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Wot I Think: Car Mechanic Simulator 2014

Manifold reasons to buy

Here in the UK we have an annual ritual called the MOT test. Once a year, owners of automobiles over three years old, report to their local garages to have their holiday plans torpedoed, food budgets slashed and Christmases ruined. The oil-smeared cutpurses doing the torpedoing, slashing, and ruining are called 'car mechanics'. This is their game.

In Car Mechanic Simulator 2014 (Currently £15 on Steam and £13 on GamersGate) you spend your days trying to work out why Mr S's saloon coughs and splutters on cold mornings, why Mrs D's 4WD leaves puddles of mysterious fluid on her drive, and why young Master H's hot hatch makes a sound like a dying narwhal when cornering. Forget the much-abused nine-letter word on the title screen, this is actually a detective game. You're Sherlock Holmes with a socket set, and, surprisingly, most of the time the sleuthing absorbs like sand on a workshop floor.

One of the reasons CMS2014 works well is its Polish developer, Red Dot, refuses to patronise. Unlike 90% of the European titles emblazoned with the 'Simulator' box boast this one doesn't treat you like an unusually slow-witted sack of turnips. Though automobile innards are simplified (There's little detail to electrics, no full engine or gearbox strip downs, and, strangely, no acknowledgement that cars can develop carburettor and radiator faults) solving the 96 mechanical conundrums that constitute the pair of included campaigns requires plenty of stimulating head scratching and satisfying spanner twiddling.

The tasks start simple - an oil change here, a brake pad installation there. It's fifteen minutes or so before you realise you're pausing to peruse that thin? fat? Haynes Manual in your temporal cortex, the one titled “How Cars Work”.

Hmm, this chap's elderly estate won't start. I guess I should begin by examining the battery. If that turns out to be fine I suppose it makes sense to move onto the starter motor, ignition module, and plugs. Nothing amiss there? Possibly a fuel problem then... CMS2014 won't turn you into a genuine grease monkey, but it does force you to consider what's going on behind those scuffed alloys and that sculpted bodywork, and practise fault-finding methods rooted in reality.

Fault readers, diagnostic suites, and decidedly dull test drives play a part in the triage, but the most useful in-game tool for identifying troublesome components is the Mark I eyeball. Raise the bonnet, or the entire car with the aid of a hydraulic lift, and you're ready to start scrutinising. Part heavily discoloured? It probably needs replacing. Sometimes you'll need to detach something to properly examine a suspicious component.

As the campaign progresses, problems become more complex, solutions more elusive. The introduction of 4WD vehicles and V6 engines ups the workload considerably. While a gearbox or clutch change in a small frontwheel-drive hatchback is relatively straightforward, in a 4x4 there are axle differentials and drive shafts to be disconnected. On some jobs you can almost hear the devs' giggling off-stage when you switch to the task sheet, confident a problem has been solved, and find the confirmatory ticks nowhere to be seen. Occasionally it's simply a case of an overlooked filler cap in your pocket; more often than not, it's an indication you've jumped to premature conclusions and must put off that teabreak for at least another ten minutes.

As the job numbers climb, guidance from punters tends to get less helpful too. The “Replace my shocks.” and “I need a new exhaust.” make way for “I hear a loud clatter when accelerating or braking. Help!” and “My car seems to be losing power! Sort it out, please.” Customers aren't named or depicted but their tales of woe, and the state of their conveyances, tell their own stories.

There is an economic angle to the engineering, but frankly it's pretty low key and underdeveloped. Certain components can be refurbished at your workbench (a single-click process), others purchased second-hand from breakers' yards. As soon as I realised I could prosper without messing around with used or reconditioned parts, I promptly forgot about economising. If Red Dot had modelled competing businesses, things might have been different. The fact that unscrupulous garagistas can surreptitiously cannibalise a client's car, replacing nearly new components with more heavily worn components, opens up intriguing criminal possibilities, but again, why bother when making a profit through honest toil is so easy?

Released some time ago, CMS2014 seems relatively free of unintended gremlins. The closest things to irritants are a camera that occasionally auto-zooms unhelpfully, and a system for dismantling/attaching bits that sometimes means a clearly visible component can't be manipulated from a particular work position (you access cars from seven fixed positions). Oh, a few of the component hotspots are a tad tiny too.

Generously proportioned (I'm ten hours in and have only just unlocked the random-faults 'endless' mode) surprisingly varied (there are over 100 different fallible components on the larger vehicles) and quietly educational, this game won't thrill or amaze you, but it may make you feel useful and clever. It may also give you the (misplaced?) confidence to sidestep those boilersuited wallet-ravagers in your local garage and take on a few car repair jobs yourself.

I'll certainly pick up Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 if and when it arrives. With luck it will include a few of the following additional features:

  • Fumbled bolts. Car maintenance just isn't car maintenance if you can't drop fiddly components into inaccessible crannies.
  • Workplace injuries. It's staggering just how many sharp edges car designers manage to squeeze into the average engine compartment.
  • The opportunity to rifle through a customer's glove box, critique their music collection, and pilfer coins from their parking money stash.
  • The opportunity to decorate your garage with tasteful vintage tyre calendars and ads.

  • Specific real-world vehicles. At present the sim features eight different fictional vehicle types. They're all interesting to work on, but the magic of meddling with recognisable marques - a magic palpable in another oil-stained Stone favourite, World of Guns: Gun Disassembly  - just isn't there. If I was Red Dot I'd be energetically investigating the possibility of high-quality DLC based around iconic steeds like the Willys Jeep, Land Rover, Mini Cooper, and Tiger Tank.
  • Fragile, over-elaborate spare wheel storage mechanisms. Seriously, whichever Gallic genius thought it was a good idea to incorporate a handcranked spare wheel winch in the Peugeot 307 needs to be hung, drawn, shot, and then made to untangle a tangled Peugeot 307 spare wheel winch in a blizzard at night on the hard shoulder of the M3.
  • MOT-hungry games critics that whimper, dissolve into tears, then writhe on the floor when you tell them just how much work needs to be done to make their antediluvian jalopy street legal.

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Tim Stone