Gear.Club Unlimited 2 Review
Still missing the podium on the second go-around
The Nintendo Wii U earned itself a somewhat nefarious reputation of being the console where many cheaper games, and their frequent sequels, were released to make a quick sale. The same pattern has been avoided so far on the Nintendo Switch, although we are now faced with what is possibly the first quick sequel on the platform, in the form of Gear.Club Unlimited 2. This remains the only realistic car driving game on the system to date, but it once again squanders the potential to fill this genre gap by offering too few improvements, and leaving the issues of the original game unresolved.
In this sequel, players assume the role of a test driver who gets the opportunity to take the place of a professional. After a few successful races, the racing team family realizes that you have great potential, and decide to keep you on, while still treating you as a rookie for most of the game. As in most racing titles, there's not much focus on the narrative; it's a barebones story meant to get you from one competition to the next.
The career mode and the championships are laid out pretty much exactly the same way as in the original, albeit you're now able to view a menu where you can see your progress and what's to come. The cars are once again divided into classes from A-1, 2, 3, B-1, 2, 3 and so forth, until D-3. You'll have to complete 4 competition series in each class, with each series consisting of 4-6 individual races. The scores are tallied together in each series, and your payout depends on the final placing. The races themselves are also the same as before - normal races, time attack (where you race against ghost opponents), and elimination races (where every 20 seconds the last place car is removed). The time attack races remain an odd choice, since you're still driving against the AI rather than the clock. It's a bit disappointing that there aren't any new competition types.
On the career world map, you can now see all shops and current/past events, as the somewhat needless fog from the last game is no longer around. There are also new exhibition races, which are one-off events for some decent pay and a specific theme. As for the driving conditions - once again it's either asphalt or rally, the latter this time includes either dirt or snow. Regardless of what event you're doing though, the gameplay mechanics have not changed at all since last year. The cars feel about the same as before, with the occasional chance to spin out, so the handling is largely very arcade. As you make your way to more powerful vehicles, the handling changes a bit, but not enough to make an impact. The Gear.Club Unlimited 2 car list has been expanded by a decent number, with over 15 new additions, and introduction of a couple of cars from Porsche and W-Motors. Still, that only brings the total to about 50, which is a far cry from the leaders of the genre. Though this is a lower-priced title, so that's perhaps expected.
You can once again adjust the gameplay by changing up the various assists, such as the racing line, automatic braking, and so forth. But you still can't adjust the AI difficulty, which means the sequel is still quite easy. All races play out about the same way - as long as your car has a Performance Index (PI) within the allowed range, the AI will have similarly specced cars. From there, they somehow accelerate ahead at the start, but you'll be in first place within 60 seconds, and cruise the rest of the way. Because they always match their PI close to yours, there's not much sense of progress through the career mode. Should you happen to get into trouble, the race rewind system is back to help undo any errors. The AI simply follow the racing line and are boring to compete against; an issue not addressed from the first game sees your competition finish in exactly the same order, every race. That means the same names will appear in the same spots in the point rankings, and while theoretically you don't have to finish first in each race of an event, because the 2nd/3rd places go to the same drivers, you pretty much have to, else they will overtake you in the final standings.
Touching the barriers on the sides of the track, or AI cars, slows you down a lot, so it's best to just avoid contact entirely. In rally, it can be fairly satisfying to pull off sweet drifts, as that's the best way to take many of the sharp corners. The Gear.Club Unlimited 2 track design has been clearly tweaked to include more variety, though the game still suffers from re-using many of the same sections of track in multiple locations. There are many sharp corners and passes through a roundabout, but they feel very familiar to sections of other tracks in the game. Players who had a chance to play the original may recall that game's very short race events; at least that aspect has been addressed in the sequel. While the races are longer, they are still largely the same length - about 3 minutes, which feels strange, and either a compliment to the consistency of track designs, or some sort of technical/creative limitation.
