Reviewed: September 28, 2003
Released: Septemeber 16, 2003
Back in 1990 I remember playing this little game from Electronic Arts called Indianapolis 500. It had boxy EGA graphics for cars and very simple track and terrain models, but I remember that the game was “fun” and realistic, or at least as real as it could be running on a 386 PC with an Adlib card.
There haven’t been that many attempts to recreate the IndyCar racing experience and nobody has had the honor or luxury of recreating the actual Indy 500 until now. Brain in a Jar (love that name) had the right idea going into this project, despite their failed attempt at releasing a quality racing game on the PS2 back in May or the Xbox in June.
IndyCar Series has finally arrived on the PC after four months of what I had hoped to be extensive tweaking and enhancements. After about 8 grueling hours behind the wheel I’m ready to blow the crankcase off this game. If you have read any of my other reviews you already know I am a racing fanatic. Growing up within earshot of the Texas Motor Speedway, I’ve been a track rat since I was 12. I’ve gone to racing school and driven both NASCAR and open wheel (IndyCar) machines so I know what’s real and what’s not.
I probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this game as I did if Codemasters wasn’t trying to pass this title off as the next big racing “simulation”. IndyCar Series does an incredible job of simulating just about everything except the actual driving experience. I’m sure most of my issues stem from the fact that this game was designed on the console first then ported to PC. Console games invariably sacrifice realism for fun and this is certainly the case here.
While the PC version supports higher resolution graphics than its console cousins all I really need to say to the PC racing crowd is that this game still has NO MIRRORS and NO MULTIPLAYER. Need you read more? Feel free to continue if you must, and for those who read my PS2 review of this same title you will note I was much more harsh in my scoring this time around. Brain in a Jar has frittered away four months and done nothing to keep this game from becoming the laughing stock of the racing genre.
IndyCar Series offers several gameplay modes including the traditional quick race, IndyCar Series, Indy 500, and Masterclass. The IndyCar Series is the equivalent of a championship mode that has you take your driver through a season of 15 races earning points based on your finishing position. This series includes the famous Indy race or you have the luxury of racing this event as a standalone experience. I did appreciate this feature, as a lot of people will be buying this game just to race at the elusive Indy track.
Your entire game experience is based on the difficulty setting you choose in the options. Choosing easy turns this title into an obvious arcade experience that will appeal to the console crowd who should be playing this on the PS2 or Xbox anyway. To get this game to even approach a level of seriousness you need to crank up the difficulty fairly high if not all the way, but even then, the difficulty really only changes the rules and the way the game plays; not the actual driving experience.
Racing at Indy requires that you first qualify. This is usually an option but here you must do it and you must complete it. If you DQ or wreck you do it all over again, at least on the higher skill levels. Keep it on easy and you can go on to the next session. The Indy 500 mode simulates the entire week of racing with practice, qualifying, bump day, carb day, and the final Memorial Day Weekend race.
Masterclass is basically the driving school lead by IndyCar driver Eddie Cheever Jr. This is probably the highpoint of the game for me, not so much because I needed the training, but simply because I can confirm that everything he is teaching is the same stuff they taught me at racing school. You’ll come out of this mode ready for a challenging racing experience. Too bad there really isn’t one to be had.
Once you start driving in an actual race the game quickly reverts to a standard arcade driving experience, especially if you favor the chase cam. While I would normally challenge everyone to play from the cockpit cam to achieve a semblance of realism the lack of any rearview mirrors makes this a dangerous endeavor. The spotter will call out the cars, but this is not always accurate. Being forced into a chase view so you can see potential passers is lunacy and totally takes away from the simulation experience.
The PC does offer wheel support which would normally be a good thing, but my Logitech MOMO Racing wheel was basically wasted on the experience. The controls were loose and I never felt truly connected with my car. Plus, by using a wheel you are "committed" to driving in the cockpit (or nose cam) and both these views restrict your peripheral vision. Just for kicks I tried using the wheel in a chase view and it was impossible to play and totally unrealistic. Your best bet is to play this game with a gamepad and chase view and treat it like a console game on your PC.
I simply can't fathom the lack of mirrors in this game - yes I know I'm ranting. Actually, I feared this would be the case after playing Pro Race Driver, another Codemasters’ racing title billed as a semi serious simulation. Unless you are spending the entire race in last place you NEED A MIRROR. Codemasters’ response in the forums is to simply use the rear look button. Yeah…right. At speeds in excess of 200mph the last thing I’m doing is taking my eyes off the track.
Physics, damage, and realism are highly subjective to the skill level you have chosen. On easy you don’t have to worry about “silly things” like fuel, tire wear or car damage. As you raise the difficulty these variables slowly start to become more important all the way up to Pro level where you will be micro-managing every aspect of your car setup.
