Aside from Formula 1 games, open-wheeled racers get shortchanged. We have more than our fair share of NASCAR, touring class, and rally games, but the American open-wheeled series (CART and IRL) are underrepresented. Codemasters comes to the rescue with a new IRL based title - IndyCar Series. Covering 14 tracks, a few dozen cars on course, and blistering fast speeds, the game challenges your ability to hold a racing line.
Presentation/Graphics : 80
I was pleasantly surprised with the graphics of IndyCar Series. While not the best, they perform admirably with the number of cars on track. The action is viewed from one of four cameras. Two third-person views provide a bird's eye view but detract from the thrill of racing. A nose camera puts you low and clear, and a helmet view provides the most realistic racing view. With this view you get the first-person experience complete with gloved hands on the wheel and a good shot of the sloping nose. If you ride right up the tail of a slower car you'll notice the detail put into the car chassis. The off-track detail is minimal, but since most of the time you're focused on the racing it's not a significant issue. What is an issue is the lack of mirrors. There's a button to grab a quick look behind, which is unrealistic, but adding realism through side mirrors is nowhere to be found.
Presentation/Audio : 80
Fortunately there are plenty of audio clues in IndyCar Series to give you a sense of where your opponents are. If you've got a full DTS setup you'll get the full effect of passing cars. If you don't, you'll have to depend on the clear calls from your spotter. He'll guide you around the track when traffic is near and does a credible job. The car sounds are done well, though I wish there was a better audible clue when you're on the brink of losing grip.
Interface/Options : 50
The most obvious omission in the game is the lack of USB wheel support. When the game arrived in the mail I feverishly ripped the plastic from the box, threw it in the PS2, plugged my Logitech FF wheel in the USB port, and fired up the PS2. Nothing. Hmm, perhaps the wrong slot. Recycle the power for good measure with the wheel in the other slot and still nothing. I couldn't believe my eyes. A “serious” sim with no wheel support? Well, there's wheel support for non-USB wheels, but that does me no good. For a publisher known for racing titles, to leave this feature out is unfathomable. Back to the Dual Shock controller.
Once the menus opened up, I could cycle through the options to see what this game was made of. Not much really. The game modes include single races, the IRL season, a dedicated Indy 500, and the Masterclass mode. The Indy 500 mode lets you qualify for the big race and even includes the bump day sessions. Further, this mode lets you be one of 33 cars on the track at once. The other races have a reduced field. The Masterclass mode is a nice addition to the game. This mode is a learning mode. You learn things like cornering, pitting, car setup, and more. Eddie Cheever Jr. provides instruction and following the lesson comes the test. Based on your performance a bronze, silver, or gold medal is earned.
For a racing title, IndyCar has more than its share of setup options. In the garage you can adjust gear ratios, spring rates, ride heights, and more. Unfortunately the menu system isn't very intuitive so finding the garage menu doesn't come naturally. What's unique to this title is the ability to change setup during a race. While out on the track you can adjust the fuel mixture to run lean or rich and play with race strategy. Also, if you are loose or tight into the turns you can adjust the mass a bit to aid in cornering.
However, this really is a game of missing options. In addition to not supporting a USB wheel, you don't get side view mirrors. After the race the results are posted, but rather than displaying the stats when the winner takes the checkered flag, the game waits until all racers cross the line, even if this means lapped drivers have to finish several more laps.
Gameplay : 80
This game is what I'd call a “tweener” racer. It's somewhere between an arcade racer and a racing simulation. The sim aspects include detailed car adjustments, actual courses, and a damage model. The arcade element comes in with car physics that are a bit forgiving. There's just enough of both to satisfy most racing fans, but not enough to satisfy the purists.
These cars stay on the road for one reason - aerodynamic down force. Watch any IRL race and you'll see cars fly around the course at blazingly fast speeds. You can replicate that same action in the game, but I feel it's a bit overdone. That is, there's too much grip. You can press deadstick left and push the car through the turn. In a well set-up car there is practically no oversteer. Cars hold the line incredibly well. Fortunately, racing against the higher difficulty levels forces you to modify the car setup. Adjusting ride height, camber, tire pressure, wing angles and the like may generate an unbalanced car. It's only then that you begin to worry about oversteer.
One problem with car setups is the order in which they are done. If you race a single race you don't get to qualify. You are stuck in the middle of the pack at the beginning of the race. In the season mode you do qualify, but if you don't make your adjustments before qualifying you won't be making any changes. As soon as the qualifying session is completed it's off to the races. Further, there are no updates in the practice session to give you an indication of how your lap times compare to your competitors. The only way to compare yourself to the field is during the race.
The damage model is both a blessing and a curse. The good is that there is one; the bad is that it's forgiving. You can rub the wall and not cause damage to your car. Likewise, a stronger tap may yield suspension damage but unless you really whack it you can drive as if nothing happened at all. One aspect I really appreciate is tire performance. It takes a few laps for the tires to come up to temperature. While warming it's difficult to push the car to the limit.
Something to appreciate in the game is the AI of your opponents. Cars hold their lines effectively, and if you hit the rear view button you'll see them darting to the left and right for better position. Since there are no side mirrors a spotter continuously calls out cars' positions relative to you. The audio clues are great except when a car is right beside you. The first-person views give no indication exactly how close another car is.
One aspect that just doesn't feel right is the drafting. At 200 mph or faster, there should be a huge hole getting opened by the cars ahead. However, the draft really only comes into play a few car lengths behind an opponent. Once you catch it you close quickly, which makes cornering fun. Still, I would have liked a slightly more exaggerated drafting model to better simulate actual IRL racing.
Replay Value : 70
Replay value is a toss-up on this title. On the one hand, the game offers some pretty exciting races. The high speeds and slotcar-like racing is fun. But the nature of IRL is to race on nothing but ovals. You can say the same about NASCAR, but there's a huge difference in racing at a short track like Bristol, a track like Indy, or a "super speedway" like Daytona. Plus NASCAR hits Sears Point and Watkins Glen to test your ability to turn right occasionally. With IndyCar Series the track selection lacks diversity. If you're a racing fan, this is a nice addition to your racing library. But if you are a casual racer the style of racing may be too repetitive.
Overall : 75
If Codemasters had insisted on a few additions, this game would have been a real gem. The lack of USB wheel support and no mirrors bring the ranking down significantly. Every time I gear up for a race I think of how much better this game could have been. As it is, it is a fun racer. The AI drivers hold their lines, the racing is intense, and the car setups are thorough. But if you yearn for a mix of road and oval courses, you'll have to hold your breath for a CART title.