NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 45: NASCAR Video Games

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans, and welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, the weekly feature here in the Newsletter where I take an additional look at media for race fans. This week, due to the relatively thin offerings available last weekend on television beyond the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series races, I decided to write a little bit about NASCAR’s video games. The history of these games is interesting in its own right, but too off-topic to cover here.

The topic of NASCAR Video Games is current right now since Eutechnyx, an England-based developer, has just put out NASCAR 2011: The Game, the first brand-new NASCAR video game in two and a half years through Activision. Naturally, I wanted to see whether the game is worth your $59.99 plus tax. To do this, I picked up a copy on launch day (March 29) and put it to the test.

Of course, every experiment has to come with a control element. In this case, that simply means that I needed something to compare the new game to. Enter EA Sports into the equation. As you may remember, EA Sports held NASCAR’s license from 1997-2008. The last five of those releases were put out under an exclusivity deal with NASCAR. Say what you want about that deal (I wasn’t a fan of it). I hadn’t played an EA Sports NASCAR game since NASCAR 06: Total Team Control for the PlayStation 2. So, for the purposes of the comparison, I picked up a used copy of NASCAR 09 from my local GameStop. How do they stack up against one another? Let’s find out.

NASCAR 09

When NASCAR 09 was released in September 2008, one of the big selling points of the game was a new menu interface starring cover athlete Jeff Gordon. Gordon serves as your driver coach in the game. However, the way the game is set up, it holds your hand every step of the way. You can’t just jump in and race. No, you have to go through about three or four steps before you can do that.

The game features some of the hallmarks of previous EA games. There is the Sprint Driver Challenge, which as the name suggests, is a series of challenges that are designed to test your skills behind the wheel. Past games would often come up with scenarios based on actual events. Here, its just a series of skill challenges. Some are laughably easy, while others are pretty tough. Its not unlike the skill challenges you see in some of EA Sports’ Golf games.

Career mode, referred to as Chase For The Sprint Cup Mode, is more or less a combination of the career modes in the last two NASCAR games (NASCAR Thunder 2003 and the aforementioned NASCAR 06: Total Team Control) that I’ve played. It’s similar to Thunder 2003 in that you have to start off at the absolute bottom with the worst possible sponsors and worst possible equipment and have to work your way up from there. However, you also start in the Craftsman Truck Series (remember that this game was released before Sears left the series). You basically run races and hope to impress new sponsors and prospective car owners. After a couple of seasons, you can move up the ladder into the Nationwide Series, and eventually, Sprint Cup.

Official teams in the game vary by what series you race in. The Craftsman Truck Series has only a few official teams and drivers, four, to be exact (Shane Sieg, Travis Kvapil, Colin Braun and Erik Darnell). The Nationwide Series has 16 official drivers for 14 teams. Finally, the Sprint Cup Series has 40 official drivers for 38 teams. Of course, the normal sponsor restrictions (no alcohol sponsors) apply. Some drivers have multiple paint schemes. Also, each division has fictional cars that will fill out fields.

Also of note, there are some tracks exclusive to the Nationwide and/or Camping World Truck Series that are included in the game. ORP (now Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis), the Milwaukee Mile are available only in the support series. Kentucky Speedway is noticeably absent from the game.

EA Sports has a relationship with ESPN. As a result, ESPN branding appears throughout the game. Rusty Wallace gives tours of each track in the track select menu while driving an ESPN-sponsored car.

Enough of that stuff. Let’s get into how the game races. In the events, EA employs what is known as “Rubber band AI.” Based on the difficulty level selected, your opponents will drive at a certain pace during practice and qualifying sessions. However, once the race starts, they adapt to your speed. If you win the pole by two seconds, don’t expect to just run away in the race unless you’re really good. Yeah, you might run away from the backmarkers, but your main competition will be hot on your heels.
The game plays quite well, actually. There are no technical issues that affect game play. The cars are a bit of a bear to drive and the sound is just not there, though.

NASCAR 2011: The Game

Unlike EA Sports, Eutechnyx doesn’t hold your hand at the start of the game. At the beginning of the game, players are asked to pick a car that will sit in your virtual garage. It can be any car in the game, either one that you create yourself, or one of the existing drivers (for the heck of it, I chose Paul Menard). Once that is done, players can get right into the actual game.

At the beginning of the game, all of the tracks that are on the 2011 Sprint Cup Series calendar are available, including Kentucky Speedway. The cars are from the 2010 season, but a download pack that will be released fairly soon will contain the new 2011 cars and noses. Unlike many prior games, nearly all the Cup teams from 2010 are represented. Exceptions include some of the notable S&P teams (PRISM Motorsports, NEMCO Motorsports), along with the Latitude 43 Motorsports No. 26. Also, a few Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series schemes are on COT’s. These drivers include Danica Patrick (just had to get her in there, eh?), Jennifer Jo Cobb, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Truex, Aric Almirola, and Todd Bodine. Number overlap is the result. To alleviate the overlap, some drivers have a letter next to their numbers. For example, Aric Almirola’s car is the No. 51a since the game includes Michael Waltrip’s No. 51. Also, in a bit of a quirk, Robby Gordon has the No. 7a, while Patrick gets the No. 7.

