A.I

Circuit Superstars has a Micro Machines look, but it’s a serious racer

Even with the hiccups and inconsistent execution of some features — which one should reasonably expect of a Steam Early Access title — there is still plenty to like and look forward to in Circuit Superstars. Available since March 6, Circuit Superstars’ concept, and developer Original Fire Games’ approach to an old, very established genre is so fresh, I’m challenged to think of the recent racing game that it most imitates.

Basically, Circuit Superstars is a motorsports game run with Micro Machines. The vehicles and the drivers are stylishly cute, but it’s not a kart racer. It’s a top-down racer (sort of; the perspective is a little offset) but it doesn’t have speed-boosts, power-ups, or other perks expected of that genre. Nor is it limited to a specific discipline like its closest visual sibling, last fall’s Art of Rally. To win a race (or a series of them), one will have to hold to an optimal racing line and deploy a smart pit strategy — but Circuit Superstars is definitely not a racing sim.

It’s a game that takes the most enjoyable parts of racing’s sub-genres and fits them together in a sensible way, such that nothing distracts from the fun of getting racing right: brake here, run wide there, nick that corner just right, and drive your ass off through the straight for the win.

Circuit Superstars so far features six vehicle classes in the driving lineup, from 1960s- and 1980s-styled grand prix cars, to off-the-lot American muscle cars, and even big rig cabs that European fans are getting a kick out of these days. Multi-class races are also available, although at this stage I don’t see much point in taking one of the slower and heavier rides, which seem to have no handling, fuel economy, or other advantage to compensate for their lack of speed.

And for the time being, the only competitive racing you’ll find is in its online multiplayer, where matchmaking times were mercifully short when I was playing in the evenings (U.S. EDT). Against the AI, Circuit Superstars delivers a walloping difficulty spike from Amateur (the first of five levels) just to Pro-Am (the second). CPU racers are typically bunched up within five hundredths of a second of one another, queueing up for the same racing line through the corners and punishing me by 1.2 seconds per lap.

I’ve checked the settings and controls, and there doesn’t seem to be any setup or vital input that I’m forgetting to use, so I can only assume that Original Fire Games is refining the online play and getting the game’s basic structures right before differentiating and balancing the CPU competition. That’s fine for now, but players should not expect to get much out of the game’s Free Play mode, or the multi-race Challenges that progress through Circuit Superstars’ difficulty settings.

For online (and offline) races, users can adjust field size, race length, and qualifying format, as well as the rate of tire wear and fuel consumption — in order to mandate one (or more) pit stops. Pitting, though, seems to have an inconsistent application so far. In a couple of multiplayer races, my fuel barely got me to the halfway lap, while my (human) opponent never came in for a refill. We were both racing the same vehicle class, so I’m not sure what he was doing that I couldn’t. In another race, I thought I had fully refueled on lap 6 of 12, only to find myself out of gas at the end of lap 7.

I’ll chalk all of this up to the Early Access nature of the game. Circuit Superstars’ polished (and very charming) visual style, its smooth presentation and inputs, and the consistent, stable online play suggests Original Fire Games can and will shore up these areas in due time.

Assuming a lot more balance among the vehicle characteristics (and maybe exposing those traits to the user) and the AI drivers, Circuit Superstars should be a pick-up-and-play hit for a wide spectrum of racing fans, from casually interested, social competitors to determined gear-heads and other perfectionists. In addition to Windows PC, it’s also expected on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One when it launches in full.

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