Yellow flag! Hold your position until the patch.
Now I'm not one of those people who enjoys Microsoft-bashing, but it's really hard not to get frustrated with the Redmond boys' recent foray into the driving sim market: CART Precision Racing. Following in the footsteps of the two most successful pieces of software ever created -- Windows and Flight Simulator -- CART Precision Racing looks great on the outside but surreptitiously harbors enough demons to make you wish (well. . . almost) that you never got hooked in the first place.
I say "hooked" because despite its despicable demons, CART Precision Racing is a great game and one hell of a open wheel simulation. Do I sound confused? Let's play good news bad news.
Good news: As you can probably tell from the screen shots, CART's 3D hardware accelerated graphics look quite good, easily surpassing last year's top-ranked formula one driving sims IndyCar Racing II and Grand Prix II. The drivers move their heads, the pit crews gather around your car like miniature Quake marines at a gib fest, the sun shines down gloriously on your beautiful chrome, and skid marks stain the pavement while transparent smoke billows up each time you burn rubber. Even without the hardware acceleration it looks impressive.
Bad news: Frame rates! Though you can adjust a variety of graphic options to compensate for slow performance, don't expect much more than a 15 fps average when utilizing the highest graphics detail. On my test system, a Pentium 200 MMX equipped with a Diamond Monster 3Dfx, CART maxed at 15 fps with occasional (though brief) drops to 5 fps. Anything less than a 166 MMX without hardware acceleration? Don't go there.
Good news: Truly sophisticated data acquisition and telemetry system used by real-world CART teams records information about a driver's control inputs, engine and chassis performance making it possible to locate weaknesses in the car setup and your driving style.
Bad news: How do you use this crap? Microsoft continues its lame-brain decision to produce skimpy manuals and clunky on-line help leaving the best features of the game untapped by all but the most adventurous user. Note: while this mistake was lethal for Flight Simulator 98 (the bad manual forced me to take advantage of that famous Microsoft 30 day money-back guarantee), it's only frustrating and disappointing for CART.
Good news: Using global positioning system source data, tracks are accurately modeled within 10 cm of their real-world counterparts; driving physics feel great and car setup is a breeze with the help of the innovative racing engineer (you tell him how the car is performing, he tells you how to modify your setup).
Bad news: With everything set to go for a realistic and immersive simulation, the driver AI brings it all to a crashing halt -- literally! If you choose to race against more than eight computer controlled cars you'll be wondering why they didn't name this sim CART Demolition Derby. Not only do the computer cars crash into each other, they almost behave as if you aren't on the track. I stopped counting the number of times these simulated "professionals" rammed me from behind when they could easily have avoided the collision (you can use the advanced replay options to insure their stupidity). Even worse, the AI cars often slow down for no apparent reason and seem unrealistically committed to the racing line, making them easy to pass and beat.
Are you getting the picture here? For every bit of glory in CART there is always something else lurking under the hood that will blow your engine. Besides numerous bugs (help options that don't lead where they say they will; cars getting permanently stuck against pit walls; cars breaking through walls and leaving the track entirely; and, finally, just your regular, vanilla-plain system crashes) there are also some serious design flaws: the annoying "auto-pilot" that takes over during pace laps and pits; the absence of the yellow flag (come on!); no convenient way to compare your best times to real-life records or keep track of non-season wins; and no simple "restart" key for the almost inevitable first turn pile up.
If you're like me, you'll probably feel the same way about CART Precision Racing as you do towards your long-time friends: you love 'em just as much as you hate 'em. I love the polished driving school with video clips and voice-overs, I love the realistic sounds of squealing tires and Indycar engines, I love the picture-in-picture camera that lets you watch an opponent while you race, I love the easy-to-use multiplayer ability, most of all, I love the feel of these cars and the great variety in these tracks. You already know what I hate.
So what do you do when faced with a great game with some equally great flaws? You wait for the patch. According to Dean Lester, Microsoft's rep on news.rec.autos.simulators, it should be out in a week and addresses almost all of the issues I've raised in this review. Check back for an updated review as soon as the patch is available.