Simulation racing has pretty much fallen off my radar over the course of the last decade. I played the hell out of the first two Gran Turismo games on the PS1, but by the time Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec showed up on the PS3, I really didn’t care about how many polygons they could cram into each car. Since then the only racing games I’ve played involved blue sparks and red koopa shells. I’ve been aware of the new titles that have appeared, such as Project Gotham Racing and Forza on the Xbox, but nothing has been able to rekindle my interest in realistic racing games. And while Superstars V8 Racing is by no means a bad game, it too has only served to cement my belief that figuring out how to drift around tight corners is not an intriguing enough foundation for an entire genre.
When I first loaded up this download-only PSN game, I thought I immediately knew the deal thanks to my original GT experience. Unfortunately, either racing games have significantly changed, or they are not as easy to pick back up as riding a bike. All of the courses in Superstars are based off read-world tracks from the Italian touring championship of the same name. Let me tell you, those drivers need to make some crazy tight turns, because for the first couple hours of playing I could not stay on the track to save my life. I was of course playing with Automatic transmission turned on, but even doing numerous laps in training mode didn’t seem to help. The default accelerate and brake controls are on the shoulder buttons, and though you’re able to map the controls any way you wish, I found these to be much more natural than the last generation’s habit of putting them on the face buttons. However, the trigger button are super-sensitive to any input, so I had to find uncomfortable positions for my finger to hover over the brake without accidentally pressing it, which still happened too often. Chalk that up to being a trigger-happy FPS player, I suppose. There are driving aids in place to help you on turns, namely the driving line to show what angle you should enter a turn at, and the arrow at the top of the screen that shows how tight the corner is and when you should start braking. Don’t expect to rely solely on these crutches, because if you come up too fast on a sharp turn after a long straightaway then nothing is going to keep you from going off course. Eventually, I was able to make some of the tougher corners without losing too much speed, albeit lacking any elegance. Time to race some AI!
This is where I started to realize that Superstars might be striving too hard for realism. The championship mode features nineteen cars racing on a two-lane wide track filled with tight turns. The problem is that even on higher difficulties, the AI-controlled cars seem perfectly content to drive along the pre-deteremined racing line in single file, and never get aggressive about overtaking. You always start in last place, which makes trying to pass the other cars make you look like a crazy person driving on the shoulder in rush hour traffic. The road is so narrow that you will inevitably come into contact with the other cars. And if you try to save precious seconds by taking an off-road shortcut, you’re hit with a penalty and forced into a low speed for five seconds. Winning a race in three laps or less boils down to getting on the inside of corners and using the AI cars as bumpers to keep you from going off the track. If you hit them the wrong way and spin out, they seem to have a lot of trouble getting around you, making it look like a fender bender on the freeway instead of a professional race.
If you were hoping for some variety in the cars, don’t expect anything near the amount of options available in Gran Turismo. You have your choice of nineteen real-world drivers when you begin a race, and many of them share the same car model, leaving only nine cars to choose from. The only customization you’ll find is in the Car Settings menu, which is full of sliders for stuff like the suspension, gears, and tires. Aside from some vague tips, nothing will help an inexperienced racing sim player to understand what is going on here, so they’ll probably want to stay clear. Each single race weekend or championship race has three practice sessions per track before the actual racing occurs, allowing you to get a feel of the track and adjust the sliders accordingly. This is the closest you’ll get to a deep and engaging career mode. There are no credits to earn, cars to unlock or parts to buy. Twenty special challenges exist to test your knowledge of drifting or place you into unique driver matchups that I assume are recreations of actual races. Of course, there’s an online multiplayer mode with obligatory leaderboards for each of the ten tracks, but curiously no option for local split-screen multiplayer.
Nothing about Superstars V8 Racing is glaringly bad, aside from the tiresome menus that need to read your save whenever you make a selection. The cars all look beautiful and shiny, the tracks look cool (especially when wet), and the backgrounds are pretty enough to be real yet bland enough not to distract you from the road. The sounds of engines and burning rubber are pretty good too, and the soundtrack, while short, gets you pumped up. Everything else about this game feels like it was a bullet point on the checklist of how to make a racing sim in a post-Gran Turismo world. The only unique hook here is the Superstars license, which doesn’t do much for the game other than slapping a driver’s name and a paint job onto a car. Even if the Italian racing circuit doesn’t excite you, this is a perfectly playable driving game that you can download for $20 from the comfort of your living room. If you’re looking for a barebones racing experience on the PS3, look no further. If you need more customization out of your games, continue to wait for Gran Turismo 5. I hear that might actually come out this year.