Wednesday, April 23, 2008

ARCA Sim Racing Review

ARCA Sim Racing, developed and published by The Sim Factory.
The Good: Very convincing physics, entertaining lag-free multiplayer that's great for leagues, online stat tracking, comprehensive garage options, default setups work well enough, robust replay system
The Not So Good: Won't appeal to casual drivers, spotty AI, no tutorials, some minor bugs and missing features, more expensive than competing sims
What say you? Racing fans rejoice: your authentic stock car simulation is here: 7/8

Ever since Electronic Arts bought (stole) the NASCAR license away from Papyrus, racing fans have been looking for the next great stock car simulation. EA's NASCAR SimRacing was disappointing at best, and all the quality sims out there (RACE 07, rFactor, or Live for Speed) have another focus. So along comes ARCA Sim Racing: a heavily modified version of rFactor that uses a bunch of real-world data and input from real ARCA drivers (including one stunt driver). The developers are obviously serious about the venture, since they bought part ownership in an ARCA team and sponsor the pole award (without a large income stream like larger software developers). Does ARCA Sim Racing fulfill all of our hardcore simulation needs?

Overall, I am pleased with the graphics in ARCA Sim Racing. The tracks are detailed, from the textures to the infield. Since you have to drive from the garage onto pit road, the developers have put in all of the fencing and other objects for you to see along the way. Some tracks look better than others, but I think this mirrors real life. Also realistic is the crowds you'll see at each track, far more appropriate than seeing completely filled stands at an ARCA race. The cars seem realistic; apparently the models were laser-scanned from the real cars. There are also nice day to night transitions and the scoreboards are actually correct. The effects are OK, with translucent smoke billowing from a spin, but damage is quite disappointing. A sophisticated damage model is not on the top of my list of features, but watching parts fly through the air is still entertaining and ARCA Sim Racing lacks anything beyond simple body dents. The performance is also good: I've been able to run with high settings at 1280x1024 with fluid results; this is comparable to RACE 07. The sound is pretty typical: throaty engines that sound a whole lot more realistic than the rFactor stock car mods and other racing effects. Ignition sounds like someone is unsheathing a knife (maybe I have violent tendendcies...or cooking tendencies). The spotter could use some work: he tends to forget about cars sometimes and interrupts his messages with a constant barrage of lap times. A number of users have had problems with sound cutting out before a race begins, but I have not experienced this issue personally. ARCA Sim Racing delivers the presentation I would expect for a serious racing simulation.

ARCA Sim Racing simulates ARCA racing (didn’t see that one, did you?). Unlike all of the other simulation racing titles, you have to order a DVD in the mail instead of having a digital download; I got mine pretty quickly (next day it shipped and arrived three days later) so the wait wasn’t totally excruciating. ARCA Sim Racing also requires you to have the DVD in the drive, promoting an antiquated form of copy protection. The game features the usual level of support for control devices; I use an analogue gamepad (stop laughing) and it works just fine. You will need something with variable input levels, so keyboard or joystick driving is out of the question. ARCA Sim Racing lacks driving tutorials of any kind, so good luck learning the game if you haven't played a hardcore simulation before. The game’s difficulty can be changed by adding driving aids and toning down the AI strength. All online servers have all helps turned off (except for auto-clutch) so be prepared before venturing online. Dialing in the correct AI level to be competitive takes trial and error; having an automatically adjusting AI based on performance (a feature of NASCAR Racing 2003 Season I really liked) would remove a lot of the manual labor. ARCA Sim Racing features test sessions (private and public) and race weekends to compete against the AI. There are no season or career modes; odd, then, that the manual describes the ARCA point system. You can adjust (deep breath) flag rules, fuel usage, tire wear, mechanical failure, race type (timed or laps), race length, starting time (for night races), time scale (for the speed at which dusk appears), number of AI drivers, starting position (fixed, random, or through qualifying), and weather, so creating your ideal conditions is simple enough. ARCA Sim Racing ships with ten tracks which offer good variety: superspeedways, 1.5 mile ovals, short tracks, and even a dirt track. The developers plan to add most (if not all) of the other tracks the series runs on during the year. ARCA Sim Racing also includes a lot of the special rules of the series, which mirrors ones found in NASCAR: the lucky dog, only lead lap cars can pit, et cetera. Caution flags are thrown appropriately; last-lap accidents will not necessarily bring out the yellow if they are behind the main pack, and green-white-checkered finishes are a possibility. ARCA Sim Racing also includes a good number of real ARCA cars (including one non-ARCA car), but also has placeholders to round out the field. During each race, the game also records video you can replay and export into AVI format, although the exporting process takes so long (a two minute clip took three hours to render at a decent resolution) that it’s almost useless. While ARCA Sim Racing lacks a couple of small features, it generally delivers a good amount of content.

