Gamers... Start Your Engines! After a two year hiatus, the complete NASCAR experience returns to consoles with this offering by publisher Activision and developer Eutechnyx. And while this initial run by the publisher/dev team will please many fans of the sport and have them wanting more, the "less educated" player might find it difficult to have success right from the first green flag.
I have to be honest, when I heard a new NASCAR game was being developed after EA dropped the exclusive contract I got very excited. But hearing that a European development outfit was heading up the project, doubts stated to creep in. This is no knock on their ability as artists and coders, but NASCAR is a very American occupation. Just as the same way I think someone in Great Britain would feel about EA Canada creating a cricket game, not the largest vote of confidence from the onset. But I am happy to say that Eutechnyx put to rest all of my worries from the first time I started going fast and turning left (and right from time to time.)
The biggest problem I thought would happen with the game is gameplay itself, more specifically the way the cars "feel." A standard NSCS COT (Car of Today) can weigh well in excess of 3,500 lbs. With this "heavier" car in relation to other popular racing circuits around the world (the average Formula One car tops out at around 1,400) it can be very hard to relate this into something the player experiences. If anyone has played the NASCAR portion of Gran Turismo 5, you can attest to that game getting it right. After driving something like the Lotus Elise, then going to Jimmie Johnson's Chevy Impala SS, you really get a sense for the weight difference. Thankfully The Game also relates the bulkier feel to great proportion. If you drive into a corner with way too much speed, the brakes will not stop you from making contact with the SAFER barrier, as they shouldn't. This was my biggest anxiety about the game before playing it, so I'm glad this was a non issue. For the NASCAR newbie, there are many levels to chose from in terms of assist packages. They range from Rookie (that features full steering, braking, and traction assist) to Legend that offers no help at all. And if none of the presets suit your style or abilities, just use the custom option and slide the levels to your liking. It is worth noting that this is not a cheap feature, driving without assist can be rather difficult. Once you "get up to speed" its not that much different, but handling the car when making contact with other drivers and having to "whoa up" in the event of a crash gets quite tricky. If you do get into a little trouble from time to time, a feature called Rewind allows you to go back a few seconds after an unfortunate event and give her another go! The condition you keep the car in will also effect you level of competitiveness. With full damage on, contact and wrecks can do an array of things to throw a wrench in the ability to turn the car as well as potentially harming the engine, which will cause the horsepower to go flying right out the window net. A pleasant car design surprise was with the tire wear. Many NASCAR games claim that the way you treat your tires will have an effect on the turning of the car, but this offering got it right. I did just a short race at Martinsville, a place that simply eats tires for lunch, and after just thee or four laps, I could no longer "dive bomb" the corner and rely on the brakes to make up for my speedy entry. If I did, the car wouldn't stick to the bottom, got all out of shape, and went dancing up the racetrack which kills all momentum and forward "bite."
Another positive are the track physics in relation to the set designed for the car. Asphalt and concrete will make the car act in different ways (in terms of acceleration and handling) and each type of track affords a different skill set needed to succeed. Sure, at a restrictor plate track like Daytona or' Dega you can simply keep R2 pushed down and keep it "wide open." But do that at an intermediate track like Auto Club or Kentucky, or worse a short track like Bristol, and you'll find yourself at the back of the pack quicker that Sam Hornish, Jr.'s Sprint Cup career fizzled out. Where you decide to ride on the track also makes you aware of the venue. Keeping a high line can let you carry more speed into the corner, but the closer you get to the wall, the more drag it takes off the car which draws you into it. Staying on the bottom may be the best way around some tracks, but making contact with the apron will cause you to get loosey-goosey or perhaps even spin out.
Contact with objects is also pretty good and has a range of action/reaction levels. A slight scrape on the wall at Darlington is only to be expected and won't ruin your day, but you also can't just plow into the side of another car and not expect negative feedback on your machine. However, NASCAR is a contact sport, and this game embraces a good amount of responsible "beating and banging." One very smart contact aspect in particular is if the front bumper gets into the side of the rear quarter-panel of another car and is turned into, that car will spin out. Props on getting the classic NASCAR "dump" move right! One associative aspect that has ups and downs is drafting. The Game places a large amount of emphasis on this, as it is a great way to rack up valuable NASCAR Experience Points (NXP) (along with good leads, fast laps, clean passes, ect.) that are used to unlock things like different paint schemes. In the way the cars behave in the draft, it is awesome and the best way to gain ground on the field if you're behind. The problem is that the pull the draft offers is the same no matter what track your playing. Winning the Daytona 500 may come down to staying right behind the guy and bump drafting, then passing right before the checkered flag waves. But at a shot track like Richmond, this sudden draw of speed feels very out of place and can really disrupt your lap to lap rhythm. Another kind of quirky thing about the game is the size of the car in relation to the track. I feel that they are a little big, but all of the usual racing lines are open, so perhaps this was just a way to increase the frequency of contact between cars (which is probably an aspect Eutechnyx thought U.S. players/fans would want from a NASCAR game). The last gameplay component that can't go without a mention is the bevy of tuning options that are available. Each track comes with a preset that is usually very good for that particular place, but minor tweaks may be needed for you own "comfort" factor. In that case, advanced tuning allows you to adjust just about everything that can be changed on a COT including: tires (pressure, camber toe adjustment), suspension (bump, spring, trackbar), drivetrain/aero, and balance.
