IndyCar Series 2005

Game On

IndyCar Series 2005

After the crushing disappointment with last years IndyCar Series, I was a little apprehensive about picking up the mis–titled IndyCar Series 2005 when it arrived during the summer.

Last years’ effort had been so bad that if it hadn’t been for the fact I’m a huge fan of the sport, I probably wouldn’t have gone near the sequel. Fortunately, however, ICS 2005 turned out to be a vast improvement over the original, although not as entirely new a title as the 2005 postfix would suggest.

For a start, the twitchy car handling is comparable to last time, if a little more forgiving, although that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you’re looking for an arcade racer then Burnout 3 is what you’re after. IndyCar Series 2005 is as hardcore as console racing games come – the default set-up for every track is pretty much unusable, and you’ll have to put many miles of test laps in to dial down the car for your personal style of racing.

This is both a strength and a weakness – casual gamers will be horrified at the almost vertical learning curve – just being consistent enough not to clip the outside wall is a real challenge until you have the car handling with any degree of predictability. But for gamers who like their racers to have a bit of depth and customisation it should come as a welcome diversion from the power-up’s and short cuts found in every other game on the shelves.

The in-game graphics are unspectacular to say the least, and virtually unchanged from last time out. Compare it to the latest PS2 or XBox titles and you have yourself a game that looks quite dated. But then, how many other racing games are chucking the player and up to 32 AI cars around tracks in excess of 200 miles an hour? Regardless of the bland graphics, what you’re here for is the racing, and for the most part ICS 2005 delivers on the premise of the sport. Racing is ridiculously fast, close, and mistakes are punished harshly, making every on track decision just that much more tense. Until you learn that backing off is sometimes the better choice than a huge wreck, the game will bite you time and again.

The racing itself consists of single events of 10 laps, 20 laps, quarter, half or full distance, plus the Indianapolis 500 as a stand alone event. Then there’s the full blown IRL season into the bargain, but I’ve found it more fun just to pick and choose from the easier tracks for a decent racing session so far. The testing needed to be competative in the full season can get tedious – next year (if there is a next year) it might be wise of them to make the default car set-up a bit more useable.

A 20 lap race with full damage on can leave you feeling like you’ve done 200 laps, such is the level of concentration needed to keep pace with the aggressive AI cars at some tracks. There is a menu option that will make the AI adjust itself depending on the competence of the player, which is a welcome inclusion, and helps ease the frustration of that steep learning curve.

The other aspects of difficulty can be customised depending on what sort of challenge you’re after, too. You can opt whether to have tyre-wear, or yellow flags, and adjust the damage levels between none, simple, full, and AI cars only, to help tailor the game to your ability. Sadly there’s no indication of what the AI is actually set to – which means collecting some trading cards can be a bit hit and miss. I’ve ended up doing the same full distance race three times before it unlocked anything, just because I didn’t have the AI options set to the right difficulty. In fact, one of the cards is unlocked when you “Win a full distance race with the AI at 100%”, but exactly what that is is anyone’s guess, as I was pretty sure I had done that and I still don’t have the card.

Aside from the racing and testing modes, the Master Class challenges are back this time around too, offering useful pointers for the novice and a challenge for the seasoned veteran alike, and is a good first port of call when the game boots up. It’s narrated by Dan Weldon, rookie of the year in 2003, and desperately searching for a personality in 2004 and beyond. Yes, it’s a cool idea to have an actual IRL driver explaining the nuances of oval racing, but they might have picked one with a bit more charisma.

The early master classes consist of reeling off a few laps of Indianapolis above a certain speed, or sorting out the handling of a poorly set-up car – pretty standard fare. However, the latter challenges are extremely tough, and it’ll take a better man than me to complete them all with a gold award. In some cases you’re stuck into a charged racing situation, with only a few laps to go and having to gain places or win the race to collect a gold.

