If you’re someone like myself who’s been strictly a console player up until recently, you’re liable to feel like you’ve been missing out on some key sports titles. While the biggest sports in North America are well represented when it comes to consoles, there are still some gaps when it comes to lesser sports that may not have a big enough audience to make it worth a publisher’s time. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the reason why I’ve had to spend years now looking for a decent horse racing game on the PS4.
Every once in a while, I’d find myself searching the PS Store for the kind of horse racing experience I desperately craved, only to be disappointed by the foreign titles that were not quite realistic enough to satisfy the specific simulation itch that I needed scratched. It was only when I finally took the plunge into PC gaming in the past couple of months that I learned not only does this game exist, but by virtue of the fact that it was called Starter’s Orders 7, it appeared to have been around for quite some time.
As far as I can tell from the deepest corners of the internet, it appears that the original Starter’s Orders came out for PC all the way back in 2004. So that would give the series 15 years and six subsequent releases in which to tinker with its gameplay and respond to community feedback. While I won’t be able to offer any insight into how the game has grown and improved over those earlier releases — with me having just heard it even exists and all — it also means that the series should be expected to be a little more polished at this point than a new game.
Before getting into all of that, it’s probably best to state up front that horse racing has come under increasing fire recently for how its consistently awful treatment of horses has led to deaths and that can only leave any fan of the so-called “Sport of Kings,” whether casual or hardcore, at least a little conflicted. Wherever you stand on the ethics of horse racing, however, most would probably have to agree that racing digital thoroughbreds in a video game like Starter’s Orders 7 is much more humane than putting real ones through such strenuous activity.
Now with that out of the way, let’s get into the game. Unless you’re all but the most devoted of horse racing fans, you’ll likely find everything a little overwhelming and confusing at the outset. If you’re playing the owner and training mode, which is all I’ve really tried so far in order to maintain the most control, you’ll start out with a small stable of three random horses. You’ll be tasked with training these horses to get them in optimal race shape and entering them in races that best suit their particular skills. An indicator helps in letting you know the preferred distance for the breed, but it will still vary with each individual horse so it’s important to note their stats in categories like speed, stamina and acceleration when trying to gauge a horse’s strengths.
Now, with a full slate of racing each day across a variety of different tracks, there are obviously going to be plenty of races where you don’t have a horse entered. But don’t let that make you think that you’ll have nothing to do at the track on any given day, as there are still plenty of ways to keep you entertained without any real skin in the game. For instance, you have the opportunity to watch every race from start to finish (a fast-forward option is helpful for getting through races quicker), which allows you the ability to scout any horses you might be interested in purchasing. Aside from this, you can always just decide to place bets on races, with the chance to see every horse’s previous results providing some valuable clues as to which horses might fare well. Finally, at the end of most racing days there will be an auction where you can purchase the horses who won the claiming and selling races that day, alongside any random horses that owners want to put up for bid.
That’s really how the basics of the game work; monitoring your horses’ performances in races and then deciding based on the results when it’s time to move your horses up to a better class of race (for example, from a C5 or C2 to handicap to a C1 high-stakes race) and when you’re better off giving up on a horse’s prospects, and perhaps selling it or sending it to a breeding barn where it will be of more use. But if all that doesn’t sound all that complicated, you may have noticed some allusions I’ve made to other components of the game that really provide the kind of subtle depth and challenge that you’d want from a true horse racing simulation.
It can be pretty thrilling to watch your horses race, cheer them on during the stretch run and maybe even up the ante by wagering a few bucks on them, but you really won’t get the full excitement without mounting your horse as a jockey and guiding them through a run. The graphics for the races will depend on your PC’s specs, as the game provides a nice option of being able to toggle how detailed you want the action to be, even allowing for just an audio call of the race for those with lower-end PCs. Even when pushing the graphics to the limits though, the horses and the crowd atmosphere still may not exactly be cutting edge from a visual standpoint, but it’s all relatively vibrant with dirt and turf courses, decent weather effects and horses moving realistically enough for the visuals to not be too much of a drawback. However, the incessant commentary, recorded by someone with a thick British (or Scottish maybe?) accent, keeps track of the action well enough, but sounds pretty awkward and stilted when stitching together phrases and names of horses.
Getting your horse to the winner’s circle is a delicate duet between human and horse. An invaluable indicator tells you which of five running styles your horse prefers, from pace-setters to those who prefer lingering in the back of the pack and making a late charge. To make it easier for you, there’s a little light that will begin to turn red if you’re not racing your horse in the best fashion. Aside from that, it’s a game of subtle shifts in the reins and putting your horse in the best position to make a move. You can ride the rail to try and conserve some energy, but beware of getting stuck between or behind horses. Naturally, you’ll want to be in a good spot when it comes time to make that all-important stretch run, waiting until the perfect moment to break out the whip and ask the horse to give you everything it has left.
