One of the many good things about doing what we do here at Ready Up! is that we sometimes get to see things that very few others do. Simes and I were fortunate to have such a privilege recently when we were invited to Atari’s offices to have a look over one of their forthcoming titles for the Xbox 360 – Race Pro.

Before I start to talk about the experience of playing the game it’s important to note that Race Pro is very much still in development. Some elements of the game were pre-beta code and our man at Atari, Lee Kirton, was more than honest about which bits were worth seeing and which bits simply weren’t ready. We were playing the game on debug hardware in a meeting room in Atari in London and using the Xbox pads for control. The game is being developed by Simbin who have a long standing track record with racing games, principally in the popular GT-R series.

Lee advised us that “Atari’s stated aim for Race Pro is to make a hard-core race simulator which delivers the pure realism of racing.” He was also very honest about the choice of platform too. “The Xbox 360 is viewed as the ‘right console’ for this game as it still represents hardcore gamers. We also see the Xbox 360 as the console of choice for those gamers moving away from the PC and so it’s the perfect vehicle for existing fans of Simbin’s products.” Simbin have a very well established user base on the big boxes through their previous titles.

Pad in hand. A man with focus.

Race Pro has the official WTCC licence so has all of the cars from the WTCC classes, the Formula classes and also cars such as the Gumpert Apollo and the Audi R8 (yum!). In total 325 cars are planned for the full release. It should be noted though that not all of these will be in the initial box purchase as Atari plan to emulate their Test Drive Unlimited DLC model, releasing content packs with a number of cars and a new track every couple of months over the first year of game availability.

The game is certainly not a jump in and drive experience and WILL demand a journey up the learning curve and the development of your skills. If you’re planning to dive into Race Pro straight from PGR, think again, as it’ll dump you into a gravel trap sooner than you can say understeer! But if you take your time, get used to the controls and progress gently through the difficulty levels and car settings you will be rewarded with a very satisfying experience. Our first few laps around in any of the cars we chose was typical of this process, gravel trap / spin / cut corner / gravel trap / crash barrier. As time went on however, we got used to the controls and to the nature of the machines we were driving and the laps became more fluid, more controlled and actually much faster!

Atari Race Pro - Cars in action

Even at this early stage in development it’s good, there has been an incredible amount of work done on the sounds of the cars you’re driving. Changing views doesn’t just apply a filter to the pre-recorded engine noise, it’s actually a different sound, recorded specifically from that viewpoint and done so for each and every car you can drive. The attention to detail bodes well for the finished product and we could already see the same kind of approach has been taken with the graphics. These are no clean, bright colours, crisp shadows and shiny locations with tonnes of lens flare, there is grit and grime and dust and realism to the view you have from the car. The cars each feel different when you’re in them. This is something which has improved over the years, I remember when the only difference between the cars on the track was the skin the game layered over the top, in Race Pro they’ve taken the dynamics of each and every car and mapped it into the game engine. In short it looks pretty good, it feels pretty good and it sounds lovely!

There‘s also a lot of potential for fun too. Atari and Simbin have installed into Race Pro a feature I last saw in F1GP on the PC some umpty years ago, and that is co-op driving. On the PC the game used to take over the driving of the car to allow you and a friend to swap seats, in Race Pro you simply use two controllers and the swap-over is indicated by a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown on screen. Let me tell you, if you’re both on the ball this is a SWEET way to team up but when you get it a little bit wrong you end up with a very bent car, don’t you Simes?!

The other side of the multiplayer aspect on a single console is the ‘versus’ mode. In this mode everyone has their own car on track during the race but you take turns being active, when you’re not ‘live’ the AI controls your car. We didn’t experience this but it’s got the potential to be either really good fun or a spectacular pain in the rear when the AI undoes all of your good hands-on work.

Atari Race Pro - bonnet cam shot

So, now that I’ve waxed lyrical about what this game could be, let’s ground things a bit. Race Pro as we saw it was FAR from complete. It’s scheduled for a January release which means one of two things i) the dev schedule slipped and they missed the Christmas launch or ii) Atari want a clear track to run this up, no pun intended, with any distractions removed.

My guess is that it’s the latter. This is not going to be a play-it-for-giggles game. Atari believe that there is no real competition for a hard-core race simulator and there may well be a good reason for this: racing games are REALLY easy to get wrong. Look at the NFS series, when it was neon, tuners and chases with the cops it was fun and accessible but when they got all ‘legit’ with Pro-Street they lost the edge, I LOVE car games and I stopped playing it because it just wasn’t fun any more. A hard-core race sim is going to have a niche market, fans of Simbin’s work will lap it up, race gamers looking for something a little more than Forza 2 or Grid will be ready for it – but PGR-heads will simply get frustrated that they can’t bounce off things and play dodgems to get to the front of the pack.

Overall we were reasonably impressed with what we saw. We were able to accept that it wasn’t finished and putting that to one side there is the potential for something really good. Based on what we experienced in our couple of hours with it, I’ll be buying the box in January. Be warned though, PGR, NFS and Burnout this is not. Approach with caution and respect, proceed steadily and enjoy over the long term.

John & Simes