ARCA Sim Racing features a “whole lot” (that’s a technical term) of options in the garage, far beyond any other stock car simulation. In order to make my review even longer, I’ll go ahead and list them for you: gear ration, brake bias, brake pressure, brake duct size, front and rear rotors, “pad” compound (I think that means tire), fender flare, air pressure, springs, slow compression, slow rebound, fast compression, fast rebound, camber, caster, ride height, spring rubber, track bar, steering lock, grill tape, front toe, sway bar, weight bias, wedge, spoiler, and rear toe. The car’s characteristics noticeably (and realistically, or so it seems) change when one setting is altered, so they are not there as eye candy. Now, all of these options are probably pretty daunting to beginning drivers, so thankfully ARCA Sim Racing includes good default setups for each track that only require a small bit of tweaking to make you very competitive. Also, there are a host of user-made setups also available. Since different tracks have different grip levels (culled from real world data), tracks similar in shape might behave quite differently. Without actually ever driving a stock car, ARCA Sim Racing seems to feature a very realistic physics model. I certainly feel less on-edge than in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, the setups are much less twitchy, and I can brake and turn at the same time. It actually took some un-learning to start driving “correctly” and take advantage of the car’s attributes. You also need to crank the wheel over (most setups use a low steering lock setting) just like the do on TV. I found the touchy nature of other games made driving the cars difficult, and the seemingly more realistic driving of ARCA Sim Racing is actually easier to control. There is also noticeable “aero loose” when another car is on your back corner and non-artificial drafting. The cockpit vibrations are also not distractingly over-the-top like they are in rFactor. I’m not an absolute authority on realism when it comes to racing (since I’ve never actually done it in real life), but ARCA Sim Racing looks good to me and I like how the cars handle.

You’ll either be doing this racing against the AI or online, and I’ll talk about the AI first: it’s OK. The AI is good while racing: they will mix it up, pass when given the opportunity, give you room, run different lines, and generally provide a good practice tool. However, it’s when something else is going on that the AI becomes quite annoying. The computer drivers to weird things during practice, such as ignoring the user car on the way out of the garage, riding up against the wall, and drastically changing speed for no apparent reason. The AI also slows down dramatically once they cross the start finish line under caution. Skipping the formation lap also results in questionable results, with cars magically slamming into each other on occasion (and consistently at tracks such as Pocono). Still, you can race side-by-side against the AI and not wreck, even if you “accidently” run into them a little bit. It’s this dichotomy that makes single player in ARCA Sim Racing frustrating: the racing AI is good, but the auxiliary AI does some really bone-headed moves.

ARCA Sim Racing is really designed as a multiplayer title, and it performs smoothly and relatively bug-free. The in-game browser shows all of the available games, but it does not have any filters and does not display the current session unless you click on the server name. It’s easier to go to the online listing and join from there; even though that list lacks pings (I guess we can’t have all the information in one place), most of the servers are based in the U.S. and having a ping somewhere under 200 will result in smooth racing. I have experienced very little warping, stuttering, or other online artifacts while playing online, even with up to 40 other cars. This is pretty impressive, since racing simulations require about the same (or better) connection quality as first person shooters that generally have far fewer participants. This means cars can run side-by-side without worrying about lag causing wrecks. The game also comes with a lot of admin options that are great for running leagues, including fixed setups to level the playing field. Online competition in ARCA Sim Racing is very enjoyable, even on the public servers: you can find a server that’s close racing quickly and the events take under a half-hour to complete. The other competitors seem to be well-behaved as well: there was usually only one or two “idiots” in each race and they quickly wrecked out anyway. Speaking of wrecking out, players who leave the server during the race have their finishing position saved; this is really neat, as I always found it annoying that racing games displayed by finishing position against who was left at the end instead of who started (it’s more impressive to finish 8th compared against the 30 drivers who started the race instead of the 15 who finished it). I have experienced (once) a strange bug where the engine sounds disappear and your brake control setting is reset as you join a race; this is mentioned on the message boards as happening to many others as well, and hopefully a fix will come in a patch. ARCA Sim Racing features online stat tracking that supposedly records you results from every race. However, if you have a space or underscore in your name it never saves your results, so that stinks. So much for using your real name.

ARCA Sim Racing is far superior to any of the stock car mods for rFactor or any other stock car mods from other recent racing games. The car handling is outstanding, the setup options are robust, the online play is smooth, and the overall experience is great. I haven’t had this much fund in a stock car since, well, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, and I actually think this title is more approachable thanks to cars that are easier to drive and default setups that make you competitive. ARCA Sim Racing really lets you drive the car without worrying about constantly spinning out. All of the real world data seems to have worked, as the experience in ARCA Sim Racing is convincing. Still, there are a number of things that can be improved: the non-racing AI, the online stat tracking, the lack of in-game tutorials, and the rest of the tracks and drivers. With all of the realism, ARCA Sim Racing is certainly not geared towards the casual racing fan, so all those twelve-year-olds who like driving as Dale Jr. on their console need not apply. ARCA Sim Racing is also pricey at $50 compared to RACE 07 ($30) and rFactor ($40), but that’s what you get for fully licensed software. I can say that I certainly got $50 worth of fun out of this game, and I expect to be playing this quality stock car simulation far into the future.