Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Starters Orders 4 Review

Starters Orders 4, developed and published by Strategic Designs.
The Good: Financial gains through both betting and stable wins, very detailed horse attributes, robust training and breeding options, complete race simulations with optional direct jockey control, same-PC multiplayer, thorough documentation, editing features
The Not So Good: A very niche product, repetitive, limited betting options
What say you? An all-inclusive horse racing simulation, if you are in to that sort of thing: 6/8

Horse racing is something that most Americans, I think, have a passing interest in right around the first Saturday in May. Apparently the sport is big business, mainly thanks to betting and rich people with nothing better to do. I am more accustomed to “ small horse” racing around these here parts, but them high-flautin’ (good luck with that one, spell check) horses are famous enough to spawn a number of computer simulations. One of those, currently in its fourth iteration, is Starters Orders, where you own, train, breed, and bet on horses, the kinds of things you would do in real life if you had a lot of money to spend/waste. Let’s all pretend, shall we?

Starters Orders 4 is primarily a text-based game, so most of the graphics you will encounter are fun, exciting things like menus. That said, the interface is decent enough and makes accessing most of the information in the game easy. There are some cumbersome instances, like accessing a horse’s fatigue and fitness (which should be shown on the main screen), but most pertinent information is easy enough to find and a lot of it is shown on the primary display. Starters Orders 4 also features some good filters that makes it very easy to find appropriate races for each of your trusty steeds. There are a good number of horse pictures to give a sense of attachment to your racers. The races are rendered in 2-D, with animated horses and jockeys that look good but are repetitive. The textures are blurry at high resolution (really evident during photo finishes), but we’re not expecting photo-realism here so we’ll let it slide. Sound consists of very quiet and very British commentary given during the races; the voices are not computerized, but they only refer to horses by starting position number instead of by name. Still, the graphics of Starters Orders 4 are functional, which is all you really need in a sports management title.

Starters Orders 4 features horse racing in the United States, United Kingdom (also known as “England Plus”), Ireland, and Australia, including both flat and jumps racing formats for those who crave variety. The game includes a lot of the real venues, including all the famous races (like the Breeder’s Cup) they could use without paying for an official license. You can begin a new game as an upstart trainer with only three very expensive horses to your name, or take your chances in the betting-only mode. Starters Orders 4 has same-computer multiplayer if you have real friends who are also interested in horse racing management games (and who doesn’t?!), or horses can be exported for online leagues, where the commissioner will send replay files back to show you how incompetent you really are. While Starters Orders 4 lacks a tutorial, the game does feature extensive in-game help and a robust manual for all of your consulting needs; the organized interface also helps to learn the game. Finally, there is a complete suite of editing programs that allow you to customize races, horses, and jockeys to your liking, perfect for those obsessive folk among us that must incorporate all of the actual horses into the game.

You are the trainer for a stable of horses, leading them on to victory (not likely). Each horse in the game is rated in several areas for performance: fitness, speed, stamina, acceleration, and fatigue. Fitness is increased by training the horses the days and weeks before each race: gentle training is for injured steeds, moderate for periods between races, and intense galloping for maximum race preparation. You can also focus training on speed or stamina or special abilities like jumping and starting races. It’s up to you to find your horses’ preferred tactics and events, as special preferences (like dirt tracks) will develop over time. This really makes the horses like RPG characters, as you do get attached to your racers. Successful horses can be bred to produce The Horse of Tomorrow, and less spectacular specimens can be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Those with a lot of money to spend can invest in additions to their stable, like swimming pools to improve stamina or increased capacity. You can also adjust the staff wages and feed quality to further customize your stable attributes. The options for horse management in Starters Orders 4 are comprehensive.

Now that your trusty steed is fully prepped, it’s time to go racing. Starters Orders 4 features a number of events to satisfy all horse quality levels. The winner of selling and claiming races is auctioned off, maiden races are reserved for horses that have never won a race, and handicap events are restricted to a specified range (like 0-60). For better horses, listed and group races are available with higher purses (and better competition). You have to declare for a race in advance, which makes planning your training appropriately important. Jockeys can be assigned from the global pool, or you can retain a jockey for personal use for a weekly fee. In addition, you can apprentice jockeys under a more experienced rider. For a race, you can specify an array of jockey orders, from go-easy to pacemaker. Sometimes, you don’t actually want to win a race (this is called “cheating”), and you can instruct your jockey accordingly. Additional instructions can also be given, like don’t lead or challenge later in the race. If this hands-off approach is too disconnected, you can take the reins yourself, opting for simple arcade controls using the arrow keys or the more complex standard mode using the mouse. In standard mode, you define your pace before the bell, time the start, and use the mouse to steer. The game also indicates whether you are near your horse’s cruising speed and optimal position. It’s nice to have the options to directly control the horses during the race, but I found that the AI jockeys do a good enough job and I never wanted to lose a race because of my personal ineptitude.

A large part of horse racing is betting, and Starters Orders 4 offers very basic betting options. Types of bets include win, each-way (which is a win bet coupled with a place bet), forecasting the top two finishers, and an accumulator for several races. I felt that the options here are surprisingly limited with several missing options: show, trifecta, and superfecta (among others) are simply not here. I guess it doesn’t pay to be in third place. I was also confused as to why the game lets you place an each-way bet on a race with less than five runners, since you need six or more horses in order for a place finish to count. Interestingly, you can bet on other horses racing against one of your own! What is this, the NBA? I did find the races to be somewhat exciting when you have large bets riding on the winners; I suppose this is the appeal of the real-life sport. Starters Orders 4 can get repetitive after a while, though, as the core of the game involves training, betting, and racing in a continual loop. The game can also become tedious because your stable can support up to sixty horses: that’s a lot of management! Still, horse fanatics will find a pleasing, detailed simulation of the sport.

If you are looking for a horse simulation, Starters Orders 4 is a good choice. The game features all of the options needed for a complete sports management game, only in equine format. The game covers the globe, featuring both flat and jumps racing in several countries and providing an infinite career mode where you raise horses from birth to glorious stud (awwww yeah!). Horses have a number of distinct attributes, like preferred length and surface, that makes each of them feel like individuals. You can tailor their training regimen for optimal performance, breed successful horses, and run a successful stable. There are a number of race types to choose from; there is always an option for every horse, no matter how young or untalented they might be. The race results are plausible, injecting uncertainty into the betting of the game. I like that money can be made by having winning horses or placing good bets (or a combination of both, of course): more options is always better. You can even take the reins yourself for a more interactive experience, although the jockeys seem to do a fine enough job on their own. For $30-$35 (depending on the exchange rate of the dollar, and the wind conditions), Starters Orders 4 delivers good value for fans of the genre. Yes, it’s getting a six mostly because it’s a horse sim with limited widespread appeal, but if that’s not a good use for the “buy it if you like the genre” rating, then what is? People not interested in horse racing will be bored to death here, but if the prospect of raising and racing a cavalcade of horses is interesting to you, then Starters Orders 4 wins the roses.