The newly announced IndyCar game that is set to be released in 2023 will be the first licensed video game based on the championship for over a decade.
Indianapolis 500 Evolution was the last game centred around that series and was set from 1961 to 1971. It featured a number of circuits and cars from that period and shows the transition into the aerodynamic era for American open-wheel racing.
That game was released in 2009/2010 and since then IndyCar cars have merely been a licensed addition to other racing games, such as in the Forza Motorsport and Project CARS titles.
IndyCar Series 2005 was the last fully-licensed and contemporary IndyCar game, although not that contemporary since it was released in 2004 and based on the 2003 IRL IndyCar season.
While there’s been a multitude of official F1, MotoGP, WRC and NASCAR games that have been made over the years, IndyCar hasn’t had the same treatment. There’s been enough games made of the other championships for us to know the sort of features and gameplay style to expect in those games.
It’s not as easy though to say what an IndyCar game could look like, and naturally, everyone would have their own ideas and preferences. IndyCar Series 2005 is still the most recent, fully-fledged example we have to see how the championship can be converted into video game form.
Developed by Brain In a Jar and Codemasters and published by the latter, IndyCar Series 2005 feels like it was designed to appeal to both IndyCar fans as well as newcomers to the series. It’s a great example of a ‘simcade’ racing game since there are some teaching tools and more arcade-like design choices, yet equally it can get very challenging very quickly unless you get to grips with the game straight away.
Rolling starts are completely manual in the game and you have to carefully apply the throttle to make sure you stay in the correct position. More importantly, though you’re responsible for getting up to speed when the race starts and you can easily spin out when getting on the power in the lower gears, especially at a tighter oval like Twin Ring Motegi.
One common complaint about this game when it was released was how boring it could get after a while given that all of the tracks were ovals. That’s in keeping with IndyCar at the time (following the infamous CART/IRL split in ’96) and it’s a part of the reason why this game is distinctly different from most other racing games that came out at the same time.
Of course, any modern IndyCar game would need drastically different physics to IndyCar Series 2005, even if for no other reason than the fact that IndyCar now predominantly races on road courses instead of ovals.
The focus on oval racing, an unfamiliar form of racing for casual racing game fans, is the likely explanation for the game’s ‘masterclass’ game mode, which teaches players the principles of oval racing, IndyCar and even motorsport in general.
The game was certainly designed with half an eye towards more casual players as music plays by default during the races.
In terms of gameplay, it’s comparable to the license tests in the Gran Turismo games but the whole mode is narrated by Dan Wheldon, who had won the rookie of the year honour in the 2003 season and the title two years later.
In a way then, since it’s a fairly extensive training mode that is talked through by a real-world driver, it’s arguably most comparable to the rally school in the original Colin McRae Rally game.
The masterclass also teaches players about different fuel mixes and the weight jacker that you can adjust on the fly, a game design choice that has certainly stood the test of time.
If you really want to dive deep into fine-tuning your car’s set-up, then the game has a fairly detailed set-up system where you can alter the gear ratios, the stiffness of the suspension and even the camber and toe of the tyres.
IndyCar Series 2005’s detailed car set-up, adjustable fuel mix and weight jacker and the ease with which you can spin the car in the lower gears arguably make the game about as simulation-oriented as you would expect a 2004 console game to be.
On the other hand, the game was certainly designed with half an eye towards more casual players as music plays by default during the races. You can turn it off but most, albeit not all, serious racing games don’t play music when you’re racing.
In the F1 games for example music has always been reserved for the menus and in the older F1 games – for the dedicated arcade game mode.
Regardless of whether you have the music on or not, you still get your spotter talking to you and telling you how many cars you have on your inside or outside.
So that’s another side of IndyCar that was translated well into this game, although it’s likely that the upcoming game would take cues from the recent F1 titles and allow you to talk to your spotter or request certain information depending on what’s going on in the race.
One part of the game that is unfortunately quite dated is the damage model, which is more impressive in terms of how it affects the driveability of your car rather than how your car appears after a crash.
Wings and nose cones get bent out of shape but don’t come off which, given the massive, multi-car pile-ups you can quite easily cause in the game, is far from realistic.
Driving a car that’s had all of its aerodynamic parts bent entirely the wrong way around isn’t easy, but it’s certainly possible to crawl back to the pits even after a crash that you’d be lucky to walk away from were it real life – nevermind drive away from.
The Indy 500 has its own dedicated mode in the game which simulates the full, multi-day qualifying format to try and earn one of the 33 places on the starting grid. So it’s possible you could initially set a good enough time only to see yourself fall down and eventually off the bottom of the timesheets on bump day.
If you want to avoid that then you can just select Indianapolis as the track in the quick race game mode and skip the whole qualifying process. But if you’re selling an IndyCar game to fans of the sport then the need to earn a spot in the Indy 500 is part of the appeal for them and the sort of attention to detail that fans enjoy.
IndyCar Series 2005 has aged broadly as well as the F1 games of that time, the difference being though that we’ve seen a steady evolution in F1 games from F1 04 all the way up to F1 2021 (with only 2007-08 missed). The same can’t be said for IndyCar though and this is still the most recent take on what an official IndyCar game should be like.
The IndyCar license has made its way to a number of games since then and the official IndyCar esports events have been run on iRacing. The point though is that iRacing has perfectly demonstrated what a modern day simulation of IndyCar looks like, but a PC-and-console video game has to have more of a mass market appeal.
There are numerous examples in IndyCar Series 2005 of how the developers catered to people who are fans of the sport but are not experts at video games, people who like racing games but lack IndyCar specific knowledge as well as people who are die-hard fans of both.
Only time will tell to see how many ideas from the most recent IndyCar game are carried over into the upcoming title that will be released in 2023, but it would be fair to say that there’s a lot about IndyCar Series 2005 that unsurprisingly doesn’t hold up over 17 years later.