If there are only seven basic types of joke, and if the whole of literary fiction can be summed up in a handful of basic plots, then the number of basic types of videogame must be slim indeed. If you've ever played a generic first-person shooter or jumped wearily over identikit enemies while collecting gold coins, this won't come as any surprise. But genres don't come any more hackneyed than the racing game. Hold down the accelerator button, move left and right a bit, try not to hit stuff. It's been that way ever since Pole Position.
Every new game therefore has to have its gimmick - Burnout's spectacular crashes, Project Gotham's attempts at photorealism. It's the only thing that differentiates each game from a handful of identikit pretenders with the same cars, tracks and control scheme. ToCA Race Driver 2, coming rather belatedly to the PlayStation 2 after a six-month residency on PC and Xbox, has two unique selling points. Firstly, it adopts an "everything but the kitchen sink approach". With nearly fifty tracks, a story mode, a championship, online and split-screen play, and dozens of cars ranging from Formula Ford to Super Trucks, it's certainly comprehensive, and there's hours of play involved in just unlocking and trying out all the different combinations of cars and tracks.
'Between races, the player is subjected to a predictable and exceptionally clichÃ©d story'
The second unique twist takes more getting used to. Following the lead of the original ToCA Race Driver, this sequel takes the brave and somewhat baffling decision to interleave the story mode with hefty slices of soap opera. Between races, the player is subjected to a predictable and exceptionally clichèd story of rookie race drivers, gruff managers, flighty TV presenters and grudging rivals, all delivered in a low-budget computer-generated style that makes everything look like a poor-quality puppet show. It's tacky, it's full of cheap stereotypes and it's shot through with a vein of grubby sexism that might be an accurate representation of the racing industry but which sits uneasily within the context of a PS2 driving game. Oh, and it's unavoidable - you need to play through the story mode to unlock most of the features for the far more interesting free race mode.
Thankfully, the rest of the game fares rather better. ToCA Race Driver 2 errs towards the more technical end of the racing spectrum, and although the handling isn't quite as accurate as the developers might like you to believe, it's still an interesting challenge and considerably different to the 'point and go' approach of this year's crop of arcade racers. Slowing down for corners and using the correct gear is a necessity rather than an option, a passing acquaintance with the racing line is pretty much required, and leaving the track usually results in the kind of spin which can put you out of the race for good. The handling is tight, there's a convincing damage model, and each car feels - and sounds - substantially different, an effect heightened by the excellent in-car viewpoint which not only gives a feel for the relative size and luxury of each vehicle, but even differentiates between left-hand and right-hand drive models. There's even a more realistic (read: twitchier) handling mode for masochists and owners of force feedback wheels. It's still too easy to barge your way into first place dodgems-style by using rival cars as a brake, and the AI of the opposition is a little simplistic, but on the whole it's a satisfying and challenging game to play.
Technically, ToCA Race Driver 2 is a bit of a mixed bag, although it's impressive for the ageing PS2. It's fast and smooth and looks glorious in 16:9 widescreen, although the slightly-bordered 50Hz-only display is disappointing. Car models are detailed, if a little shiny, and there's good use of lighting throughout. The tracks themselves, however, are bland and there's little in the way of background detail. There's certainly no way ToCA Race Driver 2 can hold a candle graphically to the three-year-old Gran Turismo 3, but it's that smooth and consistent frame rate that ultimately makes the most difference to the way the game plays, and even with twenty cars it never skips a beat. Only the split-screen multiplayer mode is a disappointment: a drop in both visual quality and frame rate makes it an underwhelming experience.
The package as a whole is impressively close to the Xbox version released earlier this year, no mean feat when you consider that conversions from one platform to another generally go in the opposite direction. This PS2 version even features online play for up to eight players, although the lobbies are distinctly under-populated and the online game lacks the personality of its Xbox Live equivalent. It's a shame that technical reasons (and proprietary silliness) prevent PS2 owners racing against their Xbox or PC counterparts. In fact, the only reason why this PS2 version falls short is nothing to do with Codemasters or ToCA Race Driver at all: it's entirely to do with Sony's pad design. The lack of analogue triggers - and the corresponding requirement to keep the X button pressed down hard to accelerate - can make ToCA on the PS2 a painful experience, and the spongy analogue sticks don't help matters much either.
Overall, it's the variety contained within ToCA Race Driver 2 that prevents it from being just another generic racer. There's something genuinely fun about switching from a 1968 Mustang to a Land Rover and then back to a Grand Prix car, and with tracks ranging from traditional circuit racers to ovals and street races, there's always something new to try. Purists may bemoan the fact that almost everything in the game is unlocked via the story mode, and it's true that some areas of the game, such as the flighty, inconsequential rally sections, are weaker than others, but on the whole it's a comprehensive package. It's true that there's nothing in here that can compete with Gran Turismo's extensive career mode or Project Gotham Racing 2's innovative online mode, but if you prefer your racing action technical rather than thrilling, and if you can tell a stock car from a supercar, there's plenty of fun to be had here.