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In 1994, recognizing that rather than be satisfied with a small slice of the American Open Wheel Racing pie (Indy cars), Tony George (the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, annual host of the world famous Indianapolis 500) could own the entire pie by creating his own racing league centered around that race. This league was visualized as being "Open wheel NASCAR." That is to say, it would be primarily American drivers, driving American cars, powered by American engines, on American high-banked and flat oval tracks. And, as an added bonus, Tony saw this as the means to killing off CART, an organization that had regularly treated him with disdain, by taking away the Crown Jewel of their season, the Indy 500. This would be similar to NASCAR losing the Daytona 500, Major League Baseball losing the World Series, or Sonny losing Cher. Thus the Indy Racing League (IRL) was conceived and born.
Almost ten years after the IRL's first race in 1996, it appears that the idea has been successful, albeit with a strong contingent of foreign drivers imported from the former Indycar series (CART) diluting some of the intended All-American flavor of the series. The IRL, like NASCAR, provides side-by-side, nail-biting oval track racing, with the gap between the 1st and 2nd place finishers often being less than one-hundredth of a second. As a measure of Tony's success, it has been years since a developer has invested the time and money in creating a modern CART simulation, while Codemasters has recently released the PC version of IndyCar Series, their new IRL simulator. Previously released were the PlayStation2 and Xbox versions.
There are those that believe that going to an all-oval format, thus removing road courses from the schedule, resulted in a weak, pale copy of CART. Many contend that the full measure of a driver can only be ascertained by challenging them with a wide variety of racing styles. There are also those that believe that trying to do an ambitious simulation like this for both the PC and consoles will result in a lackluster, lowest-common-denominator approach. Codemasters has gone a long way towards proving them right with IndyCar Series. It is impossible to know whether the PC product would have been done better had the PC platform been the sole and primary target, but one can't help feeling that the entire product was dumbed-down to better fit the console market. Face it, when it comes to things like this, the target audiences are significantly different when comparing console gamers to PC gamers. As an indication, almost every PC racer will stress that they want 'simulations,' not 'games.' They will correct you if you refer to a product such as EA Sports F1 Challenge as a 'racing game' – it is a ‘racing simulator.’
Rather than a robust simulation, Codemasters has produced a console game and ported it to the PC. Because of this, it will receive a rightfully cool reception from the dedicated PC racer. It has a very unrefined interface which exhibits itself almost instantly when it comes to configuring controllers. The configuration application is separate from the game itself, and requires the program to switch out to the Windows desktop. Ick. To add insult to injury, it is by far the suckiest configuration application I've come across in years. It is ugly, and it is counterintuitive. Once (if?) you do manage to get your wheel and pedals configured, you will switch back into the game itself, where you will be presented with a menu system that screams "CONSOLE!!" I hate it, but I’m getting used to it.
Get through all that, though, and you finally get to the racing. That's what it's all about anyway, right? Well, be ready to take the bad with the good. A major downer is that you cannot drive in and out of the pits yourself – you hit the pit lane are the game takes over. This removes a major competitive element from the racing. Guys that are good at getting in and out of the pits can make up multiple track positions on each cycle. Guys that suck at it, conversely, can lead for lap after lap, then drop to tenth after a pit stop. Not having any control over this aspect of the race is a real disappointment. On the good side, there are a couple of ways of getting into a race. You can go through the qualifying process, including the very complex qualifying format that is exclusive to the Indy 500, or you can choose a quick race. The quick race option allows you to choose any track, and to choose whether to start in the front, rear, or middle of the pack.
In-car graphics, on the other hand, go the extra mile from “good with the bad” to “just completely suck.” There are no side mirrors (making the signature side-by-side IRL racing a bit hair raising to say the least), the drivers arms seem to be constructed of no more than three polygons, and there is no system display on the steering wheel like there is in the real cars. This information is presented in a graphic on the lower right side of the screen. Suspension of disbelief? We don't need no stinkin' suspension of disbelief. All that aside, the absolute gravest omission is the lack of either side mirrors or a ‘look left – look right’ capability. You do have a spotter that is supposed to tell you when another car is next to you, but it isn’t always reliable, and doesn’t tell you the relative position of the other car. Is it right alongside, or just poking its nose in? Makes a difference as to the line you choose for the next turn if the guy is far enough back that you can shut the door on him. There is a ‘look behind’ view, but it is suicidal to try this just as you’re entering a turn. “Car, meet immovable wall” is the typical outcome of sneaking a backwards peek at the entry point of a turn.
