As modern console players we’ve grown accustomed to games offering exhaustive open worlds full of various gameplay mechanics that keep the gameplay loop interesting over play times that easily top the triple digit hour mark.
Car Mechanic Simulator is not one of these games.
To be clear, I’m not trying to open a review on a negative. I’m just trying to make sure that any interested parties are aware of the facts at the outset. This isn’t a driving game with robust mechanical gameplay bolted on (I’d apologise but low-hanging pun fruit is my bread and butter). It’s exactly what it says on the tin with some perfunctory driving thrown in.
If, however, you have an interest in car repair, maintenance or restoration and fancy doing all of the aforementioned tasks without getting a spot of oil on you, Car Mechanic Simulator may be for you.
As a further point of disclosure before we proceed, Car Mechanic Simulator isn’t an officially licensed product. Which is to say that you won’t find yourself changing the oil on a classic Corvette Stingray or tending to the brake problems on a Bugatti Chiron. As an indie title this is to be expected (very few car game developers have the resources of a Gran Turismo or Forza), so what you will find is a generous number of suspiciously familiar cars with unfamiliar names that have (more or less) their own individual chassis, bodywork and engine characteristics.
Still interested? Let’s get our overalls on.
DIGITAL BLUE COLLAR WORKER
Developed by Red Dot Games, Car Mechanic Simulator has a few game modes on offer from the outset.
The campaign mode starts the player off on the path of a low-rung grease monkey with a small basic garage who has to expand their facilities (and bank balance) by working their way from small-time maintenance jobs to top-of-the-range exotic cars that can be kept or auctioned for funds to buy your next fixer-upper.
A sandbox mode gives the player unlimited funds and all of the available facilities to work on their dream project, up to and including rescuing rusting vehicles from neglected locations and rebuilding them from the ground up.
Finally, expert mode retreads (I have no shame) the campaign path but removes any in-game prompts or aids to allow the accomplished petrol head to troubleshoot ailing cars in a more realistic fashion.
If, like me, your interest in cars begins and ends with watching a few series of Top Gear, the campaign mode is a logical place to start. You can start it with or without a tutorial but aside from acting as a guide to the fully upgraded garage you’ll spend the game working from, the tutorial is pretty useless. You can tour the various areas of the garage and find out what the function of each one is but you won’t get to actually play about with their specific mechanics until you unlock them in the game proper.
The campaign begins and the player is dropped into their workshop with no preamble whatsoever, other than the property viewing-style tutorial. So unless you’ve played Car Mechanic Simulator 2015, I’m confident that your first 10 minutes or so of play will be working out what you’re supposed to do.
Randomised jobs are available for short real-time periods and the player can grab as many as they have parking spaces in the current iteration of their garage. Curiously (or perhaps by mad genius design), the jobs form a sort of user-unfriendly tutorial, each one consisting of a car with either a short bio or a list of issues that must be addressed.
As the player grows in skill and knowledge, the repairs become less telegraphed and more intensive. So, much like real life (I imagine), some cars will roll up with a vague complaint about their performance and the player must assess the vehicle to identify the problems before setting about fixing them.
Over the course of the campaign, more advanced facilities will become available for the garage, expanding the scope and variety of repairs. There’s also a ‘world map’ of sorts that contains locations where parts and vehicles can be discovered for part retrieval, passion-project restoration or straight flipping for cash through auction.
“SHE MAY NOT LOOK LIKE MUCH BUT SHE’S GOT IT WHERE IT COUNTS.”
Car Mechanic Simulator takes place in first-person perspective and predictably revels in the busywork of the tasks it emulates. What constitutes manual labour in an actual garage is replaced with radial menus and button presses in the virtual one.
For example, changing the tires on a car requires the player to move the car in question on to a lift before removing each wheel by unscrewing the accompanying individual wheel nuts. Once the wheels are added to the inventory, the player then saunters over to the tire remover and, well, removes the tires from each wheel. The worn tires and wheels can be examined to ascertain their dimensions/specifications before moseying over to the garage PC to order replacements.
While CMS stops just short of actually sending parts out in game time (Amazon must have really good drone service at the garage location), the above is how every job plays out in the game. If you have to get to a particular part of a given car then you have to remove all of the components that would prevent you from being able to access it in real life. There are no shortcuts, even though there are earn-able perks that will contract some of the processes ever so slightly.
As the game has been ported from PC it stands to reason that the UI is straightforward button pushing but it would have been a nice addition to incorporate some controller movement and touchpad controls to mimic some of the repair work on the PS4, if only to switch up the gameplay a little.
The cars are – as you would expect – detailed, with individual body, engine, brake, suspension, drivetrain and interior components that can all be examined and, in most cases, replaced. Each job starts with an inspection of the vehicle, looking at the areas suggested but you’re not limited by the task at hand and, to be honest, that’s a good thing because all too quickly the jobs will stop giving you specific complaints, instead listing a number of problems that must be discovered by the player.
Diagnosing the issues with a vehicle can be frustrating in the early hours of the campaign as the player is purposefully hamstrung by a lack of equipment. The game will unhelpfully tell you that you need a specific device to assess the quality of some components or, without said device, that you need to remove them entirely before they can be quality checked. While both of these statements are likely to be true in a real garage, they feel slavish in a video game and moreover distinctly un-simulator like. I mean, why would any self-respecting startup garage not have a battery tester?
CMS, or at least its campaign mode, feels a little at odds with itself at times. Unusually, it gates the expansion of the player garage behind an RPG-lite skill tree when it feels like facilities should be something the player can simply buy when they’ve made enough money. Instead, you earn XP from performing tasks in the garage and finishing jobs. Once you’ve levelled up and acquired skill points, these can be used to purchase facilities, equipment and player performance upgrades like faster movement or improved screwing speed (steady!).
