Truth be told … I was really happy to pick this game up and review it, but I have to admit that I was a tad bit skeptical at first. I had heard what a good title it was but caught word that it also included a story mode where you play as one character in particular. That’s not really bad, but everything else on PS2 from GT3 to Total Immersion Racing simply offered a good racing title with no actual story attached. Well, it not only taught me to give it a shot before looking at it a little weird, but it also proved to be one of the best racing games that I have played on the PS2 so far.

Our story opens up fifteen years ago as the last lap of a race is finishing up. McKane is once again in the lead and makes it across the finish line first. A jealous second place rival sideswipes McKane after crossing the line, causing his car to veer off the track, flip multiple times, then erupt in a fiery explosion. In the stands, McKane’s two young boys watch in horror as their dad dies in the crash. We are then teleported to modern day, as Donnie McKane … the oldest of the two … is finishing up a race. He recommends his younger brother, Ryan, to a couple of managers looking for a driver to go the distance. This is where the story picks up, and it’s your job to bring Ryan McKane from an up and coming newbie to the ultimate Pro Race Driver.

From this point, the game opens into a shot of Ryan sitting in his office in front of his computer. From here, you have the option of entering career mode, which allows you to play Ryan’s career through multiple circuits and races and select sponsors through e-mail, change options in the game like language, sound, and control setup, or take a look at the map to challenge some of the top drivers around the world. You can also select the option of “Free Time”, which opens up a whole other area of things to do on your own.

The lounge area, or Free Time mode will allow you to Run time trial laps, play multiplayer with up to four friends, kick back and watch some videos and movies on the big screen TV, or run a free race to practice tracks and get the feel for the handling and control of each type of car that you want to use.

As you can see, there are a bunch of things to do, and one thing that really impressed me up front is the amount of unlocked cars, tracks, and circuits that are available up front. Unlockable things are here of course with up to 38 circuits and 42 cars, but Codemasters was nice enough to give you a number of cars and tracks to play around with and make it enjoyable before even setting foot in the career mode. In addition, the Free Race mode will also allow you to mix tracks from different race circuits together and create your own championship, complete with customizable weather conditions, to run with against opponents for points just like in the career mode.

OK, lets talk about realism here, since not everyone is into straight arcade racing. The cars themselves are actual models from such companies as Toyota, Alfa Romeo, Ford, Lexus, and a bunch of others from the US and international, and each one has it’s own speeds and handling which are really tight. Prior to a race, you can go in and tweak or adjust everything on the car from brake bias and suspension to individual gear ratios, anti roll, and down force to what you think is best. The game will select it’s personal choice for you, which worked fine for those of us who are not engine and performance gurus, but it also allows you some additional fine tuning options based on your own opinion and ideas on what will work best.

AI was also superior to a lot of other games out there, and interestingly enough the computer is prone to making any of the same mistakes that you can make out there on the track. Codemasters had it working great, and the AI opponents will slam into each other, cause pileups, or lose control if they go around turns too fast. It doesn’t happen often enough to make them stupid, and it doesn’t happen too infrequently to get annoying. Drivers also seem to remember things that you have done to them, like ramming them in the back end or cutting them off at the finish line, and rather than the computer following set paths like GT3 does, AI cars will box you out, purposely try to run you off the road, or hit your back end in retaliation for a mistake that you made that got them annoyed. The AI will also put up one heck of a challenge, so don’t think that you will just blast them away as you start and it will just get more difficult from there. You can find yourself running last in the first go if you drive sloppy, but on the flipside one mistake from an opponent can prove to be your advantage as you zip around a crash or driver that has spun out. Basically, don’t ever think that you’ve won or lost until you have crossed the finish line, and you really have to learn all of the ins and outs on who has it out for you and who you can try to work with.

The story mode that I discussed up front really helps this game out a lot by adding interaction with other people, and adds to the experience overall in giving you a little more than “run a race, get some money, run a race, buy a car” and on and on. You will get cash and the opportunity to pick new sponsors after each season, and things that you do will effect outcomes and CG scenes popping up as well. For example, picking on one driver in particular by hitting them too much or constantly trying to push them off the road will cause a CG scene after the race where they barge into your garage and confront you about your driving ability, or lack thereof. Now you’ve got a rival out there who is bound and determined not to let you win. There are a few other examples to see and play through, but I won’t spoil them for you here. I will just say that things that happen before and after a race, whether it be positive or some kind of media or one on one confrontation, will suck you into the story and make you feel like you are really getting to know Ryan and the people that he interacts with.

The Map mode that allows you to challenge other drivers from around the world is also a fantastic addition to this game, and as you move up in the ranks and other drivers feel threatened, they might challenge you (if you don’t get to them first) to see who’s the best. You race head to head for pink slips in this one, using such vehicles as one of my personal favorites … the Dodge Charger. This really adds a whole new level of depth to the game, and is something that really continues to add to the feeling that you are becoming involved in the story, rather than just watching as it happens.

Lastly on the realism note are the cars themselves. The automobiles all have some really tight handling, and make them a joy to drive. Each one has it’s own unique HP output, and making those adjustments that I discussed a couple of paragraphs ago will surely be felt in the driving and handling. One big bonus for the game in the vehicle department as well is the sheer feeling of speed that is missing from some other games out there, and when you are running 150 MPH, you will feel it in the frame rate. Add together everything that I’ve talked about so far and the fact that unlike other “realistic racing” games out there the cars will sustain realistic damage in the body as well as the inner working of the car like the brakes or drive shaft, and this is by far a great and deep experience.

Graphically, Pro Race Driver does a lot of things that other racing games out there are missing. As you race along, real-time reflections of trees, signs, and other things around the track will show in your paint job during the actual game rather than just in a replay. The replays are fully adjustable in slow motion, rewinds, and fast-forwards, and the lighting effects are fantastic. In addition, hitting little bumps in the road or trading paint with a rival will result in the car bouncing on the suspensions realistically, which is something that even “king GT3” doesn’t offer. As I said earlier, the cars also take realistic damage here, which include crumpled hoods, parts like bumpers and spoilers falling off the car, and even driving on the rims after a tire has been knocked off. The particle effects of paint, flying metal, and shattering windshields looks awesome and is a highlight of making you really want to watch a replay. The CG movies are well animated and also just add to the game overall, and despite the fact that it has a slight bit more pixelation in the background than GT3 did, it still looks incredible.

From a sound perspective, the game opens up with Sweet Home Alabama playing in the background, and background music tracks are there but not while you are driving. The voice acting of the individual characters is great, and each dialogue that takes place between Ryan and a host of other people worked well and adds to the overall enjoyment. The cars also sound really good in everything from creaking metal and screeching tires to the engines roaring, and the crowd cheering as you zip by was awesome.

Overall, I really don’t have anything negative to say about Pro Race Driver except the fact that it will probably be overshadowed by other more popular titles. If you are a racing fan, you would do yourself a serious injustice by not picking this game up, and it is well worth the $50 price of admission. In my personal opinion, the complete mix of tight handling, great AI, realistic car tweaking and damage, awesome graphics and sound, multiple game modes, and a great story line definitely surpassed my overall enjoyment of GT3. All of you may not feel that way, but it should definitely clue you in on whether or not you will be disappointed by this game.