While the gameplay elements are surprisingly good for this first time venture, the game modes aren't as inspiring. Single player offers three selections. Race Now is the standard quick race option that allows you to pick your favorite driver or any custom scheme you may have concocted using the nice and in depth custom paint job feature, select the difficulty, number of competitors, number of laps, tire wear and fuel, tuning packages, and damage level. You can also chose to either run qualifying laps or simply jump right into the race and start 43rd. Test Track lets you chose any of the 23 tracks featured in the Sprint Cup series (the 22 from the 2010 season plus Kentucky Speedway) and take countless practice laps with just you on the track, which serves as a great way to find good lines and work on any tuning options. The last single player experience is called Eliminator, and it's pretty awesome. The basic premise is you are placed in last and given one lap to get up to speed. After that, the car in last place is eliminated from the competition every ten seconds until all of the field but the car in first is left standing. This may sound like a gimmick, but it is a great way to find out how and where to pass people on particular circuits and it's definitely the most fun seven minutes you can spend playing this game. Career mode, I have to say, it somewhat of a letdown. You can either pick a driver or use your created racer and custom paint scheme and play through the 2010 Sprint Cup series schedule. One you qualify for the Chase, and bring home the crown, the experience is over and you have to restart after one season. So maybe it should have been called Season mode instead, because Career is a bit misleading. The multiplayer offerings range from split screen to online. Split screen allows for two local players to battle it out amongst 41 other CPU competitors in a singe race fashion. Pretty standard, but a cool addition. But perhaps the biggest negative to The Game is the online play. Up to 16 players can get into lobbies and trade paint for PSN supremacy. But the big problem is that the other 27 cars simply aren't there as they are in split screen. I understand we may not be ready for 43 real people in one race, but at least offer NPCs to fill out the field. NASCAR is a sport with rules, so while you could get away with this in a standard racing game, it makes things feel very hollow (two people playing Madden online isn't just a running back and linebacker is it?). Also, there doesn't seem to be any punishment for overly aggressive driving. The match I played at Martinsville turned into a demolition derby in which anyone that wasn't on the lead lap just quit. One more un-permissible aspect of online is that there is not a set cap on the number of players that must be present in the lobby for the match to start. I hosted a lobby that featured a race at Daytona only a few laps long. After several seconds, a guy came in ready to race. But then a countdown timer of 59 seconds started clicking down. After that, the race started, I drove off, and it was literally myself and one other person in the most boring six miles in NASCAR game history. This is plain bad.
Going back to good things, the presentation is pretty solid overall. As said earlier, every Sprint Cup track plus one is available for play. The way in which, though, the game handled the issue of drivers is a bit quirky. NASCAR fans will know that there is usually around 35 guys you can count on to consistently compete every weekend. After that, more than just eight drivers will show up to a given event trying to "get in on speed" and qualify for the last remaining positions. So to not have to develop all of the possible "go or go homers" The Game took the best from the NSCS and filled the rest up with popular Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series drivers like Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne, Aric Almirola, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Todd Bodine, and so on. The HUD featured in this game is really good and gives you all the essentials like speed, car condition, track position, circuit map, ect. But the one awesome addition in this game is the Proximity Radar, which is placed in the lower part of center screen and stagnates your car in relation to those close. This allows for you to be aware of what is going on behind you without the need to repeatedly use the distracting "rear view" button. The graphics are pretty good overall and is helped by immense detail of the cars and the tracks. Everything comes together nicely and the lighting and shadows look very realistic. The Game also relates the feeling of speed very well as you feel like your flying on a superspeedway, methodically going on a short track, and are somewhere in between at intermediates. The sound is probably the best aspect of the presentation because it is able to accurately portray the sound of the engine in relation to what you do with the throttle. And the quality and overall boisterous thunder of the whole audio production is thumbs up. Also the sounds of your spotter are quite handy and feel like just another natural part of the NASCAR experience.