Does Gear.Club Unlimited give the Nintendo Switch the realistic racer it needs?
Gear.Club Unlimited is an attempt to give the Nintendo Switch its own ‘serious’ racing game. One with a decent roster of licensed cars, a generous selection of tracks and environments, and range of single and multiplayer modes.
The marketing blurb pitches the game as a Nintendo Switch experience that can compete with the likes of Forza Motorsport 7 on Xbox One, and Gran Turismo Sport on PlayStation 4. The reality, of course, is rather different. This is a smaller racing game, produced by a small studio, on a smaller budget, for a lower powered console. Oh, and it’s also a port of a free-to-play mobile game.
And it’s that last point, rather than its ability to keep pace with its next-gen competition, that proves to be most interesting.
In a month where Star War Battlefront II and Middle-earth: Shadow of War have provoked public outcry and discussion over in-game micro-transactions, Gear.Club Unlimited is an example of what happens when a game is built around such mechanics, but released in a format where they are not required.
The mobile version of Gear.Club is free-to-play, with its content gated by ‘gold’, which can be obtained via grind, or real money micro-transactions. The Switch edition – as its Unlimited moniker suggests – arrives with a mid-range price tag, but with all of its content free to access. What hasn’t changed is the grind required to open up its tracks, competitions and modes, nor its use of an in-game currency to upgrade vehicles and workshops. The result is a game that takes a long time to show its hand.
Gear.Club Unlimited’s early hours are a slow slog of non-competitive racing, with each easy victory rewarded with a few dollars that can be used to purchase, and tune, new cars. You can see the free-to-play model at work, and although no money is changing hands, it feels restrictive and piece-meal. You’ll spend as much time fiddling in menus as you do behind the wheel, and as such the game makes an incredibly poor first impression.
Eventually you’ll earn enough credit to fill your garage with a decent selection of authentic – and nicely modelled – vehicles, each in a different performance class. And in time, the game starts to feel more like a genuine contender.
With driving assists turned off, Gear.Club Unlimited’s early floatiness – which makes each short race a breeze to win – gives way to a decent handling model that provides a solid, and responsive, driving experience. Races become longer, opponents become more competitive, and later tracks provide a stern test of skill that is less reliant on long drifts and constant acceleration.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag. In TV mode it feels very last-gen; it’s not ugly, but understandably offers little of the graphical panache found on other home console racing games. It also doesn’t compete with some of the other racers the Switch has to offer, namely Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Fast RMX. However, in handheld mode – as is the case with many second-tier Switch titles – it pops a little brighter, looks a little more impressive, and, in motion, can be rather handsome.
Gear.Club Unlimited features plenty of tracks, and a range of varied environments and regions to unlock. Each one is visually distinct, but there is a sense that within each region, circuits are assembled from small set of repeated building blocks. One race, for example, might take you through a canyon, a desert, a village, and a tunnel, and the next though the same locations in a slightly different order.
More of a problem is the overall lack of polish. Menus can be sluggish, and the car effects sound more like a gnat playing a kazoo than they do a Supercharged V6 engine. And never has crossing a finish line felt so anti-climactic; each race concludes with a swift fade to black, leaving no moment to rejoice in your achievement. The day one patch will hopefully fix some of these issues, and another more substantial update is due in early 2018.
Off the road you can customise your garage with workshops to handle engine, suspension, and tires upgrades. Tinkering away on a car to eek out an small performance boost is its own peculiar pleasure, and helps to foster a sense of ownership and identity over each vehicle you acquire. You can also decorate your garage with everything from pot plants to coffee machines. It’s like Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer for petrol heads, and just as enjoyable.
Away from the single player campaign, online multiplayer is supported by a league mode in which you can compete against the times and ghosts of other players around the world. It’s limited – being little more than an interactive leaderboard – but oddly compelling, with progress rewarded by more virtual currency to fritter away. The local multiplayer mode also puts in a technically solid performance, and supports up to four players in split screen.
So, can Gear.Club Unlimited compete with the marquee racers found on other platforms? Not really. In fact it reminds me of two other titles. The first is the original Burnout from 2001. Like that game, it’s a promising racer with plenty to like, but it lacks the finesse to make it stand out on a crowded starting grid.
It also reminds me of Oceanhorn, another title that made the journey from mobile to the Nintendo Switch. Like Cornfox & Bros’ Zelda-like, Gear.Club Unlimited is not so much bad, but frustratingly close to being really good. Eden Studios can evidently punch above their weight, but I would rather see them develop a ground-up Switch game freed from restrictive mobile underpinnings.
As it is, Gear.Club Unlimited feels at more at home – and significantly more impressive – as a portable game. Playing it in handheld mode makes its limitations easier to forgive, and its bite-sized, mobile-like structure, more appropriate.