Players can choose to do single-player races, multi-player races, a career mode, or race online. In the local games, there are also five difficulty levels to choose from, or users can create their own difficulty. The overall presentation is great.

Graphically, the game is very nice to look at. The cars are quite detailed and the tracks are accurate. However, the shadows can sometimes obscure part of the track, making it a little difficult to gage your line.

Compared to NASCAR 09, the cars drive a lot better. The driving experience is more enjoyable and more realistic. That is when they’re handling predictably. I did not experience this while playing myself, but some players have experienced radical handling shifts over just a couple of laps. Their cars would go from being perfectly stable to completely undrivable within a mile or two.

There are also two features unique to the game that are not in NASCAR 09. One is the rewind feature, which is found in games like Dirt 2 and GRID. A press of the button can rewind the race for a certain amount of time so that you can avoid wrecks. Players only get a set number of rewinds during a race, so they have to be cautious with them.

Also, there is a celebration mode after you win. Players are given 30 seconds to do whatever they want. Players can earn points based on the quality of the burnout. From what I can tell, the scores are based on creating the most smoke. Thus, spinning your wheels in place with the brake on gets you the highest score. Your score is added to whatever experience points are earned during the race.

There are sound issues with the spotters. Messages sometimes repeat themselves for no reason at all. The AI is incredibly aggressive compared to any other racing I’ve ever played. However, they’re also really dumb. For example, the first race I ran was at Watkins Glen. The AI drivers would clog up the track in Turn 1, slowing to what seemed like 40 mph instead of the normal 65. The brakes at some tracks (especially Watkins Glen International and Infineon Raceway) are not the best, and I could not avoid running into the back of the pack while standing on the brakes.

However, the most ridiculous part of the AI occurred on the final lap of the Watkins Glen. I got spun into the Armco exiting Turn 1 after contact. Fine, I’ll recover. However, the entire second half of the field piled up behind, making absolutely no attempt to avoid the crash. At one point, one car wedged itself underneath mine. On a somewhat related note, the AI cars do not appear to get damaged, no matter what happens.

That’s not the only issue I saw. There are freezing issues from time to time. Another issue saw my car disappear at Talladega after choosing to make a pit stop (in a weird quirk, you have to decide whether you want to pit under caution by pressing the X button (on the Xbox 360 version) while watching the replay of what put the race under yellow). As a result of the car disappearing, the replay wouldn’t stop, forcing me to reset.

There is an issue with the cautions not flying appropriately. Fairly substantial crashes will not draw cautions at all, while some very minor incidents will draw the caution.

A number of features that are typical of NASCAR games were not included in the game. For example, during race weekends, there is no practice. There is only qualify and the race itself. If you want to do some practice at a track, you’ll have to go test. On paper, that’s ridiculous. I can understand that some people just want to get to the actual racing, but its looney.

Also, there are no DNF’s in the race for most reasons. The only way you can fail to finish a race (unless you exit the race yourself) is if you run out of gas.

Finally, online play is a complete disaster at the moment. Connectivity is not the best. Players have complained of being bounced from races without explanation. Players are also forced to use default setups online and cannot adjust them, which would make the experience less satisfying. Also, full field races are impossible online. No AI cars race in online events, and the limit for online races is 16 people.

It is quite a shame that after all the waiting, and a delay of nearly two months, Eutechnyx released a game that was as buggy as NASCAR 2011: The Game. Mind you, this was even with a release-day patch that changed up the AI a little and made other adjustments.

As of this printing, Eutechnyx is in the process of producing another patch. The progress of the patch, and everything that they are working on can be seen “here”.:http://forums.eutechnyx.com/threads/8137-Patch-2-Fix-List-and-Status While it is great that Eutechnyx is standing behind their game and willing to improve it in every way, it is really sad that they have to do so much extra work on the nuts and bolts, post-release. There is no set release date for the patch right now, however, it is likely to be out within the next month or so.

Similarities:
Both games have an experience point system. The points can be earned in any race, with any car in N2011. In N09, they can be earned in the Sprint Driver Challenge, and in races. However, they can only be earned in the car you created during races. They also do not have commentary during races. This was tried back in the PS1 era, but didn’t work well.

Differences:
N09 does not have manufacturer support. There is one model for each series. Quite a drag.
N2011 is only focused on the Sprint Cup Series, despite having cars and drivers from the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the two most recent NASCAR video games available on the market. Next week, we’ll be back with a race critique. Until then, enjoy this weekend’s racing in Texas, Alabama and Malaysia.

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