GearCity Review

Clunks and Rattles

26 March 2018
Played on Windows

GearCity is a very ambitious attempt to create a global simulation of the motor industry, design practices, and business practices, spanning more than a century.

This game, in its current state, is awful. It has an early 90s interface, a really unhelpful tutorial system, and it's incredibly hard to see what effect anything you're doing actually has on the game. While sharing some similarities in design with Automation, it manages to make Automation look polished, which, if you read my thoughts on that one, is quite a feat.

It's also quite an unstable game: I experienced a number of crashes, and there doesn't seem to be an autosave system so you will need to remember to save regularly or potentially lose a lot of progress.

An old brown car in a showroom

What's the big idea?

You're the boss of an automotive company, beginning in a configurable year between 1900 and the present day. There are a number of game maps included, but, potentially, your play area is the entire globe, and each country and city has different markets and desires for their cars.

The concept is that you will construct 4 key products: chassis, engines, gearboxes, and vehicles, and use research and development to discover new advanced that will give you an edge over the competition and enable you to earn a handsome profit.

When ambition exceeds ability

There's a lot to be said for having steep ambitions. Humanity made it to the moon on the basis of an ambitious space race between two superpowers. The Wright brothers picked the perfect moment in history, when internal combustion engines had become lightweight enough that they could prove powered flight was a possibility.

Don't forget: we only remember the noteworthy ones. There's many more thousands that have had huge ambitions and lacked the ability to deliver on them, so their would-be accomplishments are forgotten in time.

This is an early access game. It's not finished. There's still lots to do. Blah blah you've heard this all before.

Visual Entertainment and Technologies (VEAT), the developer behind GearCity, has no other games to its name. GearCity itself first became available for early access back in 2014, and ooh boy, we're now 4 years down the road and there's a lot to be done.

More alarmingly, VEAT is seemingly planning to begin production on Aero Mogul, a subsequent game, "as soon as GearCity is released".

There is a moment in most people's lives when the thought arises, "this is too big, I'm in trouble". Maybe you've bitten off more than you can chew, or you underestimated just how much work is involved. This is GearCity's fundamental flaw, and I'll explore why below.

Oh God, the interface

I thought Automation had a bad interface. Wow. Firstly, I'm testing this on a 4k monitor, and there is no UI scaling whatsoever. The text is absolutely tiny, almost unreadable. For anyone with a 4k, it's almost required to use 1920x1080 to be able to see any text on the screen.

Most of the text and interface is produced in absolutely stunning Windows 3.1-style boxes (sarcasm) and it's a joy to use (more sarcasm). Buttons sometimes don't respond when you press them, and sometimes buttons do respond but take so long to do anything that you aren't sure if you pressed them.

User interface of GearCity

Text boxes and the text within them is not properly aligned with the cursor, so it's hard to see whether you're inserting a character in the middle of some text or typing at the end.

Scroll bars are particularly problematic. If you click and drag a scroll bar, be careful not to move the mouse left or right off the edge of the scroll bar, or the entire thing disappears. The mouse wheel, a long-time staple of scrolling fans the world over, feels clunky and unresponsive here.

Then there's the look and feel. If I'd gone out of my way to design the worst looking interface I possibly could, I'd still struggle to beat VEAT's efforts here. It's incredibly awful, with all the polish of a '52 Corvette left out in the rain for half a century.

The world map is too big to comfortably fit on the screen (even a 4k) at once, but the only method of scrolling the map appears to be edge scrolling, and it's faster than a Tesla in Ludicrous mode. You can't actually get to the area of the map you need without very intentionally and quickly moving your mouse to the edge of the screen and back again as fast as you possibly can. Why not use WASD, or click-and-drag scrolling?

Maximum unintuitivity

The "main menu" of the game is your office, which is some kind of photo-realism offering from early 90s point and click adventures. There is a plain and simple reason that interfaces like this are not used in this day and age: they're shit.

