PC road racing lost its driving force when Papyrus Design Group opted out following this year's typically excellent NASCAR Racing Season 2003. One of the publishers swimming in Papyrus' wake is Codemasters, with their British-designed IndyCar Series. While, at times, quite pleasing and certainly not a bad game, IndyCar suffers from two problems. Firstly, it seems incomplete--as if the developer simply ran out of the time it needed to put the final critical pieces of the puzzle together. Secondly, although it is clearly intended to engage a studied racing simulation audience, IndyCar Series is not in the same frighteningly realistic realm of recent Papyrus and Electronic Arts road racing games. If you're new to this particular subgenre of virtual racing, you will find that IndyCar Series delivers enough action and challenge to keep you driving for some time to come. If you're an experienced racing simulation nut, you may be somewhat less enthusiastic.
We'll get into the details in a moment, but let's first define just what it is that this game is simulating. Like Papyrus' late, great IndyCar Racing II, Codemasters' IndyCar Series strives to re-create the upper echelon of North American open-wheeled competition. However, that upper echelon isn't nearly the same now as it was back in 1995 when Papyrus had its last kick at the IndyCar can. Back then, IndyCars competed at a wide variety of venues--from ovals and superspeed tri-ovals to purpose-built permanent road courses and temporary through-the-city-streets tracks. This variety made for a superb and superbly versatile computer game, especially when paired with Papyrus' experience and expertise.
Yet not long after IndyCar Racing II arrived on retail shelves, there was a falling out in the real-life IndyCar ranks. What followed was a long and protracted conflict that hasn't even ended now, but suffice it to say that IndyCar split into two distinct factions. One of the two blocs--now known as CART--furthered its expansion into other countries and continues to this day to be a truly multidisciplined series, incorporating an assortment of track types from around the globe. The other group, the Indy Racing League, retained the rights to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500 event, and the IndyCar moniker. Its flagship series, the IndyCar Series, debuted in 1996 with a laughably small five-race season but has grown substantially ever since.
However, one of IndyCar's biggest potential downfalls is its track diversity. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Unlike CART, IndyCar eschews road courses and street circuits in favor of an oval-only approach. Even more than NASCAR, which is infamous for its sea of ovals but in reality offers several nonoval events, IndyCar is the current epitome of the "drive fast, turn left" mentality. Unfortunately, that's part of the problem with this game.
To wit, any racing game that deals with round and round ovals has a potential for being a might dull. Such was not the case with the Papyrus IndyCar series because Papyrus had constructed such a dynamic and realistic car model and such superbly distinctive and reactive circuits that no two tracks felt the same. Furthermore, the Papyrus game was able to spice things up by including all the nonovals that were featured in the real-life series at the time. Conversely, IndyCar Series is pure oval. That would be fine if the game's physics modeling and reactivity were sophisticated enough to make the overall experience feel appreciably different from circuit to circuit, but it isn't.
That's not to say developer Brain in a Jar didn't build unique and, at least, semi-authentic facilities. Indeed it did. In fact, most of its tracks are impressively representative of their real-life counterparts. Some are big, wide, and fully conducive to extremely high top-end speeds, while others are short, confining, and filled with wild gear shifts and braking. Some are heavily banked, and others, like the nearly rectangular Indianapolis course, are fearsome due to their lack of banking. This sort of thing nicely mimics the real world.
However, Brain in the Jar's cars, and their reactions to the driving surface, are simply not dynamic enough. Unlike IndyCar Racing (or Papyrus' NASCAR Racing series or EA's current F1 series), IndyCar Series doesn't do enough to convince you that you're sitting in a real, twitchy, dangerous racing machine. When you blast too fast into a turn, you don't feel the tires jumping and breaking away from the pavement. Instead, the game slowly drifts you up the track and (usually) into the wall. Granted, you will feel wheelspin and a loss of adhesion at certain times--like when you gun it too fast from a standing start, for example. In the most critical areas--the turns--the car remains rooted to the pavement, as if on rails, until it begins to inexplicably shift up toward the wall. Why the game allows you to drive so "hot" into a turn and so quickly through most of it before throwing you off your line near the end remains a mystery.
Unfortunately, another downside to IndyCar Series is that you don't feel like you have a 675 horsepower monster ready to spin your tires or throw you sideways if you do something foolish. Although you can do donuts from a standing start and shoot sideways if you accelerate too quickly in first and/or second gear, you don't quite sense that a momentary lapse of concentration might spell the end of your day. Racers who've come to IndyCar Series from an arcade racing background may find these quirks quite a bit less damning than sim veterans, but they are quirks nonetheless.
There are other reasons, apart from inadequate physics modeling, that keep IndyCar Series an average game. For example, manual car control is not permitted on pit lane. This is nothing short of pure annoyance for anyone who knows what they're doing out there. Yet the most critical, and surely the most infuriating, blunder is a complete and total lack of rearview mirrors. That's right. Either Brain in a Jar had its "brains in a jar," or it was compelled by a fast-approaching deadline to preclude rearview mirrors from a game that otherwise threatens to be a simulation. Though you can check the action behind you, via a quick "look behind" control, there is simply no excuse for not placing rearview mirrors in a game that pits you side-by-side with other intelligent but hell-bent drivers at 230mph.
