'Motorsport Manager 3' Runs a Good Race, But Is Too Scared of Losing

A good racing strategy game is let down by a management layer that makes it too tough to fail.

by Rob Zacny
Jul 23 2018, 10:44pm

Screenshots courtesy of Playsport Games

There’s a long, excruciating sequence in Amazon’s Grand Prix Driver where the storied but troubled McLaren racing team takes delivery of their new Formula 1 engine from Honda. This is the year the two organizations need to make their partnership a success, after consecutive seasons of abysmal results. Honda has sent engineers to help install it on the 2017 McLaren car, another team of Honda engineers are on call in Japan to troubleshoot, and all of McLaren’s top executives, engineers, and mechanics are on hand to make sure everything goes well.

And somehow, the engine doesn’t fit into the car. Several parts are incompatible, and the layout of the connections doesn’t quite work, and even when they somehow mount the engine, it doesn’t start. So with tight smiles, awkward translations, and incomplete comprehension, the McLaren and Honda engineers begin spreading schematics out on the shop floor and trying to figure out how, after millions of dollars of investment and development by two elite automobile organizations, the result is yet another piece of shit car that doesn’t work.

Motorsport Manager 3 Mobile will never do this to you. But I wish it would. A cheerful and thoughtful racing strategy game available now on iOS and Android, MM3 is largely a game of upward progress and forward momentum. It positions you as the head of a racing team, answerable to no one but yourself as you climb the ranks of either touring car racing, prototype endurance racing, or open-wheel racing. You’ll recruit drivers and develop their skills, recruit engineers to develop better parts for your cars, and then, on race days, you’ll set the strategies and call for strategically-timed pit stops.

Wins are tough to come by at first, and each time you move to a higher-tier of racing, the competition gets several times more difficult and meaningful progress gets more expensive. But you’ll always feel like you’re at least making progress. If you spent the money to unlock something, it will be better than what you had before. If you have to wait two weeks for an upgrade, it will arrive right on time and working out of the box. You might still have a bad car, a bad driver, or—and this is more directly on your shoulders—a bad racing strategy, but it will never try to break you the way that motorsports do in real life.

What we have, then is a nice fantasy that stops well short of being the kind of simulation that a devoted racing fan might want, and that the PC version of Motorsport Manager took several strides toward becoming. But for this outing on iOS and Android, Playsport games seem to have inclined a bit more towards abstraction and clicker-derived micro-management, even when compared to the mobile version of MM2.

For instance, when you tune your car for a race in MM3, you don’t actually start messing with gear ratios or spring stiffness, or listening to driver feedback. Instead, you get a simple “push your luck” system that will almost always deliver performance gains without taking major risks or backsliding. It doesn’t remotely resemble anything like the methodical trial-and-error of race engineering that Motorsports Manager captured on PC.

What it does, however, is keep you hopping briskly from race to race without spending a lot of time sweating the details. Commanding races from a top-down view, with each car shown as a colored and numbered circle zipping around the circuit, you keep a careful eye on your drivers’ pace, the changing weather conditions, their fuel and tire situation, and their position relative to other drivers. Your job is about maximizing efficiency: How can you complete the race with the fewest possible pit stops without losing too much speed from over-stretching your tires and fuel?

A smooth, methodical driver who wears out their tires slowly can skip an entire pit stop, or run a softer, faster-wearing tire with more grip at a higher average speed. But it’s down to you to know when these plans are viable, and when they’re not. Get this stuff wrong, and you’ll see how quickly you can lose a lead, or even a whole lap.

The micro-management can get pretty intense, to the point where you’re basically backseat driving for the length of a race by fiddling with your drivers’ fuel and tire strategies. For hybrid cars with energy recovery systems, you can even control exactly when drivers are running down their boost charges by tapping on a battery meter, and when they’re recharging. I ended up automating that part of the game, because it was starting to be more fussy than fun.

There are some nice touches that do bring across the pressure-cooker politics of a high-performance racing team. My young superstar pitched an absolute fit when I gave his teammate a new front wing that was slightly better than his own, taking a temporary hit to all his stats due to his lousy mood. Worse, he suddenly became uninterested in extending his contract until I spent my slow-to-accrue “influence points” to talk him back to the negotiating table.

During a wasted season in which I tried to jump straight from running a mid-tier touring car team to competing in top-tier prototype endurance racing (it turns out that just because you have unlocked a new racing series doesn’t mean you should compete there), I started bleeding money as my weak results caused sponsors to flee. Soon I had suspended new parts development just to keep competing, which pretty much extinguished my dim hopes of improving.

screenshot by author, at a moment things were not going well, courtesy of Playsport Games

But I was rescued by some cash injections that the game regularly gives you to prevent death-spirals, and eventually resumed my almost processional march up the standings. Motorsport Manager 3 Mobile always makes sure there’s some light at the end of the tunnel in order to keep you going.

That certainly doesn’t bother me when I’m messing around with the game before a meeting, or on a plane. It’s not taking itself too seriously. But if I’m being really honest, it’s only the races where I have really important things to do and choices to make. Everything else—from developing my drivers to building upgrades to my car to doing setup work in qualifying—feels like it a simple matter of pressing the same buttons until you unlock something good. And you pretty much always will.

As long as you’ve got the money, you can always build a newer, better component, and it certainly doesn’t seem like running multiple concurrent R&D projects impede their progress. While I’m making a choice about what to develop for my car, cash is my only real constraint, and the game itself heavily signposts what your car needs. That aspect compares poorly with the brutal logic of the races themselves, where you really have to sweat every detail of track position, lap times, and weather forecasts.

It was perhaps too much to hope that the new mobile edition of the game might surpass the PC version of Motorsports Manager, which remains much closer to the feel and spirit of actual motorsports (albeit with significant room for improvement). Instead, Motorsport Manager 3 Mobile unfolds according to a completely different logic: This is a game about constant, incremental improvement to both cars and drivers as you work through your seasons, and then using those tools with as much precision and efficiency as possible on race day.

This makes Motorsport Manager 3 a good, consistently pleasant game where every setback is a minor one, and you’ll never be squeezed too tightly by the competition or your own finances. But in denying you space to make serious mistakes or overcome truly daunting hurdles, it passes on the chance to be a great one. While it will stay on my phone and remains a good traveling companion, it’s also left me eagerly contemplating the career mode of the upcoming F1 2018 or a return to the PC edition of Motorsport Manager. Sometimes racing just breaks your heart, and nothing seems to go right no matter how hard a team tries. Without that risk frustration, that little taste of sacrifice and the threat of encroaching despair, it's never feels quite like racing.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article referred to the PC edition as being a PC version of Motorsport Manager 2. On PC the game is just called Motorsport Manager, and it predates the second and third versions of the mobile game. We regret the error.