Release Date: October 2, 2007
I've generally enjoyed Codemasters-published racing titles, especially the recent batch of games like GRID and DIRT on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and there's always been the TOCA series racers that are usually well-regarded by fans. I've not had much experience with their output of Nintendo DS racers, though, at least not until I got to a chance to review Race Driver: Create and Race.
As the name obviously implies, the title isn't simply about going through a world tour or circuit-style career, but it also uses a creation system to put together your own tracks on which you can compete by yourself or against the computer or friends. The track creation system is definitely cool to check out, but found the menu system to be a bit cumbersome at times, mostly because of the lack of space on the DS touch-screen. It's not as simple or fluid as the creation system in something like Trackmania DS, but it still works really well, and I'd imagine users will be able to turn out some interesting designs.
As the game begins in World Tour mode, you'll be immediately plopped into a single-lap event to force you to get a hang of the controls and the physics of the car you'll be controlling. The handling feels like it's somewhere in the realm of being halfway between an arcade experience and a sim. Turning isn't particularly difficult, but you'll never be able to maintain a high rate of speed, and you'll need to liberally tap or hold the brakes for anything that looks remotely sharp. There's always a map on one of the DS screens, and the game doesn't make use of touch-screen controls beyond simple menu operations, and even then, it's not required. The controls are relatively simple, with the d-pad used for direction, one button for acceleration, another for brakes, one more for the all-important handbrake, and finally a button for a rearview option. You can turn off automatic mode and switch to a manual transmission control, which will then make use of the two shoulder buttons to downshift and upshift while racing.
The controls work really well in Race Driver. I never felt like my car was too loose or that the steering was being particularly strict. It strikes a fine balance between race types, and while I do have some issues with the visual clarity on the track, I couldn't find anything that really bothered about the way the car handled. Different vehicles obviously handle differently, and there's enough of a change between car types that it's actually noticeable. When you unlock a new car or upgrade, it's worth checking out instead of simply staying with the same car over and over again, so the unlockables are actually worth having.
One thing I don't care for, and I usually don't in any racing game, is that there are different areas your car can take damage to, instead of overall damage. You'll have five categories on-screen that are displayed by little icons. You can take damage to the engine, gears, steering, suspension and wheels, with either the boxes being highlighted yellow or red, depending on the severity of the damage you've sustained. It's really tough at the outset because taking damage is easy to do on a lot of the tracks due to some confined spaces and the multitude of cars against which you're racing. The AI seems to be pretty aggressive, so taking some damage is almost unavoidable until you get particularly skilled with the way your car of choice handles. Because of this, if you manage to take damage in any of these categories, you're instantly handicapped. While I assume that the other vehicles are susceptible to the same rules, it's hard to see the results in play, and you feel like you're being hamstrung as soon as one of your boxes turns to yellow, or even worse, red. I'd rather have an overall damage system that didn't target a specific function, and it's definitely one of the things that I dislike the most in Race Driver.
Thankfully, they do include the ability to have a pit stop, but using it will cost you valuable time. Given the nature of the DS, the pit stop would have made for an interesting mini-game involving the touch-screen, but instead, you simply wait while a timer counts down for the repairs to finish. Depending on how much damage you took, the timer will last longer, so combine that with the fact that you have to limit speed coming in and out of the pits, and you're left with a less-than-ideal situation on your hands. It's a bit too punishing for my tastes, and it's not my favorite aspect of the game.
The single-player mode is pretty robust, offering a large variety of tracks and cars to unlock, and once you finish World Tour, you can unlock Pro Tour, which is basically a harder version of the game. If you'd rather play some multiplayer, there are plenty of options for that as well, which is nice to see. There's multi-cart play for owners with their own copy of the game and live locally, single-cart play, which has some limited functionality but serves a pretty good way to pass a little time with friends who don't own Race Driver, and finally an online mode that will let you race against up to three other players. I had a difficult time finding players for Online mode, though, which might be due to the game having been out for a bit, and the online community dying down over time, but I did try out local mode with one cart and had a really solid time with it.
Finally, you have the track creation mode that's really robust, if maybe a bit difficult for the average player to wrap his head around. The controls are almost entirely based on the touch-screen, thankfully, and there are plenty of options to switch around, including the track and the background/sky. As you play the single-player mode, you'll also unlock more options for the track creation mode, so it might be something you'd check out after you finish the main game. I thought the menu was a bit unwieldy, with a lot of boxes to select from but not a really great way of explaining what each option does without going into some form of trial and error. I'm sure that people will be able to put out some interesting things, but it's not really user-friendly unless you're willing to devote some time to it.
I still enjoyed Race Driver: Create and Race, and as far as racers go on the DS, it's definitely one of the better ones I've played. It's not perfect, and it's not particularly beautiful on the somewhat-pixelated DS screen, but there are plenty of races and cars to check out, and the create-a-race function is great for the players who are into that sort of thing. Along with that, the online and offline multiplayer modes offer up a lot of fun, and it's pretty easy to get started. If you're a racing fan and looking for a portable title, Race Driver is definitely worth picking up.
More articles about Race Driver: Create & Race