Le Mans Ultimate Review: A strong start for early access launch

Onboard driver's view in Le Mans Ultimate

Onboard driver's view in Le Mans Ultimate

Le Mans Ultimate is Studio 397’s ode to endurance racing. The Motorsport Games-owned developer has dabbled with the top level of sportscar racing previously, bringing FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) tracks and cars to its rFactor 2 platform. However, Le Mans Ultimate (LMU) is a standalone simulation of WEC and includes the blue riband 24 Hours of Le Mans event as its branding focal point.

For now, LMU is a PC-only title available via Steam Early Access featuring all the cars and tracks of the 2023 FIA World Endurance Championship. However, many proposed features are absent in this early access build, with 2024 WEC content, VR, asynchronous multiplayer, driver swaps and single-player championships set to arrive in post-release updates (although a roadmap has yet to be released at the time of this review’s publication).

In contrast to the occasionally recalcitrant rFactor 2, Studio 397 and Motorsport Games aim to make LMU as accessible as possible while still attracting hardcore WEC and sim enthusiasts - an onerous task given the partisan nature of the sim racing community.

It’s a tough balancing act, for sure, but does LMU’s Early Access build suggest it can be achieved?

This review is for a game in early access and does not represent a final product. Review code provided by publisher.

Same, but different

LMU has finally hit early access with the 2023 WEC’s lineup of cars and tracks present and correct, alongside the entire grid from last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. And the good news is they look incredibly detailed at first glance.

The likes of Bahrain, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps all appeared previously in rFactor 2 but they’ve received a comprehensive spruce-up in LMU, with Spa’s 2022 layout updates included from the off (take note EA).

Entirely new to a Studio 397/Motorsport Games title are Fuji International Speedway and Autodromo do Algarve, aka Portimao, with both looking fresh. Graphics are also much less saturated than rFactor 2, with lighting effects - especially at night and in inclement weather - adding to the immersion. They look gobsmackingly beautiful at times, especially in the golden hour and during rain storms.

Corvette C8 in Le Mans Ultimate
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The cars look solid too, with LMH, LMDh, GTE and LMP2 classes vying for space on track in a way that makes me want to unleash my inner John Hindhaugh, an urge that only gets stronger as sunset falls on the Circuit de la Sarthe and the sparks start to fly.

Wearsider commentators aside (and Hindhaugh’s dulcet tones are also present in the game’s main menu for added Radio Le Mans fever), LMU has captured the sounds of the latest generation of hybrid-assisted prototypes incredibly well.

The regen whining from the Ferrari 499P is astonishingly convincing, with some cars realistically operating on battery power down pitlane before their internal combustion engine erupts in a cacophony of metallic noise. Marvellous.

LMU’s user interface is similar to rFactor 2’s, featuring recognisable menu sounds and other idiosyncrasies. For example, there are hundreds of mappable actions in-game, something that has to be addressed if LMU is to appeal to casual fans (or be ported to consoles). The presentation is generally neat, however, but let down by slow loading times - especially when loading a track for the first time (the delay is reduced on subsequent boots, mind).

Is the on-track action worth the wait, though? Well, let’s see…

Behind the wheel

My first Hypercar lap on cold tyres was an interesting experience, to say the least. Frustrating understeer and frighteningly pendulous oversteer combined to provide the type of bum-clenching ride normally seen on Lillehammer’s bobsleigh track.

Once the tyres warm up, however (visible via LMU’s fresh tyre widget on the bottom right of the screen), it is much easier to judge the car’s capabilities. The Hypercars feel weighty and a little cumbersome in slow-speed corners, but this is expected given their smorgasbord of electrical regen gizmos and settings. They possess enough downforce to take Eau Rouge flat using a race set-up, however. Just get those cheeks clenched and you’ll be fine…

Le Mans Ultimate rain
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A little set-up work and experience help get you in the groove (I recommend decreasing the diff power and preload setting to help tame oversteer on corner exit), with the rasping V6 tone of the Ferrari and Toyota obliging me to switch from a headset to a powerful Bluetooth speaker.

I found the LMDh Porsche 963 noticeably less agile than either the LMH Toyota or Ferrari, though, which perhaps hints at a disparity between the two Hypercar variations. GTE cars generally felt much more placid in comparison and could be a fan favourite class upon launch. P2s provide a nice stepping stone between GTE and Hypercar classes, but will likely be the least popular vehicles among LMU players as a result.

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In this early access build, the only way to drive offline is to select ‘Race Weekend’. This allows players to take in practice, qualifying and race sessions on any of the game’s seven tracks, including dynamic weather and a full day/night cycle.

Multi-class racing at Spa in Le Mans Ultimate
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Online multiplayer will be present from day one, with LMU set to use its own version of the RaceControl matchmaking system, which was used to great effect in rFactor 2. The racing schedule will follow a similar format too, with daily, weekly and monthly race events available, along with a driver and safety rating system.

Racing against the AI, on the other hand, is tricky: they’re a belligerent bunch at the best of times and the AI Hypercars struggle to negotiate the slower GTE and LMP2 traffic. Here’s hoping this improves quickly as it can be a little immersion-breaking at the moment.

Early access, early success?

If you can look past the lack of single-player championships, FCYs, safety cars, asynchronous multiplayer, VR et al, then what you’re left with is a WEC simulation that boasts immersive cars, tracks, and handling.

Some of the weather effects and day/night transitions are sublime - a significant step up on rFactor 2 - with lighting effects that make you feel like you’re in the middle of a WEC broadcast.

There are a few rough edges, including choppy framerates when recording gameplay, but that’s par for the course with an early access title. The fundamentals appear to be in place, however, with the promise of further content and big-fixing updates set to improve the game over time.

Le Mans Ultimate race at night
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As for being accessible, gamepad use feels better than in rFactor 2 but the twitchy nature of the Hypercars makes me believe beginners will struggle to enjoy LMU without significant practice. LMU’s multitude of cluttered menus and confusing options (a la rFactor 2) also complicate matters for beginners.

Should you buy Le Mans Ultimate while it’s in early access, then? Well, if you’re a fan of the World Endurance Championship, sportscar racing or rFactor 2, then the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.

Those looking for a flawlessly full-fledged single and multiplayer experience should perhaps wait for an update or two before re-evaluating their choice. But an immersive Le Mans experience for a special introductory price of £24.99/$32.99 seems good value if you’re a passionate follower of endurance racing.

Le Mans Ultimate Early Access Review
A solid simulation of endurance racing but with the incomplete feeling typical for an early access launch. There is a lot of potential within Le Mans Ultimate, fans may need to be patient though.
7 out of 10
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