Reviewed: June 23, 2003
Released: May 20, 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 ďfunĒ and realistic, or at least as real as it could be running on a 386 PC with an Adlib card.
There havenít 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, but I just donít think the PS2 was the right system to create this game and it certainly wasnít the proper choice to debut the game for a multi-format release.
IndyCar Series is the topic of todayís review and after about 15 grueling hours behind the wheel Iím 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, Iíve been a track rat since I was 12. Iíve gone to racing school and driven both NASCAR and open wheel (IndyCar) machines so I know whatís real and whatís not.
I probably wouldnít have as much of a problem with this game as I did if Codemasters wasnít trying to pass this title off as the next big racing ďsimulationĒ. IndyCar Series does an incredible job of simulating just about everything except the actual driving experience. Iím sure most of my issues stem from the lack of power the PS2 has to offer to recreate something as intense as 200+mph driving, but I fear for PC and Xbox owners as well.
I donít know how much actual optimization is going into those potentially more powerful releases, but when you are building upon the weakest of the three platforms I canít be too optimistic. Iíve already heard reports in the racing forums that Codemasters has confirmed there will be no mirrors on either the Xbox or PC, and thatís only my first of several gripes.
IndyCar Series offers several gameplay modes including the traditional quick race, IndyCar Series, Indy 500, Masterclass, and Multiplayer. 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 Ridge Racer fans but not many others. 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, 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. Youíll come out of this mode ready for a challenging racing experience. Too bad there really isnít 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. I highly encourage anyone who plays this game to drive from the cockpit or you are simply cheating yourself from any hope of realism.
There is no support for a USB wheel, but I was able to do a few laps with my new Saitek RX600 wireless wheel, and while the wheel appeared to offer a more realistic driving experience, it was clear this game was designed for the Dual Shock. I donít take any racing game very seriously when you play it with a gamepad, which is why I tend to stay away from console racers in general.
I was horrified to find my car had no mirrors. Actually, I feared this would be the case after playing Pro Race Driver, another Codemastersí racing title billed as a semi serious simulation. Unless you are spending the entire race in last place you NEED A MIRROR. Codemastersí response in the forums is to simply use the rear look button. YeahÖright. At speeds in excess of 200mph the last thing Iím 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 donít have to worry about ďsilly thingsĒ 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.
Youíll 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.
The final thing to mention is the racer AI, which is fairly decent but not nearly as impressive as the box would have you think. Iím not sure who coined the term ďAdvanced Genetic AIĒ Ė probably the same guy who came up with ďShock and AweĒ, but I didnít 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 doesnít blindly follow the optimum line to the exclusion of safe driving. Computer drivers seem to have issues about when to pit as well, but Iím not complaining, as I was able to use that to my advantage.
The graphics were merely average. Iíve seen better graphics on arcade racing games like Burnout 2: Point of Impact, so why should we have to have lower quality graphics in what is supposed to be a serious simulation. I will concede the fact that you do get to race against a full field of 33 cars so Iíll accept a few less amenities.
The tracks are all recreated under license and highly authentic, but the details around the tracks are a bit minimal and the crowds arenít very convincing. 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 Iíve 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. Itís sad to say that EAís game 13 years ago had better crashes and more flying debris.
Thereís a good replay function that can recall the last few laps of your race. Iím guessing this is a memory issue and that the Xbox and PC versions will hopefully be able to store more footage. Even so, you have a good selection of functional and exciting camera angles to choose from.
Framerate is lucky to maintain 30fps and often dips to the point where it can actually affect your driving. Of course these drops are usually when other cars are on the screen with you and you are trying to make some precise maneuver to slip through the pack. There are some issues with jaggies and shimmering, not as bad as Ridge Racer, but not as good as it should be at this point in the PS2 life cycle.
Yeah, thereís a cool opening song with the movie, but the hard rock soundtrack during the races has got to go. Music in a ďsimulationĒ is just wrong and cheapens the experience. Besides, once you turn it off you can concentrate on the excellent racing commentary and calls from your spotter.
The sounds of an IndyCar engine have been nailed perfectly and the roar of the car is changed according to your racing view. If your game setup supports it you can hear this game in a wonderful DTS surround mix that does a great job of letting you hear cars sneaking up on your six. Itís still no substitute for a mirror, even with the added aid of your spotter calling in info about those trying to pass.
There are some bonus goodies you can unlock in this game by doing various challenges. When you complete a challenge you get a ďcardĒ (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.
There is a two-player split-screen that offers a bit of additional fun but be prepared for even a bigger hit on the framerate. 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 you like this game then it has plenty to offer.
Perhaps I have been overly harsh with my review but when Iíve been hearing about how real this game is going to be and how it has all the official sponsorship and licensing, etc. I get myself all worked up for a sim only to find just another console racing game. Grand Prix Legends and Viper Racing are still two of the most definitive racing titles out there for the PC and when it comes to consoles I have yet to find anything to rival the complexity of Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec.
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 wonít find a more authentic presentation of IndyCar racing for your PS2.