While so-called platform "exclusive" games often make the trip from the consoles onto the PC (Halo probably being the most famous example), it's far less common for PC exclusives to make the return journey. SimBin has been quietly making a name for itself over the last four years on the PC with the exceptional GTR series and the superb (if presentationally sparse) Race titles, which focus on FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC), and it's this latter franchise that SimBin has chosen to bring to the Xbox 360 for its debut on the platform.
Race Pro departs from SimBin's tried and tested blueprint of the ultra-hardcore racing simulations it has developed for the PC by attempting to find a balance between arcade accessibility and simulation accuracy. The game retains the simulation structure of Race 07 and GTR Evolution by offering a multitude of drivable cars and playable championships (including the WTCC) and also includes a Project Gotham Racing-inspired career mode. Also on offer are free practice, hot seat and time attack modes, plus the inevitable joys of online multiplayer, giving the game a huge amount of playable content. The inclusion of the career mode is the most eyebrow-raising feature and biggest departure from the game's roots on the PC, and while it's commendable that SimBin has attempted to bring something new to an old formula, its implementation and structure lacks the finesse and refinement of its PC titles.
The career mode almost seems like a throwback to the days of Project Gotham Racing 2, separating the drivable cars out into distinct classes (according to performance), with the player having to earn credits (through podium finishes in races) in order to buy new contracts with teams running more powerful cars. Buying contracts with these teams then allows you to unlock their cars for use with the other game modes. So if you'd hoped to be able to jump straight into an Audi R8 for a thrash around Macau's superb street circuit, you're in for a disappointment. Fortunately, the career mode itself can be dispensed with relatively quickly, and it's fair to say that the first half of the career mode will present very little challenge to experienced racers at all. Still, perhaps SimBin would have been wiser to have forsaken the career mode altogether, rather than attempt to replicate the race/unlock structure of the career modes in other 360 racing titles and end up with something a little limp and uninspired.
Another disappointment is the game's aesthetic. Compared to games like Project Gotham Racing 4 or Forza Motorsport 2, Race Pro appears woolly and unpolished. Though the car models are excellent and the developer has thrown in plenty of specular lighting and reflection effects, this doesn't quite distract from the fact that the textures are barely beyond adequate and that the game tends to look rather flat. This is most noticeable in the bumper-cam and cockpit views, where the lack of graphical sharpness really stands out. This is partly due to the fact that racing circuits are (by nature) fairly bland and rarely interesting to look at in the first place, but players will definitely be left with the impression that there is further room for improvement. This lack of presentational panache also filters down into the main game interface, which is utilitarian at best. While by no means a game-breaker in itself, a little more thought and consideration to the presentation of the menus and car setup screens could have made the game a great deal friendlier and enticing to play.
Fortunately, almost all of the criticism of the game thus far is outweighed by the stunning driving physics, the quality of the track modelling and the AI. Like its PC-based brethren, Race Pro employs two separate difficulty scales for modelling the realism of the driving physics and the quality of the AI. This adds greatly to the level of customisation you can bring to the game and allows you to vary the in-game experience from arcade-style walkover to hyper-realistic simulation. If you're the kind of person that breaks out in a cold sweat thinking about suspension and brake balance settings, you will be reassured to know that it's only at Hard difficulty and beyond at which the default car setups are no longer competitive with the AI, regardless of the driving realism. The Novice realism setting gives you the greatest level of driver assistance (for anti-lock braking, stability assistance and traction control), but also prevents the driver from being able to employ more advanced driving methods, such as throttle-steering and drifts. Semi-Pro realism represents the best balance between realistic handling and driver assistance, being nicely tuned between arcade forgiveness and simulation accuracy - perfect for joypads. Finally, the Professional realism level disables all the driver aids entirely, and it's here where the handling model really comes alive. Cars with more than 500 brake horsepower (such as the GT-class Aston Martin DB9 and Konigsegg CCX) border on the undriveable with a joypad, requiring the delicate touch of a steering wheel and hours of practice to achieve lap times that are remotely competitive.
The game, therefore, takes on an almost schizophrenic property. When played as an arcade thrasher, it fails to live up to the more polished thrills of PGR4, but as an outright simulation, it competes admirably with the likes of Forza Motorsport 2, and is indeed arguably more likely to attract hardcore racers, given the large number of playable championships and official tracks in the game. While the game may be lacking a little aesthetically, there is very little to criticise in terms of how well the tracks are modelled and how beautifully the cars drive. From the bumper camera you can detect individual bumps in the track surface and every car has its own distinct character, from the wallowing understeer of the Mini Cooper S to the on-rails feel of the Formula 3000 single-seater. Visual and aural feedback as to how the car is adhering to the road is likewise excellent, allowing you to determine which setup changes will result in a faster lap time relatively easily. So it's a shame then, that the car setup interface itself is dry and unintuitive, as it doesn't allow you to see an overview of the status of the entire car. Instead, you have to drill down to each level of setup (tyres, suspension, wings, etc) separately, making the whole process more tortuous than it really should be. It would also have been nice if the controls had been fully customisable, allowing the brake balance to be changed on the circuit, rather than being restricted to only being changeable in the garage. While not major flaws, they are persistent annoyances that could have been avoided with a little more forethought at the design stage.
As SimBin's first title on the platform, Race Pro can definitely be characterised as a solid, if mildly uninspiring, effort. However, if the same attention to detail had been paid to the game's presentation and structure as had been paid to the level of accuracy in the track, car and damage modelling and the handling physics, Race Pro would be a real stand-out title in the genre. As it is, however, by trying to cater to all tastes rather than sticking to its roots, Race Pro has inevitably ended up falling between two stools. It's not polished enough to be a dedicated arcade racer, and its attempt to cater for this audience distracts from where the game truly excels as a dedicated racing simulation.