You can move your mouse over a number of objects in your office to do various things, like a globe, or a door. Some of these are obvious: the globe opens the world map, and the book on your desk is a sales report. Others range from slightly confusing to "wtf bro", including a door that takes you to the R&D department, and a clock that "ends your turn" and advances time.

GearCity's office-based UI with a safe containing a teddy bear

My particular favourite example of shitness was the safe, which contains your finances, a teddy bear for some reason, and a gun, in case you regret dropping your early access fee on this title so much that you need to kill yourself.

The worst part of this design is that you need to mouse over each thing in order to see what it does, and it becomes a bit like a pixel hunt where you're trying to find the one thing you want by moving your pointer frantically around the screen in frustration.

I can't believe I actually have to point this out to game developers, but having, you know, an actual menu; a list of items you can click with text descriptions; is the correct way of doing this. At the very least, put a permanent text label on each clickable thing to alleviate the most common frustration.

But hey, at least, as the years in the game go by, your office changes, with your grandfather clock turning into a wall clock and new pieces of office technology appearing. What an impressive waste of game development funds!

A sleeping mechanical giant

Once I dug deeper beyond the monstrously unintuitive UI, it turns out that underneath, there's a detailed and incredibly compelling simulation going on.

Many major cities from around the globe are simulated, and their populations and average income levels develop over time, in quite a realistic fashion. It's possible to set up a car showroom in a small city in an underdeveloped country, but expect sales to be lower because there just aren't enough people earning enough money to afford your latest offering.

GearCity's world map screen

The AI competition seems to offer a competent challenge, developing its own models and setting up shop in various places that will pose some threat to your own business ambitions.

There's a whole chain of industry here, from the drawing board, to the factories, which can take years to build and have a variable number of production lines, to the franchises you set up in various cities and the marketing strategies that will help spread the word about your industrial might.

World events are also simulated, and 20th century history fans will be pleased to see that things take a pretty realistic course as the century progresses, adding yet more detail and gameplay opportunities to the pile.

Designing your dream

For petrolheads, the chassis/engine/gearbox/vehicle designer might be a treat. There are so many options here. Beyond simple choices like petrol or diesel, straight 4 or V8, there are options like electric engines, steam engines, rotary, and even obscure things like radial engines in the mix.

GearCity's car design interface

You are able to configure a huge number of options on the gearboxes as well, which are completely separate from the engines, and you can chop and change things in different vehicles, using a single body for multiple engine/gearbox combinations if you so desire.

For those with more of a "layman" knowledge of the motor industry, there is an "assisted" mode when designing parts, so you can tweak a few sliders and see what the effect will be before you commit anything to the factories.

The vehicle designer had the most potential to be fun. This is where you can point and click and design the visuals of your car, but these apparently have no effect on the gameplay at all.

An old bright pink car in a garage

The graphical engine is... shall I say... very 90s. For some reason, your design studio can't pay the bill to replace light bulbs, so everything's a bit dark and grungy. There's some really weird shading going on, and the 3d models are hugely simplistic.

It's also disappointing how buggy this system is. It's not easy to pick up and move parts around, and there's a limited number of parts available to add to your vehicle. Glass is completely opaque, and if you colour your car's body, everything gets coloured, including the steering wheel for some reason.

Although this part of the game had the potential to be the most fun, due to some severe technical limitations, it's one of the least enjoyable experiences. In comparison to the offering made by Automation, it's very similar, just many years behind in terms of functionality.

The major gripe I have here is that this serves absolutely no purpose in the subsequent game. At every point after this, your car will be represented by a string of words on the screen. It's never animated or even shown in the interface, which means you can literally spend no time whatsoever on the design and it will have no effect whatsoever on the rest of the game.

Lack of clarity

A lot of this section ties in with my criticism of the awful UI in GearCity, but a lot is also to do with just how much information there is to take in, and how little there is to inform you as to what's going on.

In one game, I had just finished developing a new type of car, and I forgot that I would need to assign a price for the sale of the car. I had spent quite a while designing the engine, the gearbox, setting up the production lines, even building a new factory to make sure I could make enough of them. The car just wasn't selling any units, so I had all these vehicles piling up in storage and not getting to customers.

