Version tested: PlayStation 3
In motor trade parlance, SuperCar Challenge isn't so much a new model, more like a used car patched back together and resprayed. The follow-up to last year's admirable but ultimately underwhelming Ferrari Challenge Trofeo Pirelli, it still fails to unleash the untapped potential present in its impressive simulation engine.
Anything not directly connected to the precision control of your chosen vehicle feels distinctly undernourished. Visually, car exteriors are suitably glossy and detailed, and the rain effects are especially convincing, but they're in stark contrast to the drab interior views and trackside details that wouldn't look out of place on a model railway. The frame-rate is slick, but the result is a game of distracting contrasts, where a few key elements have been polished to a dazzling sheen while most of the incidental details fail to convince.
The same is true of the game's structure. The Challenge mode is a lifeless grind that locks off tracks by geographical location, forcing you to replay the same races until you accrue enough points to earn the next few crumbs from the gameplay table. Advancing across the globe is easy enough on the lower difficulty settings, but played as intended - as a serious simulator - the points come slowly, emphasising repetition over achievement, making the long haul less than enticing. Tournament mode, by contrast, is too short-lived. Offering a procession of identically structured three-race events, there's no wider progression structure and no persistent contest beyond the brief confines of each trio of races.
The Arcade Challenge is the game's concession towards more frivolous players, but it feels like a wasted effort. Improving the car stability and offering numerous racing assists, it's certainly a lot easier than the real game, but it's a long way from being an arcade game. It's simply a really easy simulation, and anyone who fires it up expecting anything with the energy and excitement to rival Forza, PGR or even Gran Turismo will be left wanting. Unfortunately, all the game modes are hampered further by the ponderous loading times, which make the simple act of getting from one race to another something of a drag.
Also cramping the longevity is the inconsistent AI of rival racers. A problem in Ferrari Challenge, it remains an issue here, even though it is apparently one of the areas tweaked in the intervening months. The other 15 vehicles stick to the racing line with the unswerving tenacity of Scalextric, only breaking formation as you approach. They rarely appear to be in competition with each other, content to play follow-the-leader unless you break their pattern, and even on Legend difficulty they don't provide the sort of lasting opposition that can sustain a single-player racer, acting more like mobile obstacles to be negotiated than sentient challengers.
The longer you play, the more you want to simply get past these drones so you can concentrate on the real challenge of the game - staying in control and shaving seconds off your lap times. There comes a point when you wonder if the game should have just abandoned all pretence of variety and dumped everything from the menu other than Time Trial. That's what the game is, at its heart, and that's what it keeps straining to be, even when racing game lore dictates that it must make a show of taking on different forms.
There are, of course, some players who would prefer this incredibly narrow design path. Such people will be few in number, but their passion will probably compensate for the clumsier peripheral elements, meshing neatly with the game's apparent disinterest in anything not directly connected to the physics of a vehicle in motion. The sparse multiplayer options provide a haven for such players to congregate, but for a series with such a niche audience the online portion of the game doesn't attempt to offer anything out of the ordinary to help foster a community.
It is, sadly, these devotees who will suffer most from the second-hand air that surrounds too much of the game. Anyone tempted by the prospect of a full SuperCar line-up following last year's Ferrari-only offering should be warned that of the 44 cars on offer here, only nine are from other manufacturers. This is still a game that looks to Fiorano for inspiration and this vehicular bias is even more troubling when you consider that the ambitious DLC plans for Ferrari Challenge never came to pass thanks to mysterious "licensing issues", which left loyal fans waiting for almost a year for just one small collection of cars and the Nurburgring course.
The tracks don't dispel the feeling that this is more like an expansion disc for last year's title either. Of the 16 available, more than half have been carried over. There's always going to be a finite amount of real-world racetracks to use, of course, but the presence of one nominally original course - Riviera, an own-brand Monaco by any other name - suggests that there's no reason why the roster couldn't be enhanced with even more fictional locations.
Even the presentation is all but identical. Tiff Needell is back for the tutorials, cajoling and prodding you to improve, and the game once again opens with a showroom-porn glide around a randomly selected SuperCar, to the soaring strains of classical music. This time it's Carl Orff's O Fortuna, better known as the music from The Omen and the kitsch Old Spice adverts, a choice so pompously over-the-top that it threatens to tip the game into the realm of parody before it's even started.
Ferrari Challenge was a decent enough game that failed to capitalise on a potentially great simulation engine. SuperCar Challenge sadly makes the same mistake, focusing so much attention on the minutiae of car physics that the actual gameplay feels like an afterthought. It's less easy to be forgiving the second time around, and the outrageously Ferrari-centric roster makes a mockery of the SuperCar claim, with too many cars and tracks feeling like hand-me-downs from last year's game. SuperCar Challenge is serious enough in approach to placate the demanding hardcore few, but as part of an ongoing series it really needs more time in the garage.
5 / 10