Time to rev up those virtual engines once again! Eutechnyx is back with new publishing partner Deep Silver to bring us the 3rd installment of their brand of NASCAR to consoles. Improvements in the handling department are shackled by overly aggressive AI and yet another disappointing online component.
The main single player mode, Career, is back with many of the same features as previous iterations. You'll start out with a test session at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway as NASCAR on FOX crew member "Hollywood" Jeff Hammond gives you instructions on what's expected from the session and offers a run down of notable items on the HUD like the RPM meter and fuel gauge. The best of these is a wonderful ETX (Eutechnyx) Racing construct, the Proximity Meter. Located in the bottom center of the screen, it illustrates other cars within just a few feet of your position and their exact relative location. After a successful few laps at IMS, it's on to Speedweeks at Daytona to start the 2014 Sprint Cup Campaign. The extensive attention to detail by ETX on the "standards and procedures" of the Cup schedule are once again observed in 14. For example, the season opening 500 has you participating in (optional) practice sessions leading up to standard "front row" qualifying, then the Duel at Daytona that determines positions 3-32, then more practices to prepare you for the Great American Race itself.
Before the start of each weekend during Career, adjustable options like length of race, difficulty, flags, tire wear, fuel consumption, and so on are offered. This is a very appreciated approach. Because tracks can differ radically, it's a strong possibility that you might want a tougher challenge or longer run depending on the location. Comfortable at plate races and find the jockeying to be a fun challenge? You may want to run 50% or more of those laps and decide to make pit stops a part of the deal. Of which, you can select all of the usual race audibles: 2 or 4 tire stop, wedge adjustment, raise/lower the trackbar, air pressure change, the whole gamut. Dread weekends at awkward configurations like Pocono? Set the laps way down and get out of there as quickly as possible. Also before the start of a new event, a certain amount of credits are given to use at the Car Builder menu. A "Budget" of points can be used to upgrade the engine, suspension, brakes, body, or chassis. The base model of each is "Refurbished," with Stock being the next up and so on. Placing well in races nets more sponsorships. More sponsors means more credits, and in turn better parts. So you may have to swallow your pride and turn down the difficulty at first until you gain enough bank to unlock top tier parts and really get rolling.
If "character progression" isn't really your forte, there are a number of other options. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season lets you pick any of the Cup level heavyweights and play through an entire season in much the same way as Career. Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cuts out the first 26 races of the schedule and only features the last ten "playoff" events. Race Now (exhibition mode) and Track Testing (single car "time trial" with unlimited laps) create viable avenues to get used to the handling and possible adjustments, as well as practice for tricky tracks like Sonoma and Dover. Highlights is yet another returnee. The endings of certain events from last year's season that featured "down to the wire" finishes have you either emulating history or rewriting it. More of these are promised throughout the year as additional cost DLC. And local two-player "split screen" rounds out a pretty good set of offline choices.
This year's online component gets one major addition. 14 offers League support. Up to 16 LIVE participants can battle through a season together with saved progression. League race rules are customizable to each group's preferences. This was apparently a widely requested multiplayer mode, and is now a large part of the title. Other "one off" options still exist like Quick Race, along with the ability to look at the List of events getting ready to start, another first for 14. While all of these options are great and provide solid variety, the main problem since 2011 still looms large. I've made this statement before, and I'll continue to make it until something is done or it is addressed: NASCAR is a sport. And like any other sport, there are rules and regulations. Perhaps the most defining of which is 43 drivers per event. 14 supports up to 16 "real" racers, but doesn't fill out the rest of the field with bots. We aren't dealing with a standard racing game like Gran Turismo or Forza, where a number like 16 works just fine. Those titles don't represent an actual organization. NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup fielded four LIVE/PSN players along with 39 CPU opponents. I know, I know, we get 12 more actual people in 14. I'm sorry, that doesn't make it better. EA figured out how to pull it off with bots. Ten years ago. on machines TWO generations old. Additionally, there is still not a reasonable minimum number of required players before an online race starts. Again, I'm plagued with races with me and just one other person. Which wouldn't as much of a problem if we had... AI cars.