I'd expect the game to tell me at this point, "hey, dumbass, you need to set a price otherwise none can be sold" but there was no message at all. This was entirely my fault, but it's all too easy to miss a crucial step in the long chain of production and sales, and you've basically ruined your entire game at this point because it's easy to get too far behind to catch up with the competition.

It's very difficult to discover what people around the world actually want to buy. There's a number of classes of vehicle from compact cars to sports cars and everything in between, but the UI actively obstructs you from seeing how well a particular type is likely to sell, and it would be nice to have a specific button or menu where you can get this information in a simple way.

As mentioned above, each city has a distinct population and average income, but it's very hard to know what effect this has on the number of factories you should put there, and what the sales demand will be like if you choose to sell vehicles there.

There's a comprehensive offering for marketing your business, but it's almost impossible to tell what effect this is having versus how much you're spending on it. Is £6000 a lot for newspaper advertising? Am I just advertising in one city, all cities where I'm selling, or all cities around the globe? I don't know, and I don't know how to find out.

Combine this with the fact that graphs and charts look like they have been produced in an early 90s version of Excel, with a lovely Times New Roman typeface, and the whole experience is confusing and not at all fun.

An entire game

I criticised Automation heavily for focusing too much on engine and vehicle production and not enough on the factory, sales, and marketing aspects, much to its detriment. GearCity takes a much more well-rounded approach to this, and is a fully featured game. It's set up and ready to go from the moment you fire up a new game, and there's a small degree of fun to be had in configuring your new business and launching some vehicles to the world markets.

That said, it feels like resources have been spread way too thinly across all this stuff. That's not to say the time would have been better spent polishing just one aspect of the game: we've seen the effect of that with Automation and we're left with an early access game that isn't really a game at all, just a bunch of ideas, some of which are comprehensive and most of which are wafer thin.

Instead, I feel there's just too much going on here. Each individual feature, such as the R&D department, the economics simulation, the world growth simulation, the marketing structure - these all need significant development time in order to be polished and balanced in a way that the options and information are very clear to the player.

GearCity's office screen

4 years after its initial early access release, it's still a huge mess, and looks unlikely to get polished any time soon. There is an entire game here; it's just that each individual element has been implemented so poorly that the overall game is more frustrating than fun.

The future

It's not looking good for GearCity at this point, especially since its developers, VEAT, have mentioned that Aero Mogul will be their next game and that development will begin once GearCity is finished. This suggests they expect it might be finished sooner rather than later, which begs the question as to what "finished" actually means.

The team needs to hire a UI designer. Very, very urgently. The entire UI needs to be destroyed and it needs to be redesigned in a way that actually makes sense. It's far too confusing and horrible to use at the moment. This cannot go into a finished product if that game is going to have a shred of credibility.

Beyond that, I think the game has some potential. It's never going to have mass market appeal, just due to its subject matter. It is a very complicated simulation although it does work, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have a simplified version, with some features automated by the computer, so that it can be more accessible for those without the time or desire to learn the intricacies of the game's design.

Recommendation lacking

I cannot recommend this, even to the most ardent petrolhead, in its current state. It's a horrible experience to learn and play this game at the moment. I do hope this will change in the future, and the key to this change will be introducing a usable UI. Beyond that, clarity of information and sensible user feedback are key.

While both Automation and GearCity are barking up the same car manufacturing tree, and a tall tree it is at that, neither are looking to be viable options to scratch that particular management itch any time soon.

The other option, Production Line, is much less involved, and lacks the automotive industry inspiration found in the other two titles. Although Production Line is easily the most polished and fun game of the three, it's never going to be a very detailed simulation, or offer the kind of business management options that the other two have planned.

It's a sad state for the very niche car manufacturing genre on Steam right now. If you absolutely have to go out and get one game from this bunch, it's definitely Production Line. If you absolutely have to run a full-blown car manufacturing business simulation, keep your money in your wallet and wait to see how both Automation and GearCity progress in the future, although don't hold your breath.

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