I'm not an expert on racing games, but from what I've gathered most titles in this genre tend to abide by the same general formula. First, players must pick a car and then, depending on the game, customize it as they see fit. The next step sometimes involves choosing a driver that, most of the time, will serve little to no purpose other than to reassure whomever is playing that his or her car isn't being driven by a ghost. Following this comes the track selection, after which all that's left is for players to demonstrate whether or not they have what it takes to finish in first place. Many games following this standard blueprint have been described as being "ultra-realistic." If in this case "realistic" refers to the photo quality appearance of a car, the different sound each engine makes and the custom handling every vehicle offers, than I can't really argue with that description. However, if these games are so realistic then why, when playing some of them, does my car simply levitate over the ground while a supernatural force changes my tires during a pit stop? Realism isn't just limited to aspects such as the ones I've mentioned earlier and Codemasters understood this when they released Pro Race Driver. This game reminded me that, as hard as it may be to believe judging by other titles of the same genre, the racing world isn't governed by cars but by people. As a result, Pro Race Driver's realism comes in the way it humanizes racing.
Pro Race Driver examines the racing genre from a more human point of view than other similar titles. Due to this change of perspective, the game doesn't revolve primarily around the player and him or her winning races and acquiring new cars. Instead, it puts the spotlight on Ryan McKane, the pilot behind the steering wheel of every vehicle the player races, proving that for once, this person is more than just an excuse not to have a car racing with an empty driver's seat. In fact, seeing as how the action revolves around McKane, gamers unknowingly take on a more passive role, much like that of a fan; for while they are still the ones doing the racing, McKane is the person upon whom the consequences of every action will reflect. Winning a championship will attract better contracts and a poor performance will anger his employers. Hence, players are, in a way, following McKane's career through its good and bad times, one race at a time. When watching a race, most of us are little more than fans and Pro Race Driver reminded me that this isn't such a bad thing after all.
The prologue, which somehow tries to explain that racing has been in the McKane family for a long time, serves to further bring out the human side of racing by making use of events that actually happened. It begins by showing a race that was held fifteen years ago where McKane's father lost his life in a spectacular car crash before the eyes of his two young sons. Following this is another sequence, this time in the present, that shows Donnie McKane, Ryan's older brother, suggesting him to a manager as a driver with great potential. To some, this may appear to be something straight out of a Hollywood movie; however, to others this scenario clearly spells out one word: Villeneuve. The father Gilles Villeneuve, considered by many to be a legend, had a death defying style of driving thanks to which he ranked as one of the best in Formula One racing during the late seventies and early eighties. Unfortunately, in 1982 an accident sent his Ferrari flying in cartwheels and chance smiled upon him no more. Nowadays, although his career is presently in decline, the son Jacques Villeneuve still had his shot at fame, having finished second on the Formula One podium in 1996 and having won the World Championship in 1997. While Codemasters' introduction shows that racing isn't a risk-free sport (contrary to other games that only show a few key vehicles going at high speeds on the track), the death of Mckane's father doesn't feel appropriate here. This might be in respect to the Villeneuves or to the plot, which feels a bit overly dramatic at times, but I believe Pro Race Driver could have avoided going in that direction all together.
With such attention being focused on McKane and his story, one might believe that, as a result, the gameplay would have suffered horribly. Fortunately, this isn't the case. At first view, Pro Race Driver consists of racing sports cars, modified specifically for the occasion, throughout various championships. Customization is an important aspect of this game, but it doesn't involve as much adding or taking off parts as it does adjusting what the car is already equipped with. Here, players won't win a race by adding bucket loads of nitro. Instead, the difference between finishing first and last is determined by factors such as the amount of downforce applied to the vehicle, adjusting the ratio in between shifting gears and setting the brake bias properly.
On the track itself, players are given officially licensed cars that, to my surprise, actually show physical damage after taking a hit. After all, it's not every day I get to destroy a car without facing any consequences since McKane is the one taking the blame for my actions. In Pro Race Driver, players can also hear advice from McKane's manager during races. These comments help in no way to change the outcome of a race but they do add to the realism the game is trying to get across.
The artificial intelligence programmed for the other racecars, another aspect of this realism, appears to be more competitive than what I've been accustomed to seeing in racing games. Competition is a human concept accompanied often by aggressiveness, frustration, nervousness and sometimes anger. Codemasters manages to encompass all this in a single red arrow pointing downwards on the screen that serves to warn the player of incoming cars attempting to get pass him. Constantly seeing that arrow move frantically from one side to the other, letting me know that there's at least one car behind that won't settle with finishing after me, was a good way of keeping the pressure on, often reminding that a race is never won until the very end. In relation to this comes the issue of saving. Winning a race is rarely easy and requires both becoming closely familiar with the track and acquiring a lot of practice on it. The problem comes in the fact that occasions to save don't come by often enough. Granted, they usually appear every two races, but while a player can achieve amazing results in the first race, the second can end up being a total disaster. One way or the other, the only opportunity to save one's progress still only comes after the second race.
On certain aspects such as graphics, Pro Race Driver appears to be inferior to other racing titles. However, it could be described as being as realistic as what the competition has to offer. The main difference here lies in the fact that its priorities are set on showing players that racetracks aren't deserted areas as would a ghost town be and that drivers still represent the heart and soul of racing. In this respect, Pro Race Driver is as close to reality as racing games can get.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.