If you’re looking for even more immersion, there’s the option of switching to the jockey’s eye view camera that puts you right in the thick of the racing. When employing this, there are few things that are quite as pulse-pounding as going head-to-head with another horse in a neck-and-neck stretch run, unless of course you add to the excitement by pulling the race out by a nose.
As you inevitably grow your stable of horses over seasons, one of the ways to acquire new horses is to attend the different auctions that occur at various intervals and outbid other owners for horses that pique your interest. In the case of those who follow claiming and selling races, the available horses at these auctions likely won’t be all that good if another owner is all too willing to put them on the block, but you’ll find a real gem every now and then if you know what to look for. Of course, you’re not able to see a horse’s actual stats before buying it, so you have to read between the lines. One of the keys for these auctions is to buy low on horses who at least have shown a little potential, or on horses who look to have maybe been running at distances that don’t suit them well. You’ll be surprised at the return you can get on some horses with even the smallest of investments, but don’t be afraid to risk failure once in a while on a more expensive horse that looks to have a really good pedigree.
Regardless, you’re likely to find more valuable horses at regularly scheduled auctions that happen throughout a season, which range from a weekly hodgepodge auction of random horses to auctions that focus specifically on breeding mares, two-year-olds or yearlings. These will often run you more than your claiming horses, but these horses will also typically include ones who have been pretty impressive in their previous races and show plenty of potential.
Between races, it’s imperative that you train your horse properly or risk it performing poorly in its upcoming race. Figuring out how to do this has involved plenty of trial-and-error on my part, and while I still can’t claim to have a firm grasp on every aspect of training, I’ve obtained some hard-earned wisdom. Horses have different statuses that are reflected primarily through the colors green (ready to race), amber (needs more work) and red (needs some rest). I’ve been playing the game now for more than a month and feel as if I’ve just started to understand how to best progress a horse from a red status to a green status in the quickest time possible.
The real trouble is that if you race a horse while it’s on an amber status, it’s less likely to run as well and will also have an increased risk of suffering an injury during a race. It doesn’t help that every horse is a little different; some sprinters might bounce back and be ready to race again in a week while long-distance runners might need a few weeks before they’re back in prime racing condition. If you race a horse too much, it will eventually wear down and won’t be able to race again until the next season. It’s important to regularly check communications regarding horses from your stable’s head lad, as he will provide advice on how to best train your horse at any given time.
You can always buy horses, but it won’t make you feel as powerful as when you actually create life. Instead of waiting for that perfect horse to fall into your lap, another option is to pair a mare together with a stallion and cross your fingers that the resulting foal grows up to be a champion. Naturally, you can increase your chances of producing a winner if you breed horses who have established pedigree by faring well in their careers, but there’s a significant element of chance involved in whether or not the foal can develop into something special.
Even if you don’t end up with a horse that looks to have potential, there’s still the option of selling the horse as a yearling or two-year-old for a good price (luckily, horses who haven’t raced yet are worth more before they start losing). But one of the biggest novelties of breeding horses and having your foals enter the game is that you get to name these young horses whatever you like, and it can’t help but add some attachment once you’ve branded a horse as something like Nic Cage (okay yes, I have a horse named Nic Cage). Should you end up selling a horse you helped bring into this world, it’s fun to at least follow the horse’s career.
It’s one thing to explain how Starter’s Orders 7 works exactly, but it’s a little harder to convey the kind of attachment to your horses the game can inspire. As your stable continues to grow and expand, there will be horses you’ll own who will drive you crazy with how they consistently underachieve in races against lesser competition, and others you purchase for peanuts at a claiming auction will surprise you by winning most of their races. Then there will be those you literally helped bring into this world, raised as a foal and guided through successful careers. How can you not get attached to them really when you think of it that way?
It should be no surprise then that the biggest thing Starter’s Orders 7 is really missing is the chance to pit your horses against other users’ horses in online races. With all of the mechanics in place having been tweaked and massaged over the years to produce realistic and dynamic results, the core of the game is certainly enjoyable and challenging enough to satisfy the most devoted of horse racing fans. But one can’t help but think about how amazing it would be to have a whole collection of online stables competing against each other in races over the course of a season. Here’s hoping developer Strategic Designs Ltd. make it happen for Starter’s Orders 8 — I know I’d be among the first to buy it.