When it comes to video game expectations, context really is king. As the first thing resembling a ‘proper’ racing game on Switch, Gear.Club Unlimited has a certain amount of goodwill stored up for it.
Conversely, Gear.Club’s mobile past means that racing fans will be watching with an unusually critical eye. It initially launched last year as a freemium iOS and Android racer, where it received a very warm welcome. Of course, the words ‘freemium’ and ‘mobile’ don’t win you any points with die-hard console gamers. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Gear.Club has both little to prove and everything to prove, then. So let’s just start with the basics: is it a good racing game?
It’s not bad at all, but expectations need to be reined in. If you’ve skimmed over the screenshots and the marketing blurb for Gear.Club you might be fooled into thinking that this is a true racing simulator in the mould of Gran Turismo or Forza. It isn’t.
Rather, this is an arcade racer with real cars, an approximation of authentic handling, and a few tweakable performance settings. It’s a boy racer hatchback with the silly spoiler taken off and a smart black paint job.
The handling is tight and grippy across the game’s predominantly short, snappy, tarmac courses, with the odd slippery off road excursion. It generally hits an accessible middle ground between Mario Kart and Gran Turismo, though obviously weighted towards the latter.
That being said, the lack of analogue triggers on the Switch meant that we found ourselves reverting to the face buttons for acceleration and braking, calling to mind Nintendo’s madcap kart racer. Fortunately there are no blue shells in sight.
Controls aside, once you’ve turned all the racing aids off (essential if you want to attain any kind of convincing racing sensation or challenge) Gear.Club Unlimited largely follows the principles of real racing. You’ll make swifter and tidier progress if you brake early for the tighter corners, steer in decisively, and stamp on the gas once your car is pointed in the right direction.
There are rally stages here too, but we didn’t find that this adjusted our approach too radically beyond a little more caution when re-engaging the throttle. This isn’t the kind of pure arcade racer where you spend most of your time with your back-end out, and the provision of a specific rally modification system went conspicuously underused.
While Gear.Club Unlimited’s handling is solid, the AI opposition isn’t particularly convincing. They all tend to line up politely ahead of corners, braking early rather than jostling for position and leaving gaping holes for you to nip into. Taking a slightly different line and applying the brakes a little later will see you taking multiple places without much effort. You can bump up the difficulty to Hard, but this doesn’t seem to change the basic sheeplike behaviour of your opponents - it just makes their cars faster. Given that it’s a simple matter to put your own car into the garage and supercharge it with a few upgrade purchases, overcoming this spike isn’t too much of a bind.
Indeed, the whole garage system feels like a curious leftover. There’s an elaborate mixture of upgrade stations that you can purchase for enhancing several key elements of your car, from a tire and brake station to a wind tunnel and a couple of cosmetic stations. All of these must be slotted into a limited garage space, which can be expanded over time.
Even without knowledge of Gear.Club’s past, it would be glaringly obvious that this was all constructed with a free-to-play system in mind. While the virtual currency flows far more freely in this premium version, however, we can’t help thinking that it would have been better to scrap the convoluted upgrade system and install a streamlined alternative in its place.
As it stands, upgrading your car feels both arbitrary and fiddly. Meanwhile, a UI that sees you moving a cursor to navigate a scrolling map feels like another vestigial mobile limb that should ideally have been lopped off.
One element that has been excised is the damage system, and it’s arguably to the game’s detriment. We can understand that waiting to have your expensive car fixed in between races wouldn’t have sat well in a premium game, but removing damage from the equation altogether feels counterproductive in a game with sim-shaped aspirations.
It pushes the dynamics of each and every race into an even more arcadey direction. Collisions are virtually penalty free here, barring a momentary loss of straight line speed and an achievement system that only meekly encourages clean racing.
Any lingering misapprehension that this is the Switch’s first out and out racing sim is dispelled by the presence of an unlimited rewind facility, which lets you roll back any mistakes you make with a press of the ‘X’ button. It’s neatly implemented, but feels a bit like a cheat button.
Once you’ve accepted that Gear.Club is not the racing sim you might have been hoping for, there’s plenty of fun to be had. Races whiz by at a snappy rate, with many lasting just a minute, and they vary between multi-car scraps and time trial dashes. In many ways it’s the ideal racing game for the Switch as a handheld console, and is more amenable to being whipped out for a few minutes at a time than even Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
You’ll find yourself unlocking new racing territories, car categories and dealerships at a consistently snappy rate, while you’ll be able to purchase some of the tastier hardware on offer in no time at all. The fun definitely picks up once you start accessing (and enhancing) the more exotic hardware, too.
Suddenly the game’s plentiful sweeping curves become a good deal more hair-raising, and your use of both throttle and brake needs to be more deft. You’ll find noticeable range in the handling here, too, from the twitchy go-kart precision of a Lotus Elise to the hefty balance of a Bentley Continental GT.
There’s also a provision for multiplayer in Gear.Club Unlimited, though that doesn’t include online races. Rather, you’ll have to console yourself with local split screen for up to four players and a competitive daily online ghost mode. On the plus side, the split screen multiplayer runs at a solid 30fps and can be pretty entertaining.
Technically Gear.Club Unlimited is a solid runner, if a little plain. The car models are all detailed and sufficiently shiny, while the action moves smoothly even with a dozen or so cars on screen at once. But there are also some ugly background textures, like the lakes and buildings of some of the European stages. There were also a few unusual sound bugs in our pre-release build, but these will hopefully be eradicated in the promised day one patch.
Gear.Club Unlimited is a highly entertaining racing game that sits firmly at the casual end of the realistic racer spectrum. It can be a thrillingly immediate experience, particularly on the go, where you can blast through one of its sweeping courses in just a minute or so.
Switch owners hoping for a Gran Turismo or a Forza to call their own will have to wait a little longer, however. What was a commendably rounded console-like racer on mobile seems just a little bit lightweight on Switch, while a few ill-fitting parts have survived the console rebuild.