With so much of the same content, the game only has a few truly new features. Environment variety is one such addition. There are four types of locations you'll be racing in - the bay, a valley, the desert, and the mountains - each containing 6 tracks. This allows the sequel to have more visual variety, with tropical water and green trees in the bay, the red sand of the desert, and the snow in the mountains. There are decisively few urban areas compared to the first game, as you'll mostly race on tracks that dissect the wilderness. Despite the added visual variety, it's still not a ton of tracks, and with the abovementioned design re-use, some sections feel familiar even in a different setting. Further, because there's a ton of racing in each car class, you'll be seeing the tracks start to repeat before you even reach B class.
The performance shop returns. It’s a unique hangar/warehouse area where you can build a few workshops, as well place various other decorative items. You drag and drop your owned vehicles around different workshops in order to purchase and install new parts - engines, brakes, tires, and so forth. Not much has changed here - the car parts are the same, you still upgrade the workshops themselves to unlock more parts, and so on. Visually, the cosmetic workshop returns to offer a few pre-determined paint options. The only new addition is the graphic workshop, which lets you design and apply custom vinyls to the cars. It's a bit awkward to use, but patient fans can come up with some decent shapes to put on their rides. To help add a little liveliness to the hangar, there are now random people walking about the area.
To purchase new cars, you can head into the dealerships for each class, where the cars are still in a neat virtual space where you can look around, interact with a few things like doors and hood, and take them for a test drive. To afford new cars and performance shop upgrades, the Gear.Club Unlimited 2 economy remains decent. Anytime you unlock a new car performance class, you should have lots of money to purchase a vehicle in that class and upgrade it, if you feel like it (since the AI will match your PI anyway). You do lose one source of income and sense of progression - the milestone system from the first game is no longer around. Yes, it usually belongs in a mobile game, but it still worked well and motivated the player to strive onwards, while also giving out some extra cash, and it's sad to see it gone.
Outside of the career mode, players can participate in local multiplayer racing on the same Switch console. Once again the game offers all cars and locations right from the start in this mode, which is a welcome touch. Also, once again, direct online competition is not available at launch, which is rather dire. Instead, there's the same Club Leagues system where you compete to set the best times on a specific track against ghost opponents, and earn league points, which in turn lets you progress through the League ranks. Unfortunately, the game neglects to tell you the PI of your opponents before the race, which means you don't really know what you're up against. It's also missing in career mode, but there it matters little as AI will adjust. You can form a Club together with friends, or find one with strangers, and can work on increasing your Club's ranking together.
One area where the sequel makes notable improvements is in its presentation, improving on the often poor-looking visuals of its predecessor. The cars look a little sharper, the environments definitely have more variety, but perhaps the biggest change is the improvement to the lighting systems. No longer are you faced with flat, blinding sun - instead the lighting feels a ton more natural and varied, giving the world a better sense of realism, and also offering more dynamic shadows and reflections on the cars as you drive. The UI and menus have also been tweaked to offer greater usability.
Sadly, there are still many issues that drag the game down. Despite the visual improvements, there are many cases of texture pop-in, poor draw distance, and AI cars quite obviously floating above the track in rally races. Glitches in the new lighting system occasionally leave the track dark, until you make a turn and suddenly the lights get turned on. The cinematic camera angles before the race are identical to last year, and there are still too few music tracks in the game. Audio effects like engine noise, driving on gravel, and tire squeals are basic and repetitive. Framerate remains an issue; while the dips aren't as severe as before, it's still all over the place in races, menus, and the performance shop. The sequel also suffers from very long loading times, no matter what screen you're transitioning to.
It was surprising to hear that Gear.Club Unlimited was getting a sequel. The first game attempted to fill a gap in the Nintendo Switch lineup and offer a realistic simulation racer, but due to various mishaps (and being a port of a mobile title) it wasn't successful. A year later, this quick sequel follows much the same path. Gear.Club Unlimited 2 offers a few improvements here and there, like better visuals and expanded car selection, but it still suffers from many of the same problems. If you were disappointed by GCU, this follow up is not going to change your mind. For those looking for a realistic racer on the Switch, the advice would be to keep waiting, unless you're in desperate need of a game in this genre. With competition from the likes of GRID Autosport coming to the system, the GCU franchise should take a careful look at what it wants to do in future iterations, as its head start is about to evaporate.