I consider myself a petrolhead. Over the years I’ve travelled around the country taking my car to shows, spent hours online on car forums, and many evenings and weekends have been taken up tinkering with my own car; servicing parts, upgrading components, even once doing an engine swap to a more powerful block.

When it comes to driving games, however, I’m not as obsessed. I enjoy arcade style racers with accessible gameplay, some destruction and the odd jump or two, but realism bores me. If I have to calculate my average fuel usage or be wary of my tyres overheating, I’m not remotely interested.

Drift21 is a realistic racing simulator with a focus on drifting, but that’s only a part of it. The developer, ECC Games S.A., borrowed heavily from their previous title ‘Car Mechanic Simulator 2018’ bringing an in-depth vehicle building aspect to the sim racer. Forget about upgrading your car at a click of a button! Oh no. You have to unpack your digital tools and do all the work yourself. Being experienced at working on my own car, this part got me quite excited. Inside your garage is the starter car, a stock Mazda MX-5, sitting on a fully working hydraulic lift. You can freely explore the detailed working space scattered with various machines and interact fully with your vehicle. Every component of the car, including the bodywork and even individual engine parts, can be selected, removed and upgraded to improve your vehicles drivability. 

High end drift cars are usually highly modified to raise the engine’s performance, vehicle control and exterior styling, so I jumped straight in to upgrading the MX-5. Walking to the vehicle lift and pushing the ‘up’ arrow raises the car up allowing me to get underneath and access all the components. I was blown away by the detail.

Over the next couple of hours I happily toiled away removing the wheels, brake discs, brake callipers, suspension parts, exhaust, body panels etc. and replacing them one by one with upgraded parts from the store catalogue. Removing the gearbox allows me to transfer the engine block to an engine stand and here, the minute detail the small development team have gone into is clear. 

Every part of the engine can be removed, changed or upgraded, and when I say ‘every’ I mean it. Inlet manifold, cylinder head, alternator, coil packs, spark plugs, oil filter, hoses and more can all be individually swapped out and changed for better performing parts. You can bolt on a turbo and the accompanying components and take your car to the next stage of performance using a handy parts checklist. After finishing building, painting the car and checking it’s stats on the dyno I realised I hadn’t actually driven it yet!

So it was time to take my creation out on the track, and this is where I was a little disappointed. Drifting is quite a skill and involves a precise balance of steering, throttle and handbrake. Not having a steering wheel peripheral I was limited to using either keyboard and mouse or a controller. I found the controller gave me much more accurate steering input, but I still found the car cumbersome and difficult to keep between the cones. Inside the garage however, the controller was slow and inaccurate, so I had to swap back to mouse and keyboard when inside. This would be the same deal if using a wheel.

Despite being released back in May, Drift21 is remains in Early Access and is still quite limited. There are only 5 tracks to race on, all with a Japanese theme, and 3 different race modes you can play; Free Ride, Solo Run and Time Attack. Solo Run judges you purely on your drift skill and Time Attack is focused more on your course speed and less on drift ability. The courses are extremely short though. You don’t even get warmed up before crossing the finish line, whereas Free Ride lets you explore the whole course, albeit with no reward. 

Passing each course with a gold, silver or bronze trophy rewards you with currency to spend on new upgrades, or even a new vehicle. Again here there’s not much choice, but drifting fans will appreciate the inclusion of cars such as Nissan Silvia, BMW E46, Subaru BRZ and the latest addition to the game, the Mazda RX-8.

The learning curve is very steep and quite unforgiving for beginners. Every time I struggled to pass a level I took the car back into the garage and tinkered some more in the hopes it would improve my control and therefore my scores, which was working. However, in the end I found I was just trying to get the driving sections out of the way so I could get back into the garage to use the rewards on upgrades. I eventually upgrading the car too far and made it too powerful for the entry requirements for some challenges, so had to de-tune by swapping parts out.

As much as I enjoyed the mechanic side of the game, I couldn’t help wondering how someone not as experienced with working on a car would deal with this aspect of the game, or even if they would find any joy from it. The process of removing an engine from the car, removing the cylinder head and all 14 individual camshaft brackets just to upgrade to performance camshafts, then rebuilding the whole thing in reverse would likely only appeal to a small percentage of people. When explaining the premise of the game to a car and racing game enthusiast friend he simply replied, ‘Sounds tedious’.

In the end I had fun, but I didn’t appreciate the package as a whole. It seems like the target audience for Drift21 is very specific and those people would get a lot out of tuning and tweaking to knock fractions from their times, but for me I’m not in that audience. You’ll find me on Car Mechanic Simulator.