cares for quality should feel heartened. Codemasters know there are fewer cars, but maintain there are more you'll actually want to drive.

Championship options are far reduced, but doing it this way has let them focus the experience, provide a more cohesive and structured route through the game. There's a fine line between non-linearity and aimlessness, after all, and the game is pulling back from it. As producer Gavin Raeburn explains, "In Race Driver 1 you get six, seven offers at a time, and I think the amount of choice is overwhelming, and all the choices you had became kind of meaningless. We just felt that narrowing that down is more true to the real world - you don't get that many offers. And it allows us to balance the difficulty far better." And of course, now you get to be the star of the story and all the little people inside your screen talk, you know, directly to you. Which is like, cool! Yeah.

So if the first Race Driver was taking a sawn-off shotgun to the racing experience, the sequel is a sniper rifle with 15 whispering shells. Why 15? Because that's how many styles of racing you get, and we're not just talking about the minor differences between Touring Car championships in various territories either. You now get trucks, open wheel cars, classics, tuned road cars, rally and even ice racers, so to beat the game you must become a more 'complete' driver than before. The worry is that with so many different disciplines, the bright colours of each will simply run together to produce an unappealing brown mush. Simulating so many separate sports must lead to compromises, right? Yet having thrashed around with an almost finished version of the code, it appears each style is well-defined and throws up its own challenges.

None of the disciplines are unique to Race Driver 2, but there are intriguing inclusions nonetheless. Many will be drawn immediately to the Grand Prix cars, and it's true that getting a seat in one of these is the central aim of the game. They're certainly extremely fast and worthy of their place at the top, though don't expect Ferraris or McLarens or even the F1 tracks - it's very definitely not F1. Licensing, naturally. Some may find this disappointing, especially contrasted with the realism of the German and Australian Touring Car championships, but this is to miss the point. Very few remaining F1 tracks are interesting, and TOCA's representation of the 'pinnacle' of motorsport is unbounded by this or the rest of the choking rules Ecclestone et al enforce. Races are thus 21-car spankathons rather than carbonite-frozen funeral processions for the death of passion. If we were being critical though, even at this late stage in development these ultimate cars are rather unlovely to the eye.

In a strange irony, the Formula Ford cars are very promising. Spindly, whining and rather slow-looking in real life, these open-wheeled but crucially wingless cars are one of the highlights here. Racing is fast and close and control is knife-edged, and - as with the Grand Prix and oval-based Indy Racing League-style cars - wheels can interlock, causing spectacular accidents. And then there are the trucks. In real life they're insane, and it's pretty mad here too: steering is heavy and responses are glacial, while simple necessities such as being able to see are absent if there's anyone in front. Codemasters were still playing around with the braking when we saw the game, and certainly it's a critical area. Too good and mastering the tracks will be disappointingly easy, while if the brakes are too weak it's likely to end first in fury, then in caution. Neither is good. As Raeburn attests, "I don't like it when you start blaming the game for something, I like it when you blame yourself..." Good man.

To this end the physics have been thoroughly overhauled, with the intention of creating 'an accessible sim' poised deftly between arcade and simulation. Certainly our time hinted at no little success here. All vehicle types behave as you'd expect, and while an understanding of lines and braking points certainly helps, the cars have more or less forgiving natures. Lairy drifts and crazed festivals of opposite-lock are positively encouraged, and neatening it all out to get those few extra seconds of drive is only necessary on the very highest difficulty settings. Like Spinal Tap's amps, the difficulty goes to eleven (110 percent), although more relevantly it's also adjusted automatically as you play. While there's a set curve for the whole game, if you're blowing everyone into the weeds it'll ramp up sooner, and if it's you in the weeds it'll drop down. The aim, as before, is to do away with the easy/medium/hard choice at the start of the game, which is the one place you're least qualified to judge it.

There's a promising online/LAN side too, with races for up to 12 cars and improved, less stuttery performance. Raeburn is notably enthusiastic about it: "This time around we've improved the algorithms and reduced the packet size we're throwing around to different PCs. We've also improved the prediction [of where cars will go, to allow for lag] so you get much smoother games." Algorithms, eh? You gotta love 'em. And you can host any series you've unlocked in single-player, though only join those you haven't - so you can go online for a sneak preview of those Grand Prix cars, for instance, but not on your terms.

Of course, cars are only half the story; tracks are the other. Serial TOCA-players will find almost all of them familiar, but again, quality is the real issue for those genuinely in search of racing thrills. Many have been overhauled using real topographical data and real racers' feedback, and it's noticeable - the heavenly Bathurst track, for instance, will surprise everyone by being even more challenging than before. However, don't expect total realism, as the circuits are clearly still 'tuned' to be fun rather than 100 percent copies, and what really enlivens each of the 34 tracks (56 when you include variations) is the continued use of severe crests, cambers and bumps. The bordering-on-dangerous speed of the later cars transforms the experience, and even the be-winged Grand Prix cars get significant air. Those same serial TOCA-players will also be happy to see the ultra bumpy Loch Ranoch track reanimated and updated from TOCA 2, while Florida, Chicago and Tokyo tracks round out the handful of fictional courses. Real circuits are too numerous to name, but add all the German and Australian touring car circuits (which include the A1-Ring, Adelaide, Hockenheim and Nurburgring F1 tracks) to classics such as Donington, Oulton, Brands, Laguna and Road America and you've got the bulk of them. Obscure or fictional rally, rallycross (part-tarmac, part dirt) ice racing and oval courses - fortunately there are only two of these, Texas and Pikes Peak - complete the look.

So while TOCA has undoubtedly been streamlined, it's mostly the least successful, least thrilling parts that have gone. How does Raeburn feel now time is almost up? "Every single area we wanted to improve we've managed to improve... The car physics I'm most proud of, I think it's spot on. The variety is obviously key as well. We have everything from Grand Prix cars down to Formula Fords, SuperTrucks, some nice Astons and the Koenig..." Ah, the Koenig. A Ferrari Testarossa in all but name. Some truly worthwhile cars.

But no TOCA Touring Cars. What? TOCA Race Driver 2 has no TOCA cars? This might seem a trifle odd, to say the least, though you may have noticed the game was announced without the TOCA brand at all. Only recently has that been permanently acquired by Codemasters and glued back on, but the machines aren't going in anyway. Consider this: the cars of the British Touring Car Championship, which TOCA governs, are front-drive, two-litre objects of non-desire such as Astras. By comparison, Australian touring cars can barely cope with their snarling V8s and the Germans have 450bhp, rear-drive coupes. So despite obvious marketing pressure, Race Driver 2 rather bravely choses to save you from racing BTCC cars because they're not as much fun. Less is more, see?