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

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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.

22 Comments

  1. Matt_W says:

    From everything you write, it sounds very similar to previous iterations of this series. I couldn’t identify any mechanics that are different than the one I own: CMS2015. 2015 doesn’t have the bugs and it plays smoothly. I’m curious what improvements 2018 makes that suggest I should play/buy it instead of the time-tested 2015.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      Well, CMS 2015 and 2018 are both priced the same (USD$20), and 2018 is on discount currently due to being a new release, making it slightly cheaper than its predecessor (!). So there’s that.

      (Why the old game costs the same as the new one is a whole other question, of course. It seems logical that they could move a lot of units of the old one if they cut the price dramatically at the same time as the new one comes out, pitching the new game to those who must have the newest/shiniest and the old one to penny-conscious Steam sale devotees. Perhaps they fear doing so would lead to CMS 2015 cannibalizing sales from 2018?)

    • Kalamadea says:

      CMS18 adds things like tire balancing, far more options for working with tires (you can now control the diameter, profile, and width of the tires, as well as control the diameter and ET of the rims), the ability to pull the entire engine out of the car and mount it outside of the vehicle for working on, interior work, and, best of all, compound parts such as the shocks, having the bushings on all the different suspension pieces, piston rings on the pistons, and cylinders on the brake calipers.

      The different chambers such as the paint shop and test path are also part of a single garage instance, you no longer have to move into a different instance to use those things. You just open the door and walk right in.

      And there’s also all the previously DLC cars (besides the licensed ones) in the base game plus a ton of entirely new ones never added to CMS15.

  2. grundus says:

    I bought this on the grounds that I really enjoyed CMS 15 right up until I’d bought, restored and sold a few cars, after that I couldn’t really see the point.

    Bugs aside – they’re fixing them at a pretty good rate, and after reading up on how to fix a few bugs (like how to ‘delete’ a car from your garage if it has a game-stopping bug, such as an engine block you can’t interact with or components with weird names) it’s not such a big deal any more as long as you remember to keep saving after every job – CMS 18 is good, but not that much more good than CMS 15. It’s been a while since I played 15, but being able to remove the entire engine from the car and work on it and its ancillaries on a crane is great (but wasn’t working when I played the tutorial and I haven’t unlocked a crane for my own workshop yet), removing tyres from wheels and springs from shocks is all cool stuff, I just wish they’d, like, given us even just a small town to drive around.

    But still, as a car guy whose real job involves fixing things (not cars, mind you), something about the CMS games seems to fit my brain perfectly. I kind of like completely stripping the cars just to put them back together again, I just wish the camera would stop zooming out after a short delay every time I mount or remove a part… Doing something repetitive like cam bearings or crankshaft caps is really annoying because the camera just won’t stay still. Also this is the only game I’ve played since Gran Turismo 4 that has fosters that same-ish feeling of ‘owning’ a car, except instead of making it faster, you’re making it fixed.

    Fair mini-review, though.

  3. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    I’m kind of fascinated by the business model here. This type of game doesn’t really seem like the type that needs a complete revamp every few years. I feel like they could have made much more money by sticking with the old engine and just churning out new cars as paid DLC. The success of Paradox and Train Simulator show that to be a model that can mint money for many, many years.

    • Kalamadea says:

      CMS18 actually adds a lot more than just shiny new graphics. It adds stuff like the engine mount for working on an engine outside of the car, tire balancing, compound parts, things that aren’t so easy to add on the old engine.

      • LtMtnDew says:

        yes your right cant just add it to the game but a lot can be done with this one they gonna have muti-player soon as well and has a race track I am level 30 last shop is open I can strip down the car to nothing and rebuild and no issues remove the rust form the car with the welding tool the car cleaner tools removes the rust on the chrome and makes the inside look all new

  4. MikoSquiz says:

    I would love to see them hook up with a more vroom-oriented developer to make the mechanics fiddling part of a Street Rod reboot or spiritual successor.

    link to i.ytimg.com

    • Marrow says:

      Yes yes, my favorite games were the racing games that let you spend as much time tinkering as racing. Something that had a mechanic where you had to build the engine to perform well but reliably would be great (too much compression ratio or too small a carb/injector and you’ll detonate, but find a sweet spot of specs for good performance)

  5. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    Great article. As a fellow mechanical ignoramus, I can see both the game’s appeal and the low-level terror it may inspire. I’ll wishlist this and wait for it to be hip-hop before checking it out. Thanks!

  6. neofit says:

    “only a manual save and quit option” – I stopped reading right there.

  7. LtMtnDew says:

    I disagree with you I am level 30 have the last shop open …yes they had bugs etc etc but they have worked there butts off to get it going… funny how u post this stuff but u tell me which game has ever been released and not have bugs that is right none … why avoid something that is amazing fun I have ran across some bugs but nothing that cant be worked around I post to them what I find everyday there is a new patch for fixes so u telling everyone to avoid it which is b.s. I been gaming since I was 6 I am 42 now so don’t be telling people to avoid for now that is not right … red dot wtg guys another amazing game

    • LtMtnDew says:

      oh by the way 64 hours into the game here

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        The fact that you’ve put loads of hours in, makes me less likely to trust your opinion that otherwise, because if you’ve spent sixty four hours in the game, then you’re clearly really enjoying it, and so probably are a bit biased.
        In the same way, I try not to bang on about Kerbal Space Program because I’ve put in hundreds of hours and am clearly a bit obsessed.

        Mind you, if you’ve put hundreds of hours into KSP as well then clearly we’re fellow oddballs and I probably share your tastes.

        • LtMtnDew says:

          it is something I enjoy just everyone don’t understand its new it going to have issues every game has issues from the start and some still do later on all depends of the maker keep up with it or not ea supports there stuff for about a year after that it gets bugs on well they will get to it when they can.. like world of Warcraft been around for years every tue morning it is shut down and fixed depending on what and how serious it is they will fix same day 13 years they be doing this why they still 7 to 8 million playing it… but throw something that is new and knowing it is gonna have bugs from the start under the bus is just nuts

        • johnwolf234 says:

          … Like the people that haven’t played the game much at all have any less bias? Like the bias this article is going to create against a game that is still improving with updates pretty much daily. I fail to see how providing a counterpoint that shows that yes, it is possible to enjoy a game that people are complaining about makes you biased.

  8. johnwolf234 says:

    I hope this will be updated once the game has stabilised. Already they’ve added the auto save feature you were compplaining about not being there, and it seems unfair that people will be basing their views on the game months from now based on reviews of its early (broken) state when the game has actually been improving.

  9. MrEvilGuy says:

    So basically they need an auto save (already added) feature and the game is good?

    I will start playing it then.

  10. v21v21v21 says:

    Well I guess if you can’t auto save you’re not a good car mechanic then. /hur hur hur/

  11. fish99 says:

    It’s also the first game I’ve played in a long long time to not let you invert the mouse Y axis.

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