Furthermore, whenever you do bang tires or other equipment with another driver or wall, you'll find the game's damage modeling to be curiously allocated and exhibited. IndyCar Series crashes are always accompanied by a liberal spray of featureless 2D polygons, bouncing hither and thither. These polygons seem to have no real purpose other than esthetics. Indeed, even in easy mode, where there is no damage, the very same polygons dance about the screen even after a gentle nudge against the wall. In pro mode, damage plays a far more prominent role. Here, you can be forced into the pits for repair or knocked clean out of the race by what would seem to be unrealistically light contact. On a more authentic note, if you do something foolhardy, such as drive backward into the pack, you're instantly out of the race.
Interestingly, in the scant few seconds between such a collision and your far-too-quick banishment from the track, the game goes to great lengths to display the incidental effects of the impact. Thick black smoke belches from the affected cars, as well as brief glimpses of fire. Dislodged nose cones and wings bounce across the track, and another sprinkling of those dancing 2D polygons will make their reappearances. The general impression is very good and is filled with the necessary fire and brimstone. Yet, if you get a moment to check your car after the "accident," you'll see that your tires are still attached. The suspension may be bent, but the tires are still there. In fact, the majority of your chassis will look virtually untouched.
Otherwise, IndyCar Series graphics are quite serviceable. The cars themselves are nicely rendered, with adequately detailed bodies, rotating tires, active suspensions, reflective surfaces, and appropriate real-life sponsor logos and decorations. The exposed engines are not particularly beautiful or intricate, but that can be forgiven in the grand scheme of things. In the cockpit, you'll find a turning steering wheel, animated driver's hand and arms, and, of course, a lack of rearview mirrors. You'll also find a lack of gauges or dials of any sort, apart from a series of tiny LEDs on your steering wheel that warn you against over-revving your motor. With the exception of that single gauge, the cockpit is a blank, black vacuum. The important information you should find therein is instead displayed at the bottom right of the screen. In the bottom left you'll see a tire temperature indicator, and in the top right you'll see the current race standings.
Outside your car, IndyCar Series is by no means unattractive. Brain in a Jar's depiction of translucent, billowing tire smoke and inky engine smoke is dead on. Environmental effects are basic but passable, with real-time shadows under the cars, permanent skid marks, and attractively illuminated evening races being some of the highlights. The track surfaces differ realistically from venue to venue and are meticulously detailed to more effectively convey a sense of speed. In fact, the developer has even added a little artificial blurring, which comes into play as your speed increases. Ultimately, the game's sensation of speed is superb, as is its pit stop sequence, which is replete with an intelligently animated crew that performs their respective jobs.
You'll want to watch your exploits later via the IndyCar Series replay suite, where you can smoothly move from vehicle to vehicle and summon up a wide variety of camera positions to get a better view of that big crash or that split-second victory. It's a very good replay suite, actually, providing oodles of impressive TV-style perspectives. However, it won't allow you to save a replay for future viewing.
Off the track, the game features a number of welcome perks. Its selection of user options is top-notch, allowing you to tailor all important parameters to your liking. If you want to run a 10-lap race, a half-distance, or full-distance event, you can do it. If you want to apply one of a variety of helpful driver's aids, you can do that too. Strangely, in order to change your control configuration scheme, the program takes you temporarily to the Windows desktop, where a complex and unintuitive routine awaits. Most players should get the hang of it after a little indoctrination. The game's garage facility, though very useful and impressively complex, will take a bit longer to master.
One of the most interesting options is one that adapts the AI to your level of competence. Too many racing games have come to market with what has often been termed as an automatic catch-up feature, which allows either the human driver or the artificially intelligent competitors to unrealistically make up lost ground after a crash or whenever a specific lead margin has been detected. Perhaps suitable for some arcade games, automatic catch-up is reviled in most simulation circles. Brain in a Jar has seemingly provided the perfect solution, though AI drivers do tend to hang around even when adaptive AI is switched off.
Of course, no racing game that seeks to re-create a given series would be complete without a full complement of licensed drivers and circuits. IndyCar Series delivers here, too, by offering all the key IndyCar teams and 14 of its tracks. The game allows you to jump into quickie one-off races, or you can campaign through a full season of events. Sadly, it won't permit custom season construction. One of the highlights is its Indianapolis 500 option, which allows you to head off to Indy for a full weekend of fun and frivolity, including the anxiety-ridden "Bump Day" where you may just find yourself on the bubble as the slowest qualifier, waiting to potentially be bumped from the race by a faster driver. Unfortunately, the game does not support multiplayer human versus human competition.
Certainly one of the finest accoutrements is a little something called "masterclass." Here, you're taken on a surprisingly lengthy and stunningly comprehensive, multifaceted tutorial of virtually everything pertinent to the real-life IndyCar series, as well as to the game itself. Narrated by series driver and one-time Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr., masterclass instructs effectively and even offers interactive skill-testing scenarios. This is a wonderful component and should not be taken lightly.
IndyCar Series audio is fair. Engine notes are believable and tuned to the current viewer perspective, of which there are several. Brake squeal is accurate and informative. Collision effects are not nearly dramatic enough, and may sometimes be nonexistent. The spotter/crew chief is a tad late every now and then but generally offers lots of timely and useful information.
Ultimately, IndyCar Series is a decent game with lots of likeable perks but a few too many foibles to be heartily recommended. However, this is the only way you're going to experience IndyCar on your computer these days. If you can handle the rough edges and aren't a hardened simulation connoisseur, you may want to take this one for a spin.