Gameplay also has high gears and low gears. On the plus side, the improved handling in this year's game is very positive. Every racing game primary played with a controller has to be designed in a way to solve a grand complexity: how to make turning a car with a thumbstick feel intuitive and natural. Largely, Eutechnyx has succeeded in this regard with their previous NASCAR works. 14 takes that ground work and adds a "smooth" edge to it. Pulling left while entering a turn has been pretty good in the past. The problems came when having to keep the stick left throughout the entirety of the curve. Sometimes the car would continue a "downward trajectory" onto the apron. To counter this, it was wise to not hit the apex at some tracks and just choose a higher line. Trouble with that is the high side is often a much slower line, and leaves the bottom of the track open to an easy passing lane. And coming down on top of cars attempting to pass is a recipe for disaster. In this game, you're able to "hold" the bottom line much, much better without needing to do the right-left-right-left-right-left dance with the thumbstick every turn. Love it.
On the downside, new driver AI has some problems. ETX Racing is pushing it as a positive, citing that CPU drivers now understand proper turn entry and exit strategy, and feature "increased performance." All that sounds great on paper, but in practice they come off as hot-headed bullies. For fans of the sport, think about the times that a wreck happens really early in a race. The victim of such activities will routinely say it was "way too early" for the culprit to be taking the chances he or she did. Same thing here. The problem seems to be etiquette. At a plate track (Daytona or Talladega), this new NPC system makes sense and works well. Everyone holds the accelerator wide open and three to four wide racing is a common occurrence. They also understand the benefits of bump drafting and will hang you out to dry in the middle (or the "sucker hole" as Darrell Waltrip likes to call it) if you don't hold a firm line on the top or bottom. It makes these races exciting, pulse pounding, and very fun. The problems arise when we leave Alabama or Florida and go other places, like the Piedmont of Virginia or the hills of Tennessee. At Martinsville, they're bull headed idiots. The average MPH at the half mile "paper clip" is usually around 75. Slamming on the breaks in turn entry is key to clipping the apex and powering off. With this group, that's an invitation to get bowled over. Bristol went through a re-pavement several years ago that opened up two legit lines of fast, clean racing. Recent adjustments have been made in an attempt to return the World's Fastest Half-Mile back to its single line, demolition derby, "Colosseum" glory days (of which the verdict is still out). In either case, going three wide all the way around the race track is a very, very dumb idea. In 14, that's the name of the game. I'm not a designer, so I couldn't begin to understand the challenge it would be to create AI configurations for all the different layouts of stock car tracks (restrictor plate, short, "cookie cutter" 1.5 mi., superspeedway, road course, ect.). But I will argue that programming the NPCs to be "optimized" for only two venues, while it negatively affects their habits at the other 21 tracks is a bad idea. If someone finds the game too easy, taking off the "assists" like traction control, ABS, and steering does the trick. This "overhaul" only makes the game less consistent, not more difficult.
The visuals and audio seem to be virtually identical to 2012's Inside Line. The biggest difference is with the new Sprint Cup vehicle. The 2014 season will mark the second for the Gen-6 Chevrolet SS, Toyota Camry, and Ford Fusion. IL was developed with the COT configuration, so this improvement has been roughly a year in the making. Aesthetically speaking, it's cool that 14 stays current, but you really can't "feel" a tangible difference, unless the handling improvements were purposefully meant to be in tow with the G-6 adoption. The audio package with pre-race commentary from NASCAR on FOX's own Mike Joy and "DW" Darrell Waltrip and the helpful sounds of your spotter are all certified pre-owned from the previous entry. 14 does introduce the ability to create a custom paint scheme for your Career mode whip. Select any color imaginable for each car part, from the main body down to the lug nuts. Insert layer after layer of decals from an array of shapes and designs along with the car number and sponsor stickers. With all the scale and skew adjustments available, you can come up with some rather creative stuff. And it's possible to mirror one side of the car to the other, so don't worry about having to "repeat" your efforts. Trouble is you cant customize your Career driver. If you're someone who really likes Career mode, but doesn't happen to be a dark haired, clean shaven, Caucasian man, then you're SOL when it comes to a proper virtual representation. Even the most rudimentary of character options would be appreciated improvements, like skin color and gender.