For most people a car consists of four wheels, a engine and somewhere to put the petrol. Turn the ignition and hopefully it gets you from A to B without going via Kwik-fit. These are not the kind of people who are going to get the most of TOCA Race Driver 2. If however, you're the sort of person for whom the smell of petrol is a taste of heaven, while gear ratios and tyre treads the details of victory, this game is right down your pitlane.
But with the likes of Need For Speed, Midnight Club and Ridge Racer already burning up the PSP racing track, how does TOCA 2 line up on the grid?
Its big advantage over the competition is a garage full of real-world racing cars. The team that made the game (it's a hard life) spent months driving these cars on racetracks the world over to make sure the virtual representations are accurate. Subaru Imprezas, open wheel Formula Fords and Mercedes and Audis from the German touring car series star in the 15 different types of racing you'll take part in. Other examples include rally, super truck, stockcar oval racing and V8 supercars, while the 52 circuits include Hockenheim, Brands Hatch and Pikes Peak Motor Speedway.
And, as far as we can tell, they've succeeded. Each of the different cars handles differently, requiring you to adapt your style of driving. Thanks to its realistic physics modelling, collisions are to be avoided too, with busted wings, crumpled doors and even gearbox problems reducing your chances of success. So the tail-happy, slip-sliding approach favoured in Ridge Racer won't get you very far; you need to be precise and measured in your driving. This is one game where it's essential to use the brakes.
If that high level of realism sounds off-putting, don't worry too much; the learning curve in TOCA Race Driver 2 is gentle, so much so you'll think the computer drivers aren't really trying at first. They'll brake too early for corners and leave you plenty of space to overtake. This soon changes as your career progresses and you tackle ever more demanding championships.
It's this career mode that's TOCA's most distinctive feature - it's actually a racing game with a fictional storyline. Your character, a struggling, cash-strapped whippersnapper together with gruff Scottish manager need to negotiate the world of professional racing by winning, scoring sponsorship deals and being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes frustrating in its linearity, it's an attempt to make the game more interesting by giving you a larger goal to work towards beyond merely finishing a race or championship. It also fuels a series of rivalries you'll have with a computer-controller drivers that may get you fired up. And it's this on-track action combined with the wide range of authentic cars that's proves TOCA 2's key appeal.
We can't help feeling however, that this sort of passion for detail can be a bit of an obstacle to enjoyment, especially when compared to the immediate accessibly of other PSP racing games. You'll need to get used to TOCA's quirks to feel like you're making progress.
For example, it seems to rely on a finer level of throttle and brake control than the PSP can provide with only its thumbstick and buttons. You need to be able to feather the throttle and brakes and the full on/off control offered by the X and O buttons doesn't really work. There's also a noticeable lack of responsiveness with a split-second delay between you putting your virtual foot down and your car actually accelerating away. When it comes to the game's visuals, it's pretty much the same story, with a certain lack of va va voom. Which, in our humble opinion, leaves TOCA Race Driver 2 struggling to keep up in what is a massively competitive field.
Where it certainly does perform is for those petrolheads who revel in the details of authentic cars, teams, sponsors and race tracks and find the pick-up-and-play handling of the Ridge Racers and Need for Speeds too arcadey for their refined tastes. And in keeping with such attention to detail, Codemasters has pulled out the stops in a couple of areas. One is the technical level of having loads of cars on screen at the same time. Up to 21 cars can compete in some races, meaning there's plenty of action and overtaking to keep you occupied. These technie smarts are also extended to multiplayer which supports 8 players using PSP's wi-fi. It means, for the first time, you'll probably run out of friends before you run out of PSP wi-fi capacity.
The other neat addition is an custom soundtrack utility. Downloadable from the Codemasters' website (www.codemasters.co.uk/downloads), the Exact Audio Copy let you rip your favourite music onto your PC and the transfer it to your PSP so you can replace the in-game music with your own favourite selection of bands via the custom soundtrack option.
It's another example of how well thought out TOCA Race Driver 2 is. But as we finally cross the finishing line, tyres smoking, there's still the feeling that for most people it's a bit too, well realistic, especially for gaming on the move. If you're made of sterner stuff though, you'll come to love TOCA Race Driver 2 as much as your first race-spec 106.TOCA Race Driver 2 is on sale now.