I don’t know about anyone else, but being slapped into a car that I have no familiarity with, set-up in a way that would suggest Johnny Knoxville himself is your head mechanic, is just something well beyond any skills I have with the game. Being forced to use a stock set-up seems harsh to me – I had hoped that the more time I spent on my Indianapolis set-up, the better the car would be in the master class. Sadly it doesn’t work that way, and I doubt I’ll be completing the final few challenges to anything above bronze or silver standard due to this. Indeed, if Dan Wheldon can actually drive with the unstable set-up his car has in-game, I’m very impressed. It seems to me that if your car swaps ends at the slightest hint of a bump in-corner, then you need to be softening up those springs or dampers!

(The unofficial IndyCar Series 2005 Set-up Portal comes in very handy for some pointers with car set-up’s.)

Completing the master classes does unlock trading cards for you, though, so it is worth persevering if you have the patience. Browsing the trading card album gives you access to media clips associated with certain cards. Although these mini-documentaries mostly focus on the history of the Indianapolis 500, they are very well put together and worth watching if you’re a fan. It’s nice to have something like that as an unlockable too, as along with the other extras, such as paint schemes, drivers, and the ability to create your own team, it lends some longevity to the title.

The in-game sound is pretty average, with your “spotter” offering advice on the position of other cars when you’re in the cockpit or the nose camera views. Sadly he goes awol in the third person perspective, but since he’s usually late in his delivery, and eventually repetitive, that’s maybe not such a bad thing. Front end menu sounds are the usual beeps and blips, although the menu/loading-transition sound is very annoying – whoever decided that hearing it over and over again as you step between game modes needs to change the batteries in their hearing aid.

Multiplayer racing online is incorporated in this years version – and it works reasonably well from the little I’ve played on my PS2. Sadly the game is XBox exclusive in Northern America – the core market for this type of game, and that means that there are very few people online at any given time. It’s a real shame, as it’s one of the better implemented online racers, and the collision detection seems spot on – no mean feat for the small team who develop the game.

Now for some general gripes – the game is called IndyCar Series 2005, yet the drivers and teams are based on 2003! For me this is just pathetic – it came out in the middle of the 2004 season – it should be called IndyCar Series 2004 if anything. But to come out with a title that would suggest it’s based on next season, with drivers that are either no longer racing, or worse – dead, is just unforgivable. Codemasters have gone to the trouble of firing the team who made this game, though, so perhaps the title is a hint that we wont be seeing a sequel next year?

Although the awful pit stop glitches from the original seem to have been fixed, the AI still makes some bizarre decisions during yellow flag situations. There have been times when I’ve ended up a lap ahead because the AI cars chose to stay out and then pit on the last lap under yellow, while I rocket off into the sunset. I’ve also managed to get myself into a situation under auto-drive where I couldn’t select the check-box to pit when I was prompted. This meant that I stayed out that extra lap and got penalised heavily. Another time I was leaving the pits and got rammed by the pace car as it peeled back in – fortunately during auto-drive your car is invulnerable, and it just reset me to the track. Pace car glitches are numerous, though – I’ve seen it being hit by one of the AI cars, crash, and then take out several others as it trys to sort itself out, and although cases like this are extreme and seldom, it could ruin an entire race – not something you want in the middle of a full distance slog.

What lets this title down in the value for money stakes is the glaring fact that it’s the patched game that last years’ release should have been. The front-end design would also suggest this, as very little has changed, if anything. Fortunately, though, they’ve patched it to the extent that it’s a worthy successor, and in no way does the lack of work on the front end lessen the fun to be had by the racing.

To sum up, I’m glad to have the opportunity to play an IRL based game – it’s an overlooked sport which is a million times more exciting than Formula One. Due to this, I can find it easier to forgive the short comings of the title when gremlins rear their heads, and just enjoy the intensity of the racing instead. If you’re in need of a hardcore simulation racer to keep you going until GT4 arrives, then you could do worse than IndyCar Series 2005.