Round round baby round round.
According to a guy named Michael Schneider, the "discovery and appreciation of the circle is our early glimpse into the wholeness, unity, and divine order of the universe". Sheesh, it's just a button on your PS2 controller.
Schneider was, of course, referring to the geometrical circle and its relationship to the physical universe. Or something. Which is actually somewhat relevant to gaming, when you think (too long) about it. After all, almost every facet of a game is comprised of nothing but numbers and shapes, smothered in a coat of pretty colours and artwork.
If Schneider was a gamer, chances are IndyCar Series would be his favourite game - because all of the tracks are, effectively, giant circles. The thing is, most of us aren't quite so taken with particular shapes like he is. On top of that, most of us also aren't so taken with racing games that don't involve corners.
Still, IndyCar comes from the people who brought us the excellent Colin McRae 3 and TOCA, and was worth a look for that reason alone...
Lord of the rings
Before this game dropped into our laps, we'll confess to having known little about the IndyCar sport. Sure, we'd heard of the Indianapolis 500 - partly thanks to good 'ol Indy 500 on the PC - but that was about it. Like NASCAR, it's really an American thing that rarely makes headlines over here. Which, when combined with the endless oval tracks, makes it difficult to explain how it became so addictive. [Try anyway, yeah? -Ed].
The basic modes in IndyCar are Quick Race, IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500, with the focus firmly on the series mode, which lets you play through a 15-race season. Eager to become ringmasters, the first thing we did was start a season without so much as a glance at the manual. After all, surely we'd played enough racing games to pick up the basics as we went along? And so it proved - the championship came at the first attempt. Yes, it was exciting at times, thrilling even, but victory was never in doubt. IndyCar was yet another easy-to-beat racer, it seemed.
So, upping the ante a little, we jumped straight to the 'pro' setting. A few chaotic races later - most of which we didn't even finish - the Masterclass tutorial (with 'famous' Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever touching on the basics of the sport) suddenly took on biblical significance. Oh the humiliation.
Not such a drag
Codemasters deserves credit for its adherence to realism here. Effectively, it made what was already a niche title even more inaccessible to casual gamers. However, it is by making the 'pro' difficulty, in particular, so detailed that they were able to create a compelling, no frills racer.
Because what soon becomes apparent is that IndyCar racing is a lot more than just driving around in circles. Once you learn about things like slipstreams, tire pressure, drag and downforce, you'll suddenly become that much more interested in the sport. And once you learn to implement this knowledge, the game becomes much more enjoyable.
However, there's still the matter of the oval courses to contend with. But believe it or not, driving on this kind of track is often more exhilarating than any other sim racer we've played. Why? Well, for a start, good drivers will maintain a constant sense of high speed, which is more than can be said for many other so-called racing games out there. As well as that, having to weave through traffic while tearing down the inside of a bowl, without so much as scraping paint off another car, is pretty nerve-wracking. To top it off, you can almost always see drivers ahead of you in your field of vision, which enhances the feeling of 'chasing' over racing.
Still, that's not to say there aren't problems with this. Having little or no variety between the tracks can begin to wear thin, especially after your initial season. Unlike, say, Formula 1 circuits, it's a lot easier to consistently reproduce a winning time on IndyCar Series tracks, because once you've figured out what car configuration and race strategy is best for each course, chances are you'll win every time.
An ace up their sleeve
To keep things from getting too monotonous, the Codies threw a trading card system into the mix. This basically means that every time you achieve something in the game (usually winning races), it rewards you with a card for your album. The card then unlocks something, like a movie on the history of IndyCar, or a new feature for the game like a custom driver mode. The movies are a nice touch, and add to the game's overall appeal for budding IndyCar lovers, as well as diehard... um... Eddie Cheever fans.
The game's Indy 500 mode just lets you race in the sport's main event - which has its own separate qualifying mode - and is really just there to capitalise on the 500's popularity, rather than to add anything new to the Series mode. Quick race and Multiplayer are just as one would expect, with the latter option only available to two players at a time.
Unfortunately, by far the worst aspects of IndyCar are the graphics and sound. We suppose that in a game where it's possible to have 30 cars on screen at once, the visuals could never really be cutting edge [unless we're talking about F-Zero GX -Ed]. Still, while the cars might lack detail and the tracks are PSone fare, slowdown isn't a huge issue and only crops up on rare occasions. Which is a worthy trade-off, all things considered.
The sound is all about trade-offs too, it seems. While the engine noises and in-race advice from your team strategist do their job well - especially in DTS, making you aware of where other cars are - the music is limited to a handful of tracks that while decent will get switched off after just a few races.
Rounding things off
In short, IndyCar Series isn't going to win any awards. Unless we make one up for it right now. Which we will! The award for best/only recent IndyCar sim that manages to be strangely absorbing while faithfully reproducing the sport, albeit in an aesthetically displeasing way, goes to... IndyCar Series!
If we were to recommend an open-wheel racing game to somebody, it wouldn't be this. It would be Formula One 2003. If we were to recommend an arcade racer to somebody, it wouldn't be this. It would be Burnout 2. However, if we were to recommend a well-made racing sim to a real fan of the genre, then IndyCar Series would get a mention.
In fact, Schneider would have been proud.