Content Test 3

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Superstars V8 Racing
Graphics: 7.7
Gameplay: 7.2
Sound: 7
Control: 7.4
Replay Value: 7.5
Rating: 7.3

Over the past six months or so, we’ve watched some seriously large and relatively accomplished titles hit the digital download realm. Although they’re still a far cry from the full, big-budget $60 productions, they’re also many, many times more technically proficient than they were at the start of the generation. However, as we advance, titles like Superstars V8 Racing now reside in a gray area: it’s tough to compare it to past PSN games that aren’t anywhere near as big, but at the same time, we shouldn’t really compare it to the likes of Gran Turismo 5. Perhaps the big question is whether or not racing aficionados will want to drop $20 for a competent simulator, or spend three times as much on a top-notch, full-fledged sim. I’m just not sure if that aforementioned gray area has any place in the market today…

Really, for a downloadable, the graphics are quite impressive. Developers are starting to add all the little ambient effects that used to be restricted to physical media. For instance, one quickly notices the muddy tire tracks in the grass, the reflection of brake lights on appropriately slick-looking rainy roads, and solid vehicle detail coupled with decent damage modeling. That’s right, the game even features damage, although it isn’t entirely realistic in either the cosmetic or physics categories. Not enough is going on at the racetracks, in that they seem devoid of spectators, and there isn’t a whole lot of variety between the circuits. But based on the inherent limitations of the product, we should reward the surprising car detail, quality effects, and an overall consistent – and stable – visual presentation. In other words, taking all things into account, the graphics are none too shabby.

The sound is hit or miss. We get a pretty hardcore soundtrack but it doesn’t usually accompany the on-track action, and the sound effects are a little too generic to be considered “simulated.” Furthermore, too many of the vehicles sound the same and oddly enough, the engine sound seems to override just about anything else, including the squealing tires. Too many times I spun because I simply didn’t realize my rear tires weren’t gripping; when driving at high speeds, you not only pay attention to the track, you also listen to your car. Overall, though, both the music and effects are decent and provide the player with a fairly cohesive, enjoyable audio experience. We just miss some of the small things we’ve grown used to over the years, and I’m not buying the authenticity of some of those racing effects.

Another racer that cost $20 was Wipeout HD and while that one was a good deal cleaner and more impressive than Superstars V8 Racing, both feature similar in-depth structures. You can participate in Race Weekend or Championship Modes, or you can get some practice by doing some Training and trying a few License Tests. Various driver teams have experience, knowledge and reliability statistics, you can manually alter the weather, difficulty, and your start position, and you can fiddle with a car’s suspension, gears, brakes, tires, wing, and even engine mapping. To really dive in, you can turn off the driving assists, turn on the realistic elements (damage, penalties, etc.) and perform meticulous upgrades. Then, you can take your tweaked vehicle out for a spin and track the telemetry; i.e., compare your lap times and see how your alterations affected the car’s performance.

So in other words, all the requisite elements for a racing simulator are here, although we don’t have the flashy robustness of a Gran Turismo built atop that foundation. We don’t have all the insanely refined technical aspects, the super polished physics, the gigantic number of cosmetic and mechanical upgrades, or a large number of modes and events. For the most part, we’re limited to a few standard modes (that too feel similar to one another), 10 racetracks, maybe a few dozen cars, a handful of admittedly entertaining and well-devised license tests, and passable simulation physics. Still, what we have isn’t bad at all. You are indeed rewarded for racing correctly, the learning curve is appropriately steep – this is supposed to be semi-realistic, remember? – and although it’s not crazy deep, you can fiddle and tweak behind the scenes, almost to your heart’s content.

I liked that we really have to know the racetrack before we can turn fast lap times, and I enjoyed the challenge of stiffer competition after ramping up the opponent difficulty, turning off a few aids, and turning on the realistic options. This really allows the game to shine because it places its best foot forward for hardcore racing fans. Getting a wheel stuck in the grass or dirt going around a turn will have a realistic effect on the car, feathering the accelerator and understanding the type of vehicle you’re driving is important for cornering, and I liked participating in those different license tests. There’s countdown, special trials, duels and race scenarios; in each, you can either pass or strive for medals (Platinum being the best of the bunch). Some tests will have you overtake the leaders in less than a lap, others are timed sections, and still others will test your ability to take and hold a lead. There’s even one where you have to win (or place) with a car that has worn tires.  It was a good test of skill.

With 19 cars to any given race, sufficiently long and challenging racetracks that are diverse in design (if not in visual landscaping), and multiple factors to consider – including weather, driver capability, etc. – the game really tries to deliver the goods. But the problem is that we don’t really have a Career mode that lets us start as a rookie driver and work our way up the ranks. Race Weekend and Championship aren’t quite enough, especially because they feel awfully similar, and there are only a few license tests. Plus, I have to question the realism in regards to my mechanical alterations; the balance just seems a little out of whack. Some alterations would result in overly significant changes to my performance while other tweaks didn’t seem to do anything at all. I also think the cars felt a little too similar, and the AI is just way too…vanilla. Regardless of the difficulty level, they always seem to act the same, which is a definite drawback.

You can also play bumper cars to your advantage; even with damage turned on, you won’t suffer too much in the way of significant damage when smacking a car around a tight turn, and it often keeps you in line. This is one of the infamous issues in older GT titles (i.e., you can hit a wall and it won’t matter much), and here, collisions apparently aren’t frowned upon. Lastly, it was difficult to understand when or how penalties were assessed: when going off the track on one corner, I was penalized three seconds. On the second corner, I did much the same thing and nothing happened. So there are some definite issues that keep this game from being all it could be. But even so, it’s a competent, stable racer that offers a lot for twenty bucks; certainly more in the way of depth and realism than we could’ve hoped for three years ago. The online play can be pretty entertaining, too…provided you can find people.

Superstars V8 Racing works hard. It strives to be a true-blue simulator that sacrifices a few things here and there for the sake of its digital format and price tag. For the most part, it doesn’t do a bad job. But although the issues are small, they can really mount up when taking a bird’s-eye view, and I have to say, I couldn’t use my favorite camera view (first-person). I just couldn’t see far enough ahead with that view and I was forced to use standard third-person, which made the game much easier but also felt a little like cheating, as no simulator should be played from that viewpoint. The AI is too plain and predictable, there aren’t quite enough cars or available modes, and the physics are just a bit off. But there are really cool tracks inspired by real-life circuits, solid and semi-accurate simulation elements, a lot of depth for gearheads, and some satisfying technicals. If you really need something to tide you over until GT5, this is a decent option.

The Good: Surprising technical proficiency for a digital title. Valiant attempt at a super simulator. Appropriate mechanical depth. Good control. Option to drastically affect realism via many player-controlled settings.

The Bad: Effects are a little too generic. AI is predictable and too robotic. In-car camera views limit visibility. Physics/simulation aspects aren’t always tight or accurate.

The Ugly: A few of the damage effects look kinda funny.

11/8/2010   Ben Dutka