Having nearly reached the top of the traditional product maturation S-curve, PC-based racing sims have had to differentiate themselves in areas other than the fidelity of the driving physics, the quality of the sounds and graphics associated with cars and tracks, and the abilities of the AI opponents. Basically, the new releases coming from top shelf developers like SimBin will concentrate more on things like which cars and tracks are modeled than they will on advances in the engine that drives the experience.
SimBin has been building on top of the excellent ISI simulation engine for years, and Race 07 will continue that practice. There are, of course, pros and cons to this depending on your satisfaction with the ISI engine. For example, I greatly enjoy the ISI engine starting on or about the second lap of any given race. Prior to that, it seems that I've always suffered at the hands of preternaturally talented qualifying drivers that inexplicably become village idiots the moment the green flag drops for the race. It all balances out, though, since I can pass a large group of the idiot drivers on the first lap and end up somewhere around where I would have qualified if they hadn't each had brief moments of superb skill throughout the qualifying sessions. And since they've recovered just enough of their formal skill to race at a level where I can more or less keep up, until such time as I have the inevitable lapse of concentration that results in my impromptu meeting with a concrete wall, of course, I can enjoy the remainder of the race. Keep in mind, though, that your mileage will may vary.
Without significant advances in the underlying engine of the game, areas for improvement are naturally limited. As far as the driveability of the cars and the intelligence displayed by the computer controlled opponents goes, there will at best be minor incremental enhancements over previous releases. Even when it comes to the eye candy, the improvements can be expected to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.
For example, drivers of open-wheel cars will now have a more realistic view of the action in that the view is constricted by the confines of the driver's helmet visor. As the race progresses, the visor will become dirty, and may even begin to get covered with the pureed carcasses of any unfortunate insects that may have dallied just a second too long on getting out of the way of an approaching car. Don't get me wrong: this is a very cool idea, and I actually laughed out loud ("LOL" to you youngsters) the first time a bug got splattered on the visor, and again when I pressed the key that simulates the driver's hand coming up to pull a tear-off from the visor. The Sunday drivers that prefer to be fully enclosed in their cars will be similarly excited to learn that they now will have windshield wipers to remove road spray and rain during wet races. In either type of car, you will want to set the head movement option to 100% to get the full effect of the roughness of the tracks. Anything less than 100% seemed oddly smooth. One of the things I most distinctly remember about my kart racing days is that the track was often so rough and bouncy that I could barely focus my vision enough to stay out of the dirt. Well, that's my story anyway, and I have no intention of changing it.
Various other new camera angles and first-person view refinements add polish to Race 07. I was particularly intrigued by the "Action Cam." This view is somewhat console-ish in that it uses overlays for essential instruments like the tach and provides lap/timing data in blocks in the corners of the screen, but it has the benefit of being somewhat elevated over the realistic seating. This makes a difference in very low-slung cars like the Formula BMW and Formula 3000 racers. With cars that sit that low to the ground, it can be difficult to see the apex of turns. The Action Cam also has a center point-of-view, which was more comfortable than the right side seating in the Radicals. Yes, you Brits and Aussies can call me a wuss, but just see how you like the left side seating of the Coopers.
Beyond the graphics, Race 07 models a bit of a niche group of cars, rather than the more traditional NASCAR and Formula 1 series. I've long held that two of the coolest racing titles that could ever be developed would be 1) a complete history of the Indy 500, and 2) a complete SCCA racing weekend. In the latter, I visualized the ability to race multiple classes of open wheel, sedan, and GT-type cars on some of the lesser known tracks in the US. Race 07 is actually an instantiation of my SCCA simulation, albeit using European cars and tracks. For the open wheel crowd, Rave 07 will provide the slightly-above-entry-level Formula BMW series and the not-quite-Formula-One Formula 3000 series. Sunday drivers will enjoy the 2006 and 2007 World Touring Car series, and those more interested in grass roots racing will be drawn to the Caterham and Radical SR3/SR4 classes. As with SCCA racing, there is a class for every combination of desire, driving ability, and budget, down to and including the Mini-Cooper series.
Best of all, Race 07 completely avoids one of my biggest pet peeves: it is completely open and configurable from moment one. Not only did I have complete access to every car and track in the package from the very first practice session, I was able to configure my own races and championships combining any class or classes of cars that I wanted. For example, you can add some real excitement by putting the Coopers and F3000s into the same race, should you choose to do so. The combinations are nearly unlimited. There are pre-packaged Championship seasons if you don't want to go to the minimum bother of creating your own, but even in those you start out on an equal footing with the most well-shod teams. You don't have to "earn" money, tokens or points to buy upgrades; it's all available for the asking. Econ 101 majors might find this egalitarian model a bit disconcerting, but people like me that don't want to have to dedicate endless hours to the pursuit of faux currency just to gain access to product that we paid real money for will find this openness very refreshing.
Also helpful to the less talented drivers such as myself, and similarly to the owners of less than stellar PCs, are the configuration options. AI driver ability can be set from anywhere to rolling chicane to blistering fast. The graphics complexity can be varied in much the same way to ensure that even an aging box like mine can provide adequate performance. Realizing that tuning the graphics complexity to a suitable level can be somewhat of a burden, SimBin has included a performance analyzer that suggests stepping up or down a level of fidelity after sensing how the framerate behaved after any given race. This is a neat feature, but I was unfortunately on the cusp of 'low' and 'medium,' depending on the track. After shifting back and forth between the two a few times, I finally turned off the analyzer and settled on 'low.' Even at the low setting, Race 07 is a very pretty representation of motor racing. As I'm more into racing than sightseeing, I didn't particularly miss things like reflections and shadows, although I did finally bump the draw distance from 'near' up to 'normal' because the sudden appearance of rows of trees and the like was somewhat disconcerting.
As I mentioned before, the sedan cars now have windshield wipers. You probably inferred from this that there was a need for said wipers, and such is the case. Race 07 models Dry, Rainy, and Really Really Really Rainy races. If you like all three, you can also configure 'Changing' weather so that conditions will vary throughout the race weekend. I, what with me being of a somewhat calcified age and therefore somewhat set in my ways, chose to avoid the changing weather and try out various locked-in weather patterns. As a picture is worth 1000 words, and a moving picture is worth exponentially more, I captured a few dry and rainy sessions in a few different cars and loaded them up to YouTube. One uses the Action Cam view and the rest use the in car view.
For the most part, these were done with the graphics set to 'low' and the drivers set to 'slow.' I think 93% was the setting I used to keep the AI guys from completely embarrassing me, although I still did a pretty credible job of doing that myself. Note that while Fraps probably sucked a few FPS out of the system during capture, these framerates were pretty typical of what I've come to expect from my old PC and its AGP GeForce board. Frankly, if computers were horses, I would have shot this one by now.
Race 07, while not breaking a whole lot of new ground technologically, is a solid performer in an interesting racing domain. Very few of us can ever aspire to a lucrative NASCR or F1 ride, but grassroots racing is within the reach of quite a few. I enjoyed the tighter racing of the lower (yet equally) powered cars, and the opportunity to learn new and unfamiliar tracks was refreshing. The immersive value of the superb sound and graphics was lessened only by the absence of a key mapping that would simulate the extension and display of the single-finger salute reserved for the more egregiously aggressive driving tactics of some of the AI drivers, but I suppose SimBin has to keep something in reserve for the next release.
Race 07 is a solid entry in the SimBin racing stable, but should be viewed as more evolutionary than revolutionary. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. It's quite fun and demonstrates the high production values that are the hallmark of SimBin titles.