It’s been available on Steam in a few different iterations over the years, and has even hit the Switch in the early part of 2019, but now that Car Mechanic Simulator is juddering its way onto Xbox One and PS4 it’s managed to get my attention. Having played a variety of simulation games over the years, I thought I’d have an idea of what I was getting into – a highly detailed recreation of something that I’ve a passing interest in, but no actual skill or experience with. My core concern though as always with these titles is whether they manage to make the content accessible for everyone, or if they’re only appealing to the subject matter enthusiasts. So, did it make me throw a piston rod out of the block, or was I able to take a heap of junk and get it back on the road?
If you’re expecting a 101 course on the basics of automotive repair in Car Mechanic Simulator then you really are looking at the wrong game. From the outset it assumes that you already know what the major pieces of workshop hardware are, where the parts are housed inside the car, and how to go about finding faults. It is in a word… obtuse. It doesn’t even bother telling you how to start the game proper. There is a tutorial, though that only serves to give you the names of tools that will need using later on. It’s nearly enough to make you give up – I know I thought about it after wandering aimlessly around an empty garage for 20 minutes. Top tip: the phone is the key to it all. If you’d have decided that the game was beyond repair and ejected the disc by this point I wouldn’t have blamed you, but doing that would mean that you’d miss what the game actually has to offer.
Whilst I doubt that the setup of the game is a meta statement on the core principle of Car Mechanic Simulator, it does sort of fit. It’s all about the diagnosis and investigation that leads to establishing route cause and resolution through changing or fixing parts. Take a job over the phone and the offending vehicle arrives in the garage ready to be put in the lifter and repaired. Finding out what is wrong is a matter of observation, testing and deduction that’s strangely therapeutic. Initially just looking at where all the rust is the easiest way to spot the problem, or just reading what the customer wants points in the right direction. For more invisible problems there’s a test track that you can drive around that produces a report on the condition of parts, and it’s very effective even if it takes a bit of time. This is particularly useful in the story scenarios where there is only a description of what the symptoms are and before you unlock more efficient tools.
Examining the impressive array of parts is a little bit like playing with CAD software – you can zoom into the various components and inspect their condition, as well as have it highlighted whether they can be removed easily or if there’s something else that needs taking off to gain access. Following the visual guides actually makes it easy to remove everything piece by piece, and there’s the reverse of this to put them back on again. A ghost outline of what needs to go where shows the way and lets you decide what state of part you want to add back on. Everything has a condition rating and as long as you’re meeting the requirements for the job anything goes. This means you can balance the cost of the repair against what’s going to be charged for it, though it’s worth noting that new parts will always be charged back to the customer. Completing a job not only earns cash, it brings experience and ultimately skill points which are used to develop your abilities and the garage itself.
Upgrades range from being able to do things faster to having a tablet on hand to place part orders, and on to expanding the premises with new equipment to help figure out what’s wrong. It’s slow going unfortunately with a lot of lower level, easy repairs needed to build up enough points to spend on a shiny improvement. Cash isn’t too hard to come by for buying the parts and it’s quite hard to end up loosing money in the early stages. With the dough coming in it makes sense to have something else to spend the cash on and this is where the car auctions and barn finds come into play. Heading off to those gives the option to purchase cars that need fixing up that then can be kept in a parking lot collection or sold for a profit. It’s a nice touch particularly on the barn finds as the junk piles can be searched to unearth rare parts that could be used to build a car from scratch, if you’ve got the patience and are willing to pay for them.
Car Mechanic Simulator will have you delving through menus trying to find the specific parts needed to fix a variety of different car types and engine configurations, and all are rendered very well when you eventually find them. It’s smooth spinning round the models and selecting what’s needed, though the fixed camera when actually working on something can be a bit constraining (the fact it’s built for PC stands out here, and in the parts menus). It’s not just under the hood that gets the attention though, interiors and exteriors can be worked on as well. Jeep and Mazda are officially licensed in the game, though pretty much everything else is fictional even if they look a little familiar, but open up the paint shop and detailing options and you can play around to your hearts content with building your own custom vehicle. It’s very likely that the music in the workshop will be sacrificed early on though, it’s decently put together even if it is overly loud and generic sounding.
Once you’re up to speed with the way most things work, like the context sensitive “pie” menu (or radial menu if you prefer), and where all the “new” cars can be found, it’s pretty much rinse and repeat for as much as you can stand. In the early stages it’s enjoyable figuring out what’s wrong, using the new tools and putting a fix in. By the time you hit your 10th brake pad change you begin to wonder if that’s what it’s like being a real life mechanic and if monotony sets in so quickly. Growing the business means being able to to take on more jobs at once and brings more money and experience in, which in turn mean faster diagnosis and quicker processing, yet it doesn’t hide the fact that because there’s little in the way of substance to tie it all together. If there’d been an objective linked to progression then there might be more impetus to continue playing and appreciate the level of detail that’s on display.
It turns out that Car Mechanic Simulator is a bit of a mixed bag, and arguably falls in line with a lot of the other games in the simulation genre. It’s engaging to a point, and I have spent quite a few hours happily looking up at pipes and electrics. I’ve changed suspensions, fixed brakes and even stripped down an engine and rebuilt it. Could I do this in real life? No, definitely not. Have I learnt something about general car faults and causes? Yes, I definitely have. This is the type of game that you’ve got to go into with your eyes open and even lean a little on the community to figure out how it plays, it won’t necessarily tell you. You’ll definitely get out what you put in, but it’s the niche audience that will repeatedly get up to their elbows in oil.
A PS4 review copy of Car Mechanic Simulator was provided by Koch Media’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Switch for around £25 depending on the platform.