While the player performance improvements are understandable quality of life upgrades that make the more tedious actions a little more bearable, the gating of garage upgrades seems like a cheap way of creating a low-maintenance campaign, especially in light of the sandbox mode, which plays exactly the same but allows access to all of the facilities and upgrades immediately without the grind.
WHO’S GONNA DRIVE YOU HOME… TONIGHT?
That all being said, I enjoyed my time with Car Mechanic Simulator far more than I originally anticipated. The game is likely exactly what you think it is but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some enjoyment to be had.
The progression aspect is irritating early on but there are visual clues as to the condition of each component (they appear rusty) that can help the troubleshooting process. There’s a certain comfortable zen state to be settled into as you examine parts, strip them out, discover their characteristics, order their replacements and reinstall them. As the jobs become more vaguely signposted and complex, there’s problem-solving and discovery elements that require you to pull on experience with earlier tasks to figure out the key issues.
Presentation-wise, CMS is consistently adequate. The models are relatively crisp (some aliasing not withstanding) and represent their real-world counterparts faithfully enough that the addition of fictional manufacturers and model names won’t fool the player. The textures are somewhat flat, particularly the rust, but everything is present, correct and recognisable.
Sound is just as unremarkable. Power tool and lift foley effects sound as you would imagine, accompanied by a decent catalogue of unlicensed music that you will most likely turn off in favour of Spotify sooner than not.
The hum-drum livery of CMS is not something I can overly criticise as it was entirely expected before I even started playing it. Let’s be honest, if you’re playing this type of game you’re here for the authenticity rather than the pageantry and it feels like the developers have spent their time and resources where it counts.
There were minor performance issues on PS4, mainly some frame rate stutter and surprisingly lengthy load times given what appears to be low-intensity gameplay. Also, you’ll get used to the surprisingly basic load screen quite quickly as it makes an appearance whenever you have to leave the garage for any reason, be it visiting the test track or scavenging for parts/cars.
“THIS ONE GUY WAS KINDA COOL. HE TAUGHT ME ENGINES.”
So, I guess I could summarise Car Mechanic Simulator as being a perfectly acceptable game. It’s not flashy but it’s accurate for the trade it’s trying to emulate (or accurate enough for my tastes) and certainly geared (sigh) more toward the hobbyist or enthusiast than mainstream gamers. In a niche genre (certainly on console), a competent simulator is something to be applauded rather than criticised, right?
Giving a game with rough edges a pass because the core gameplay works is not a new standard. Hell, retro games are practically built on this principle. However, CMS comes up short in a few areas that are unusual given the narrow scope of its gameplay.
Firstly, part of the allure of this type of game – arguably, the allure of most games – is a certain amount of wish fulfillment.
A hobby or profession simulator should be faithful as a base standard, of course, but the ultimate allure (in my opinion) should always be the ability to do the things you can’t do in real life. Those wish list projects you would commit to if only time and money were no considerations.
CMS sets the basic standard of the simulator well in the early stages of play, giving a layman like myself a crash course in the complexities of mechanical interconnectivity and design, but as the player hits the endgame of increasingly rare and beautiful cars that demand to be made artworks of, limiting cracks begin to appear.
Once the player has unlocked all of the equipment and facilities the garage has to offer in the campaign (or if they start up the sandbox mode), they will more than likely want to perform a little after-market modification to a favoured car. Navigating to the more expensive parts shops on the garage PC will yield a few more testosterone-fuelled variations of some components and a couple of flamboyant alternatives to body parts for each car. A look at the interiors shop reveals the same limited options.
Moving the car over to the paint shop to put the final touches to your masterpiece is a similarly shallow experience. Of course, you can create virtually any colour of paint with a variety of expected finishes but there are only three livery types and none of the decal creators we’ve grown accustomed to receiving part and parcel with driving simulators.
To me, customisation feels like such an integral part of creating the perfect ride that it’s surprising to discover that it’s quite a limited experience in a game marketed as being all about that core experience. It seems like this should be the goal of the campaign mode and the point of the sandbox mode: to create your dream cars using all the knowledge you have picked up through the course of the game.
I’m obviously not a developer so maybe I’m asking too much here, but my expectation with a game like this is that I’ll eventually be able to take a chassis I like, put the components I want in it (with the requisite problem-solving, compromise and alterations) and give it a blazing paint job to cap off my unique creation. Admittedly, the driving sections of the game are mainly for testing purposes and entirely forgettable but the pride of making something of your own from scratch would justify the redundant showroom mode at least.
My second grievance would be the lack of online functionality. I’ve talked about the basic nature of the game’s performance, so I’m not looking for online racing but some consideration for the community would be a welcome addition.
A brief foray into the internet reveals that there are forums and YouTube videos, so clearly CMS has an audience. There are also options to store cars rather than sell them so why not allow people to share their projects? Competitive pride amongst enthusiasts would surely prove a catalyst (I know) that would drive (going for broke now) players back to the game and keep them engaged over a longer time period?
Ultimately though, Car Mechanic Simulator is perfectly competent. It neither overwhelms nor underwhelms, opting instead to simply whelm.
If you look under the non-descript hood, there is a surprisingly fun game to be found with solid mechanics faithfully replicating the real-world experience. The broken tutorial, limited creative opportunities, bizarre skill tree progression and lack of community features all hamper the overall experience, however.
The great tragedy of CMS is not that it has limited appeal but that, in a field almost (if not totally) bereft of competition, the developers opted for a product that does just enough to justify its name rather than doubling down on delivering the experience its audience deserves.