You’ll eventually need to learn how to compensate for things like downforce and tire pressure and tweak those settings to turn record laps. I must confess the level of complexity behind the scenes is quite impressive and substantially more realistic than the actual driving portion of the game. Aspiring mechanics will probably have more fun tinkering with this part of the game than drivers will playing it.
The racer AI is fairly decent but not nearly as impressive as the box would have you think. I’m not sure who coined the term “Advanced Genetic AI” – probably the same guy who came up with “Shock and Awe”, but I didn’t see anything more impressive than racers following traditional racing lines and avoiding contact with other cars. Yes, the AI does seem to be aware of the cars around it so it doesn’t blindly follow the optimum line to the exclusion of safe driving. Computer drivers seem to have issues about when to pit as well, but I’m not complaining, as I was able to use that to my advantage.
Of course the big thing I had been waiting for these past four months was racing online. Hopefully you will all be as shocked and disappointed as I was (and still am) that there is no multiplayer component in IndyCar Series. This is totally unfathomable and unforgivable. What possible incentive do I have to stop playing GPL or NASCAR online and waste my time driving around in circles against unimpressive AI using arcade controls.
Of final note is the interface which is unmistakably lifted right from the console games. The four-way navigation through the menus is certainly suited for a gamepad but clumsy with a mouse forcing your to click on tiny arrows on either end of the menu entry to cycle through changes. You also get to sit through 28-seconds of opening logos each time you start that game and these cannot be interrupted.
Even though I cranked this sucker up to 1600x1200x32-bit the graphics were merely average. Sure they got all nice and crisp but the textures look no better really than their console counterparts. Actually, it becomes easier to see their highly repetitive nature, especially the cracks in the pavement. Games like RalliSport Challenge and any of the NASCAR games released in the last three years look better than this.
The tracks are all recreated under license and highly authentic, but the details around the tracks are a bit minimal and the crowds aren’t very convincing. I must admit I did enjoy the night driving around the Texas track. I've driven this track in both NASCAR and IndyCar vehicles in real life but never at night.
The chase interface is functional, displaying speed and tire wear, and the cockpit view is extremely cool but slightly distorted like you are playing through a weird camera lens. The pit interface is easy to use and the animated pit crew going to work on your car is probably the best pit animation I’ve seen to date.
The cars are all modeled very nicely with excellent paint jobs and authentic sponsor decals, etc. The damage model is not very impressive, even on the hardest difficulty setting. It’s sad to say that EA’s game 13 years ago had better crashes and more flying debris.
There’s a good replay function that allows you to relive the excitement from all sorts of functional and exciting camera angles. You can follow any driver and cycle the available views around the chosen car. The rest of the presentation is minimal. There is an introduction to each track with some history and useful info but there is none of the grandiose spectacle you would expect, especially from the actual Indy 500.
Framerate will fluctuate with your hardware configuration and how hard you drive the game. There is even a special toggle to enable or disable Hardware Vertex Processing.
Yeah, there’s a cool opening song with the movie, but the hard rock soundtrack during the races has got to go. Music in a “simulation” is just wrong and cheapens the experience plus the music in this game is just plain "bad" - of course that's my personal opinion. Unfortunately, once you turn it off you aren't left with much else except the occasional spotter calls or the proclaimation that you just beat your best lap. Where is my commentary?
The sounds of an IndyCar engine have been nailed perfectly and the roar of the car is changed according to your racing view. A DirextX 9 sound card will get you a decent surround mix that does a good job of letting you hear cars sneaking up on your six. It’s still no substitute for a mirror, even with the added aid of your spotter calling out info about those trying to pass.
There are some bonus goodies you can unlock in this game by doing various challenges, but these only enforce the arcade nature of the game design. When you complete a challenge you get a “card” (think Madden) that you can use to unlock a driver or a special video documentary. These movies are rather lengthy and quite impressive offering a suitable incentive to at least attempt some of the challenges.
You can probably do everything this title has to offer in 20-30 hours. If you are running full length seasons and races then that will easily grow with practice laps, qualifying, and races that can last upwards of two hours. If for some reason you like this game then it has plenty to offer for the solo gamer.
Perhaps I have been overly harsh with this review but I was already let down with the PS2 version of this game and I foolishly believed that Brain in a Jar was spending the past four months actually doing something to improve this game for the PC. Even all the official sponsorship and licensing can't save this title from an early demise in the bargain bins. Grand Prix Legends and NASCAR 2003 are still two of the most definitive racing titles out there for the PC, and even the more fun games like RalliSport Challenge and Midnight Club II will offer you more enjoyment than this title.
IndyCar Series does a remarkable job of simulating just about every aspect of the IndyCar season and the world famous Indianapolis 500 right up to the point where you get behind the wheel. The car setup, the schedules, the teams, the racers, everything is perfect and you won’t find a more authentic presentation of IndyCar racing - just don't drive this out of pit row.