Just as the real schedule cools down, this game's season heats up! From Activision and Eutechnyx comes the follow up to this team's first excursion into the Sprint Cup from last spring with a much more in depth Career mode. Unfortunately, the improvements to the online mode have not led to much of an "upgrade."
Last April, Eutechnyx designed it's first attempt in this sport's top level with NASCAR The Game 2011. I got to play that one too, and I was really impressed with how well the studio seemed to represent the "feeling" of NASCAR's current Cup car. It's a heavy, dense, "rolling" sort of feedback. Far away from F1 machines and most the stuff you'd drive in, say, Gran Turismo. Inside Drive carries on this impressive simulation. Getting cars around the different track types (from plate sites like Daytona, to the short track royalty of Bristol, to adventurous road courses such as Sonoma) takes a different mindset to successfully navigate. But it always seems that it is how you would actually drive. Talladega and Richmond are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and so the demands put on you follow suit. Keep the hammer down, draft, and make your move on the final turn in the former; sink into a good brake/throttle rhythm, find effective places to pass, and don't be afraid to get a little "physical" for the latter. That solid, authentic experience is back. Thumbs up. Also, the degenerative nature of racing is also here on full display. Tires get shredded during tough action at Martinsville, just as they did in 2011. As does structural and powertrain difficulties from repeatedly smashing into the wall at Darlington. What's cool about this title is you can choose just how much of an effect these have on your car throughout the race. Turn things up to "x4" just as an experiment a time or two. Wow.
Probably the biggest shot lobbed at 2011 was the chintzy Career mode. One-and-done, as you were only allowed a single season before you had to start from scratch. Inside Line promises a multiple year experience. And right from the start, the changes can be felt. Championship crew chief Ray Evernham serves as a guide as you start the game up, put in your "personal information" and strike up your own race team. Choose a manufacturer, car number, and jump right into the schedule! I was impressed with the attention put into replicating the full "weekend experience." For instance, the events leading up to the running of the Daytona 500 each year is known as Speedweeks. The final days are ate up with Sprint Cup events like numerous practice sessions, front row qualifying, and the Gatorade Dual 125s that set the rest of the starting grid. You will have the opportunity to take part in all of these. This trend continues throughout the 36 week long season, with the practice/qualifying schedules mirroring the actual plans. Nice little touch that fans of the sport can appreciate. You can also choose on an event-to-event basis the game rules like lap count, damage levels, and flag parameters. I thought it was beneficial that this can be adjusted individually. Perhaps super speedway racing comes natural to you and you only need a few minutes for each practice session to prepare. Maybe you prefer to employ a "beat and bang" style at short tracks, so having damage set to "visual only" would be a big help. If you had to set these rules at the start of Career mode, then just live with them, it would be uncomfortable for you to learn as you go. Accessibility is important, and Eutechnyx observes this necessity.
As you finish (and hopefully win) races, you will earn credits based on your current sponsorship deals. Sprint starts as your primary, and you are also thrown a few agreements from the NASCAR contingency program. Keep turning in good results, and soon you'll have a host of new decals to your ride and jump up to higher paying main backers. These are used to purchase Upgrades to your machine. New engine packages afford more horsepower, better brakes ensure more response and less "wear and tear," improved clutch systems makes the powerhouse up front use it's resources more efficiently. Each category has multiple levels that get incrementally more expensive. At first I wasn't sure just how much of an effect these purchases would have. I was able to win Daytona rather convincingly followed by a fun rough and tumble win at Phoenix. Both of these were done without a single upgrade. So I was skeptical until the third race of the season at Las Vegas. Then I realized: well any car in the field at a restrictor plate event has a legit shot to win and short track racing inherently keeps cars bunched together. Vegas is an intermediate course, which are sometimes called "performance tracks" because the best overall equipment will usually make the difference between good and bad vehicles. Without the purchased boosts, I struggled. So yes, there is something to grabbing all the improvements you can before the next weekend.
I picked up on a couple of other gameplay items worth mentioning while playing though Career. The awesomely expansive Tuning options are back from last year, but they're much tougher to utilize. With 2011, I could just make a wedge adjustment, go a couple of rounds on the trackbar, and if I was feeling adventurous, maybe mess with the tire pressure. You can't hone in on a few points and expect instant results. It will take time to know what must go in accordance with everything you decide to change in relation with other parts of the vehicle. Changing the pressure in just one tire, or adding a spring rubber can really knock it off kilter and make the thing undriveable. Objectively, this is a great change that rewards time and effort, as it should be. But it did eliminate a few quick ways I had at getting ahead. Also, don't expect the AI to just "bow" to you while on the track. The NPC drivers won't intentionally wreck you, but you had best be completely clear of them if you decide to pass. They will send you spinning if you intrude in their lane prematurely. This can be frustrating, but it also makes the title damn fun.
Outside of Career, you will find other Single Player offerings. Race Now is the standard one race exhibition mode, and Track Testing lets you have any of the 23 locales to your lonesome, giving you a chance to perfect racing lines and work on nailing down those tuning options. Want to just pick your favorite driver and have at it? Single Season is the perfect way by offering one chance for you to take a shot a winning the title. Some might think this is useless, but I still believe there is something intrinsically cool about being your favorite athletes. In a virtual sense, that is. There are two new selections added in this year. Head to Head features all of the drivers in the game as well as their best lap time at all of the tracks they have clocked time at. Your mission is to take their car and beat their ghost back to the start/finish line. Highlights is the second. For the NASCAR Thunder faithful, think Lightning Challenges. There are a collection of the best moments and finishes from the past two seasons, and you have the power to either cement or re-write history. One takes place at the season ending Ford 400 in Homestead-Miami last year. The challenge is to take Carl Edwards and catch up to Tony Stewart in the closing laps to pass him for the race win and series' title.
It's at the multiplayer section that we start to see some decline. There is local split screen, but the big player here is online. I was extremely critical of 2011 for having a very inept structure for this play type. Leading up to Inside Line's release, I watched some developer interviews where it was said that the online would be revamped. Unfortunately, many of the same problems return. It does allow for up to 16, which is nice, but it does not seem to have a minimum number of players needed to start a match, just like last year. I've been in lobbies with upwards of 12 players, and because the "pre-match" system is so long, that number gets cut to about 5 routinely. One improvement is the ability to take part in practice sessions and qualifying runs before the race starts. But once things do go "for real" the Tom Foolery ensues. As with 2011, there seems to be no "black flag" system to be found. I'm okay with some smart contact, it is NASCAR after all. But blatantly wrecking someone just for the "fun" of it, and intentionally crashing to send out the caution and bunch the field back up is unacceptable. Additionally, Inside Line does not fill out the rest of the 43 car field with bots. Instead, how ever many players start the race will be the only others on the track. There were games from the last generation that would at least generate a full slate (although I will admit that the number of LIVE players in these matches were pretty low). Nevertheless, expect more lame, glitchy, and boring online from last year. I'm a bit disappointed.
Quickly, the presentation is good again. Sounds amazing, especially in the heat of a race. But I do think the car models could look better. The Proximity Meter from 2011 is also back and offers the same great feedback to the traffic around you. The nice additional touch is race introductions from NASCAR on FOX alums Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip. Unfortunately, no Larry McReynolds.