But, another good side: once you look outside the lame car cockpit things look really good. Other cars are well detailed, and the special effects (tire smoke, sparks, fire, etc.) that result from the inevitable spins and crashes are awesome. The sense of speed that comes from going 200+ mph just a few inches from the wall and/or the car in front of you is quite believable. A nice little touch is the way dirt shows on the tires after an off-track foray. You can watch it disappear from the tires once you get back on the pavement. The tracks are well modeled and quite good looking, and include nice bumps in some of the turns to break the car loose and smack it into the wall. The force feedback models these well, and you eventually learn where they are and how to deal with them.As far as the setup and adjustment of the car goes, it's another mixed bag. There aren’t a lot of things that can be adjusted on the car, but there are probably enough to make it somewhat interesting. I've never been big on being my own engineer/crew chief anyway, so I didn't miss having umpteen zillion things to screw up in the car setup. The garage interface is pretty well designed for the neophyte in that it gives a paragraph or so description of the expected effect of things that you change. For example, clicking on the tire pressure settings will open a window explaining what reactions the handling of the car will have to various changes in the pressures. I found this to be a lot friendlier than having to refer back to a manual or my own written notes.
I've found that there is a pretty healthy learning curve involved in driving these cars, though. You'd think two (or four) almost identical turns separated by a straight would be pretty easy to master, but it hasn't been that way. The steering is quite twitchy, and there is a very, very fine line between getting safely through a turn and trying to create a drive-through window in a solid concrete wall. As long as you can keep the car low down on the racing line, you have a fairly good chance of making it through a turn, but get even an inch too wide and the car will push up to the wall. I'm hoping that this is simply driver error and that I will get better with practice. I've found that if I can string together two or three laps without crashing, the tires come up to full temperature and the car sticks to the track significantly better. It's gratifying that tire temperature has been included in the physics algorithms, but it does seem to me that that is only the case for me, not the AI. It seems that every race starts with the AI cars simply driving away from me while I slide around waiting for the tires to get some grip. This has often resulted in my hearing the most unrealistic and unwelcome sentence from my spotter: "You're 6.7 seconds behind Fisher." Come on - NO ONE is EVER behind Sarah Fisher unless they've previously had intimate relations with the wall or another car! I can crank in a few more degrees of front wing and run the weight jacker all the way forward to get through the first few laps, but then I have a very slow and draggy car once the tires warm up, and the end result is the same.
As far as the AI goes, I have no idea how well these guys race. They seem to be giving each other plenty of racing room as they disappear in front of me, but I’m never close enough to any of them to get a feel for how they behave in close quarters. There is some kind of adaptive AI strength setting in the options menu, but nothing like the percentage slider available in the other racing sims I use. I can’t find a way to slow these guys down to my pace so I can race with them. Ok, maybe I’m a sucky driver, but for a sim to succeed in the market it has to be either ultra-realistic or fun. IndyCar Series is anything BUT realistic in many ways, so it really, really needs to be fun, and this fun needs to be accessible even to ham-fisted granny racers like myself. If I could put the AI at 93% like I do in F1C, I would have at least enough parity with the field to have some enjoyable racing. As it is, I end up maintaining pace at about 7 – 8 seconds behind the back marker.There is also a nice feature called “Master Class” that is intended to be a tutorial mode. It is narrated by IndyCar driver Eddie Cheever, although it sounds like they had to wake him up at 3:30 am for the studio session. It is helpful in that it explains various settings within the car, aspects of high speed racing, and the format of qualifying and racing. At various times you are given control of the car to prove your mastery of the topic at hand. This feature is very similar to the Football 101 tutorial in the Madden Football series.
The next feature to be discussed is online multiplayer capability. There ain’t none. That’s all there is to say about that, other than this is a HUGE weakness, and will destroy any hope that leagues will form around this game as they have with Nascar 4 or F1C. This alone will relegate IndyCar Series to the $6.99 bin at Best Buy within a year.
I don’t know what it cost to license the IndyCar brand to produce this game, but if it was anything over $1000 or so, it is a shame that Codemasters/Brain in a Jar hasn’t delivered a more robust product. They had a terrific opportunity to fill a niche in the race sim domain, but decided instead to try to appeal to mass market players. I’m afraid that to an appreciable degree they missed that mark as well. I remain challenged by this game, but not for the right reasons. I would prefer to have been able to slow the AI cars down to my novice level, and then increase their capability as I got better at handling the car. Instead, I find myself frustrated by my inability to stay with the pack for the first couple of laps. Is it because the AI cars have an unfair advantage while my tires are cold, or is it because I’m just a lousy driver? Doesn’t matter: to appeal to the mass market the game needs to be configurable such that even the lamest driver can have fun.
Some day I will get good enough to race with the AI drivers, but by that time I will expect a more realistic and immersive simulation, and I will again find this product lacking. This is not to say that it won’t be fun, because it probably will. But I will never be able to shake the feeling that I’m playing a console game, rather than sitting in a high powered, finely tuned racing machine barreling along at over 200 mph. That’s a damn shame.