Wednesday, 16 December 2009

In Case You Still Have A Christmas Wish Open...

… last week saw the arrival of the latest installment of thoroughbred racing's only PC game franchise of notice, Starters Orders 4.

Developed by Mark Loveday's Strategic Designs, Starters Orders is the only series holding up the torch for a sport that, if you get a grip on its complexity, is really perfectly suited for the PC sports manager genre. Yet there have been few contenders, and most of them were just plain bad.

I've played the original Starters Orders; played SO Pro; edited and played SO 2 Deluxe (the version including Aussie and US datasets). I never really played SO3 because I was one of a group of customers on whose PCs SO 3 didn't work (the demo worked, though, so I know what features were added).

New features for SO 4 include a revamped graphics engine, a new Irish dataset (three actually: flat, jump, both). More fundamentally, the Australian and US data sets are finally integrated in the game itself (no longer as an add-on). There is also a multitude of minor new features, such as night racing, added racedays and improved jockey AI.
On the negative side, most of the race naming and scheduling flaws introduced in SO 2 or earlier are still around, and even though the game adds a so-called “schedule editor” feature, the latter is of little practical use. Hence, actual editing still has to be done using the enormously helpful SO Decrypter created by Strategic Designs forum member Outbackstables (the Decrypter can be found here).

After about 8 hours of intense testing (unbelievable what hardships I'm willing to endure for the sake of this blog :-)), it's still too early to rate the detail changes; but it can be said that the Starters Orders franchise continues to step in the right direction, and maintains its traditional strenghts, which are complexity and realism for both player- and CPU-campaigned horses.
While this is (even in the US and Aussie datasets) unmistakably a British game (f.e., Claiming races continue to be run under UK rules in every dataset), there is some progress on the International front. Most notably, the game finally adds track conditions for dirt tracks.

Sidenote: No news about the only other racing simulations which can be labeled good: Action Games' Hooves of Thunder / Quarter Pole series, which has not seen a new edition since 2002. Those games had fundamental flaws resulting from very poor campaigning patterns of the CPU-controlled horses, but between such extras as a collection of racing artwork, racing jokes and using the voices of real-life Mid-Atlantic track announcers for its tracks, HoT/QPP emanated an air of true dedication to the subject, which is not often found in PC games in general. And after all, it had the right flaws, such presented by actual difficulties, not sloppy design and a rushed release (customers of EA Sports FIFA games in which snowfall was as likely in December in Trondheim as it was in Florence in June or NBA games with a completely wrong salary cap system will know what I mean).

P.S. Nope, I'm not getting any perks for this post.