Until the release of this game's predecessor, GTR, back in early 2005, the racing simulation genre on the PC had been slowly dying. PC racers hadn't really been able to get enthused about anything since the release of Grand Prix 4 at the tail end of 2002, especially with consoles offering up titles such as the Project Gotham Racing and Gran Turismo series; and with racing controllers for the consoles being much cheaper than those available for the PC, racing simulations on your desktop were (by comparison) being seen as stuffy, staid, and expensive to get the best out of. With GTR, however, SimBin changed all that, offering what had become very much an endangered species a new lease of life.
With fabulous graphics, sublime handling physics, aggressive AI and online competition, GTR was deservedly well received by critics and players alike. The subsequent release of the 1970's inspired GT Legends cemented SimBin's reputation as masters of the racing simulation. So expectations were high when details began to emerge of a sequel to their original opus. Thankfully, GTR 2 doesn't disappoint.
While GTR 2 may not be a revolutionary leap forward over its predecessor, it does nevertheless feature several significant improvements. The damage modelling has been enhanced, such that it is more noticeable from both the handling characteristics of the car and its looks when something has broken. It's still a long way from being totally realistic, but it's a definite step forward. Visually, the cars are clearly superior to before, both in terms of polycount and the quality of the model textures: they're absolutely gorgeous to look at. Indeed, they look so good that one of the dangers of using the external chase camera (which now has a proper dashboard HUD, incidentally) is that you'll be so distracted by how sexy the cars are that you'll end up beached in a gravel trap. The 3D engine is nicely optimised, too. Playing with the recommended spec, it was possible to max out all the graphical bells and whistles without any impact on performance - during practice sessions at any rate. Things do get slightly choppy in race conditions when you add forty AI cars onto the track, but even then you don't have to compromise too much on the visual quality to keep your frame rate nice and high. The AI itself remains mostly the same as its prequel, but this is no bad thing, considering how good it was in the first place. AI drivers are still nice and aggressive, with a hint of human dysfunctionality: sustained pressure can provoke them into mistakes (or into shoving you head-first into the pit wall).
The physics and handling model remains as close to perfection as I've played, balancing simulation accuracy with the subtle (yet not technically realistic) visual and audio feedback necessary to help prevent you from pushing beyond the capabilities of the car too frequently - allowing you to use slides and drifts to aid you around corners, without pitching you unexpectedly off the track. In full simulation mode, with all the driving aids turned off, the handling physics are so punishing that half the challenge is simply keeping the car going in a straight line, let alone trying to set a lap record or win races. Simply, it's AWESOME. You should be petrified about putting your foot down on a pedal commanding upwards of 600 horsepower. Like all simulations, GTR 2 requires practice and dedication. Casual players may apply, but unless you have a decent steering wheel and pedals controller (preferably force feedback, too), don't even think about playing the game in full simulation mode. Semi-Pro difficulty is just about manageable with an analogue game pad and is the best all round balance between difficulty level and playability. The handling model really comes alive when the steering, braking and stability driver aids are disabled, so while it may be easy to set new lap records at the Novice difficulty level (where all the aids are turned on), it's not nearly as satisfying as setting a new hot lap when you know that the time is due more to your own ability than help from the CPU.
To aid newcomers, the new Driving School mode allows you to learn the tracks in bite-sized sectors, showing you the ideal racing line and where you can hustle the car through an apex without losing huge chunks of time. Beating the challenges in the driving school gives you so-called "golden gears" which can be used to unlock custom championships (of which there are 40) and variants of the 11 main GT championship tracks. Learning the layouts of tracks before you attempt the championships may be time consuming, but reaps dividends when other cars are on the track. The Time Trial mode allows you to compare the racing line of your current hottest lap against the one you are driving, letting you experiment with racing lines to find the quickest route and even find alternative (yet still quick) racing lines which can be used in the wet, or when another car is blocking the apex. It will take many hours of practice before you become competitive at the Semi-Pro and Simulation difficulty levels, so less dedicated players may want to save their ego from severe bruising and stick to Novice. Racing in the wet or at night also significantly alters the playing experience and can be a confidence-sapping experience, as you struggle to hold apexes and find turn-in points for corners. It is fantastically atmospheric, however, so you should try racing with a full grid at night or in the wet at least once.
If you've never played an all-out racing simulation before, you may also want to build yourself up to the full-spec GT cars slowly. Driving a G3-class Lotus Elise or Gillet Vertigo Strieff with only 200-odd BHP is significantly more forgiving than jumping right into the driving seat of a Maserati MC12 with 650 horses under the bonnet. Thrashing a G3 Elise around Donington Park for a couple of hours will allow you to get to grips with the level of finesse you need on the controls to get your lap times down to anything approaching competitive, giving you the coordination skills and confidence to try out the more powerful cars. Once you're past that initial learning curve, then you can delve into the murky underworld of oversteer, understeer, tyre cambers and casters, suspension packers and ride heights. Here, in the bewilderingly complex world of the race mechanic, you can tweak car setups to play to the strengths of your own driving style, shaving precious tenths off your lap time. Car setup hasn't been this complex (or accurate) since Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix series, and really rewards those with the patience to tinker.
GTR 2 is a title with which it's very hard to find fault. After all, how do you improve on a title many gamers already consider perfection? Perhaps a little more work could have been done with the music and sound effects, but they do the job more than adequately. Online play does pose a few more problems; not just technically, but simply in being able to find a race. Unless you're already involved with an online racing community, you'll probably struggle to find people on open servers to race wheel-to-wheel with. But with the offline content being so strong - with there being so much to unlock - this probably won't trouble the most dedicated players anyway: since they're much more likely to frequent forums of like-minded online racers. With fabulous visuals, solid sound, and physics that would make Stephen Hawking jealous, GTR 2 is easily the finest racing simulation available for the PC.