Circuit Superstars

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Square Enix Collective
Developer: Original Fire Games
Release Date: Oct. 12, 2021


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PC Review - 'Circuit Superstars'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 5, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Circuit Superstars combines arcade-style racing with a more realistic driving model that enables new players to jump in and race, but sets a high skill ceiling for serious players looking to set the fastest laps possible.

For many people, racing games are at their most familiar when the camera is either behind the car or from a first-person perspective. Your mind immediately thinks about proper braking and gas application and when to use the e-brake for tight turns. You think about how not to oversteer and how to make the cleanest racing line possible. Shift the camera to an overhead or isometric perspective, and you suddenly think that you're playing an arcade-style racing game where proper steering is still necessary but stepping on the gas the entire time will result in a podium placement. That isn't the case with Circuit Superstars, a game that merges both arcade and simulation sensibilities into something enjoyable if you can get over the learning curve.

The game controls seem rather simple. Beyond steering, there's only one button for acceleration and one for braking, and if you're using a controller, both can be activated with the analog triggers or the face buttons. There's no e-brake to let you pull off fancy moves, and there's no way to change the angle or position of the isometric camera, so anyone who has trouble with modern racing game won't feel overwhelmed.

That's the initial thought, anyway. The minute you control a car, you'll notice that the steering is very sensitive. You'll likely oversteer and careen into barriers and trees. Turns can be taken way too quickly, and trying to correct that can send you careening into another barrier, something that also occurs if you get bumped by other racers on the track. If you treat this like an arcade-style racing game, expect to stay at the back of the pack.

That might be discouraging for newcomers, as there is the aforementioned learning curve. Learn to nudge the car just so you take delicate passes instead of wide ones. Manipulate the gas and brakes to take corners without a visual guide and without the e-brake to aid deceleration. Learning the basics is going to take time, and your initial moments with the game will be spent practicing those basics.

Once you are proficient with the basics, you'll realize that was only for one type of car. With a roster of 12 vehicles, the handling for each is distinct enough that taking each one for a spin is like beginning the learning process anew. Racing with the smaller cars might be easier at first, but the acceleration on the pickups is different enough that speed control becomes more important. The F1-style racers face the same dilemma in a lighter frame, while the big rigs are lumbering beasts that can compensate by pushing others around. Add in the fact that the game keeps track of gas and tire wear and body integrity, and you have what is essentially a hardcore racing simulator in the guise of a cute arcade racer.

The twist may be a pleasant surprise for some racing fans, but the game is quite unforgiving. The fight to get from the middle of the pack to anywhere near the front is difficult enough, but any mistake quickly places you at the back, and it's tough to get anywhere near the middle unless your opponents make mistakes. Even at the easiest difficulty level, this can be a source of frustration.

Circuit Superstars features a number of gameplay modes. The Grand Prix will be your main destination as a solo player; you have 12 circuits, with each one representing the different car classes. Each circuit has four tracks, with each track taking several laps to get through. On top of that, there are five difficulty levels to choose from.

The setup is standard but features a few quirks. Everything is unlocked from the get-go, which is perfect for those who want to challenge themselves early on or want to tackle some interesting circuits first, but don't expect much of a reward except for XP, which unlocks liveries for your car and driver. Completing a circuit shuttles you back to the main menu, so even though you can see the short podium ceremony at the conclusion of the circuit, don't expect anything else. Finally, those who don't have much time will lament that they can't save their progress on the later circuits. That isn't a problem with the earlier ones, since they're quick to get through, but the later tracks take 10 or more laps to complete, so it can feel like a grind to do them all at once.

Time Trials mode has a twist, as there are specific setups for trials each week. There are online leaderboards, and you can place opposing ghost cars to gauge how well you're doing or see the line they're taking to get those placements. In a way, it works better than the Free Play mode to practice and get a handle of the game mechanics. The title also has a special Time Attack course set in the Top Gear Test Track, and while it is a shame that it is launch-day DLC, at least it's free.

The multiplayer options are pretty voluminous. If you choose to play locally, you can have up to four players in a split-screen configuration, which only seems reserved for pure arcade racers or kart racers nowadays. Like the other solo modes, such as Free Play, every track is unlocked from the outset, and you can limit the track to a specific car class or mix things up with all cars. You can choose whether to have a qualifying round and how many laps are needed to finish the event. It's detailed, and the performance holds well, but the lack of indicators means that you'll sometimes lose track of where your car is if you're in the middle of a pile-up.

In addition to local multiplayer, Circuit Superstars sports online multiplayer for up to 12 people. The choices are the same as in local multiplayer. You can also go into quick play to jump into random lobbies or create one of your own, with both private and public configurations. The online performance is smooth, and the presence of cross-play out of the gate ensures a large player pool, which we witnessed when going online against a mix of Steam and Xbox One players. However, this slightly falls apart anytime you crash into most objects or execute a landing that isn't on all four wheels. Hitting a car may be fine, but hit an object that isn't a barricade, and the game freaks out, warping your car all over the place in rapid succession before finally settling down — usually with you facing the wrong way. This can occur quite frequently when you're learning how to control each vehicle or when you're racing a group that's still learning the ropes. It can be a major factor for you falling back a significant number of spots during a race.

The presentation is very well done. The sound effects of engines roaring will be the most dominant one coming through the speakers, but the incidental music that plays in menus does a great job of emulating the kind of stuff you'd hear during the various racing games of the 16-bit era, along with the arcade titles from that time period. Graphically, the muted colors and toy-like look of the cars are reminiscent of Art of Rally, but the environments are more spruced up. Tire marks remain prevalent on the asphalt, while sparks and smoke get kicked up almost every time the car isn't going straight or grinding against a fence. The natural elements look more detailed, and the crowds in the stands get very lively throughout each lap. The pit crew is just as detailed, which is a nice touch, while it's nice to enjoy a steady frame rate from beginning to end.

Circuit Superstars has a few things that won't sit well with players. The inability to come back after making one mistake can be deflating, especially when it is a result of online play not reacting well to the physics system. Unlockables are limited to cosmetics, so that may dampen the desire for progression, while the inability to save midway through longer circuits discourages those who are short on time. The game remains fun enough that you'll want to master the sensitive handling of each vehicle, and the number of tracks and cars is pretty good for the price. If you're the patient type who has a bunch of likeminded friends who want a challenging racing title, this is worth a shot.

Score: 7.5/10

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