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Car Mechanic Sim 18: a truly lovely game that you must avoid for now

A car game for people who don't do cars

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Consider this piece to be ‘what I somewhat think’, or perhaps a demi-review, if you don’t go in for our larky terminology. I’ve spent a day and a half so far with Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 [official site] and, though I really do dig the core experience, enough’s enough. It’s a hot mess (as the developers themselves admit) – enough of a hot mess that I beseech you to steer clear of for the time being. But at the same time, you should absolutely keep a close eye on this singularly captivating and cathartic game, and return once it’s been made road-worthy. That’s true whether you have any interest in or knowledge of cars yourself (I know I don’t).

Here’s my reasoning, on both accounts.
My central criteria for what I’d call a job simulation game is whether it instils within me a desire to kick my own employment to the curb and pursue that profession in real life.

American Truck Simulator, a game about very slowly moving some boxes from point A to point B, is the contender to beat here, of course. Its fusion of the realistic and the romantic results in a sense that the unhurried, low-pressure, solitary conveyance of goods across iconic (and also humdrum) American landscapes is the solution to all my anxieties. It’s not real, of course – I don’t have the money worries, the exhaustion, the awful motels, and most of all the grim certainty of doing this every day forever, as opposed to a psychic holiday – but nonetheless I dream of that being my life.

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The Car Mechanic Simulator games never held the same appeal – that of motion, roads, wilderness, cities, freedom – because they’re essentially about being locked inside one garage, memorising the names and shapes of various bits of metal and plastic. Tedium incarnate, the sole reserve of car spods and/or people with infinite patience.

I couldn’t have been more wrong: CMS is, like American Truck Sim, all about a state of zen calm. Slow, methodical progress towards a destination, the gradual identification of worn-out parts and replacement thereof with shiny new ones. A jigsaw of components, taken apart and put back together, a picture of mechanical near-perfection taking shape before your eyes. And there’s something that ATS doesn’t quite conjure; the real satisfaction of a job well done at the end of it. What was broken is now mended, all thanks to me. I imagine the unseen customers’ gratitude and awe as I return their restored vehicle to them, which means more than the clump of money I can only spend on car parts anyway. God is a mechanic, surely.

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Most of all, there’s a real sense of journey to fixing a car, both in the time and observation required to do so, and, for a mechanical ignoramus such as I, a sense of ambient learning as I do so. Oh, so that’s what makes that rattle, that’s what brakes are made of, the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, and so forth. I could look under the hood of my 11-year-old hatchback now and, for the first time, have some basic sense of what’s what, where formerly all I knew was the dipstick and where the wiper fluid goes.

I say all this with no small amount of starry-eyed rapture, but my strong suspicion is that the creators of CMS don’t realise quite what they’ve made here, let alone how to best capitalise of it. I felt the same about Euro Truck Sim and American Truck Sim for the longest time too, although I think pennies have dropped there now, looking at what they have planned for New Mexico and the work they’ve put into rescaling the environments for maximum road trip zone-out joy.

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Not so for CMS, although I concede I may well be guilty of far too much presumption. From the awful music to the oddly dour gloss of the superficially lavish graphics and, most of all, a cumbersome and inconsistent interface that strips CMS of flow – this is a game getting in its own way. A wonderful, captivating core, sometimes struggling to make itself known through a veil of awkwardness.

That is not why you shouldn’t buy CMS18 now. The game – the mesemeric, deeply satisfying act of examining a car to identify the worn-out parts, of removing piece after piece after piece to get to the component you need, of taking that out and either repairing it (with a click on the workbench) or buying a replacement, then doing it all in reverse – survives the clunk. It’s a game I want to play more than any other since Prey, 2017’s personal highlight so far, and something of a ray of light in what has felt like a fallow few months (again, only personally).

No, the reason I urge great caution is that, even after six emergency patches since last Friday’s launch, it’s in poor shape indeed. Sure, I have encountered far fewer game-breaking crashes than I did, and performance has increased by a good third (the difference from unpleasantly juddering to OK at high settings), but today five hours of progress were dashed against the rocks when the screen turned black, with alt-F4 my only option.

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The issue is less one of bugs, and more one of design folly. There’s no auto-save here, no armour against the problems that can currently make the game go haywire at any point – only a manual save and quit option. A power cut or a driver spasm or the cat leaping into my PC’s power button again would have had the same result.

This is just one way in which tiny acts of ignorance complicate what wants to be a calm, even blissful experience. Here’s another one: a different time, I lost a few more hours and had to start over entirely when muscle memory of menu placements had me click on ‘New Game’ instead of ‘Continue’ – there’s no warning, no “Are you sure?”, no option to create a secondary profile, but instead the wordless and immediate eradication of your saved game, no matter how many dozens of hours you might have put into it.

On the other side of the coin, the game will issue a trepidatious “Are you sure?” when I attempt to remount certain parts onto the very places they just came from – an apparent warning that I’ve done something wrong, but with no way to find out what, and, in every case so far, all turned out to be in order. A small thing, but one more piece on the pile of not quite understanding players’ needs. Conversely, there’s no warning that I’ve left the clips off the air filter cover or that one tiny pole is missing from the shock absorber mountings, but I forgive all that because it’s half the fun – identifying the problem, being meticulous.

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The longer game, wherein you can raid junkyards for abandoned vehicles whose nearly every part is ruined, but which can be sold for enormous profits if you can put hour upon hour into complete restoration, I barely dare touch, because of how much I stand to lose from that bug/no autosave double-whammy.

When I lose progress I’m not so bothered about the inherent repetition it results in  – I don’t mind seeing the same cars twice and dealing with their problems again. My dismay is because progress is hung around a slowly-unlocked skill tree that gates access to, amongst other things, what tools you can use, what workbenches and stations are in your garage, and whether you can access the likes of junkyards and car auctions. Electronic meters that spare total engine disassembly to identify a single borked part cannot be bought for any amount of money, but are only unlocked after around a dozen hours of play, for instance.

Going back to the barebones start of things is, thus, miserable, but while frequent manual saving is a likely answer, this is one of those games where you get so wrapped up in the process that doing so slips your mind far too easily.

It’s all such an appealing prospect but, as I’ve discovered to my cost already, the escapist fantasy of Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 is lost when the game’s problems see your efforts squandered. When it becomes a matter of grimly repeating all that you’ve done before to claw back progress rather than rolling up your sleeves to tackle a new challenge.

This is a great game, and a great game for automophiles and people who gain satisfaction from mending or building things alike, but it’s just not ready yet – both because of bugs, and because UI and UX urgently need to be whacked with a spanner a few times. To its developers’ credit, they’ve made great strides in less than a week, turning CMS18 from disaster to merely unfortunate, and I have great faith that 50% of this piece will be entirely irrelevant a couple of months from now.

I’ve enjoyed the experience enormously, at least when progress wasn’t lost and repetition required, enough that I’m absolutely certain I’ll go back (and, hopefully, come up with a revised write-up) once that happens. For now, though, I just can’t recommend that you buy this excellent videogame. I’ll be back, though.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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