Its been a couple years since EA last made a Nascar game. In those 24 months, Im not sure a lot has changed, but weve entered a new era with Activision publishing a new (presumably yearly) title in Nascar 2011. With a current roster, game engine built from scratch and promising a realistic driving experience, Nascar is poised to become one of the, if not THE premier racing title on the 360.
When you get into the game, its a career mode, exhibition and multiplayer. First, however, you must select your signature driver who you will be taking through any career modes. You may create your own driver and paint your own car (complete with sponsors) or select any one of the included drivers. To say the roster is large is an understatement. The field is composed of Nascar veterans like Bill Elliott, and up and comers like Ryan Truex, and the game even has female representation in JJ Cobb and Danica Patrick. I dont know how many people are included in all, but considering theres a full field of 43 cars in a single player race, theres at least that.
The career mode if you are familiar with the Sprint Cup is a series of 36 races starting at Daytona and working its way through everything Nascar has to offer, from the insanely difficult Infineon course to the 15 second-per-lap Bristol Speedway. Youre welcome to choose a race difficulty from 2% of a real race all the way to 100. Taking you through the career tutorial is a guy that sounds eerily similar to Jeff Foxworthy, who takes you through racing basics like drafting and slingshotting. The game assumes you have some Nascar knowledge and sends you right into qualifying before you race. You may, however, bypass qualifying by agreeing to start in last.
Qualifying should be pretty simple and straight forward. You drive once around the track to warm up your vehicle and tires, and then twice more to qualify. Controls are easy enough. Right trigger accelerates, and left trigger is your brakes. Pretty much every other button is a car view or switching camera angles. Seems simple enough, right? Then you race, and you realize everybody around you is driving on a perfect track, and one slight slipup in the degree of your turn puts you seconds behind. Meanwhile, someone nicks your car from behind causing you to fly off the track and lose your way for the rest of the race.
This is your introduction to the touch and go race physics. You can fully run into your race rivals at 120 MPH with no effect, however, someone doing the same to you can result in a lost lap and 12 car pileup. Considering all accidents normally trigger caution flags and a race restart (you can turn the flags off if you wish,) this means you run the risk of 12 seconds of actual racing per race with a dozen restarts and a race finish. The restart and lap resets are pretty true to life to regular Nascar, but the race physics are not. No matter how badly you bang up a vehicle, no accident truly renders it undriveable, nor do these same accidents result in the absolute need to pit. While your vehicle may run a flat, again, it is never to the point where you cannot drive it. The car will pull slightly, but thats it. When vehicular damage in Grand Theft Auto IV is more realistic than your game, and you are a real racing game, thats trouble. Once you get your basics down, however, this can be a fairly sound racing title as you race the clock (and your opponents) to the checkered flag and those valuable Nascar Sprint Cup points.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that you can end up in pit lane completely accidentally via a dustup and be penalized for illegal pit entry. You must enter pit lane at a pre-determined speed, however, should you exceed it, you receive an illegal entry flag. Should you enter it backward, you receive a flag (and deservedly so,) however, if you accidentally fly in via accident, the same penalty may apply.
The multi-player options are pretty limited. Your choices are to race regularly, or in your standard eliminator mode. With the touch and go physics, and the fact that neither of you qualify and just start at the back of the pack, you can find yourself messing up early and often. Its advisible that you turn caution flags off, and let it be what it is. One of your friends will always be the kind of guy that throws his race in the can and decides to race backwards to try and start accidents.
The field is also cut down to 21 cars maximum here, as opposed to 43. The split screen is well done enough that you will have more than enough room to pay attention to what you are doing. By default, it is a horizontal split screen, which I find is far superior for the purpose of race awareness and position jockeying than the vertical split screen you saw out of games like Split Second. The game, however, is prone to crashing if you create too much clutter on screen at once. Youve got to be careful with accidents you purposefully cause, as numerous trips were taken to the Xbox to hard reset the system based on large scale crashes.
You will have to learn the ins and outs of Nascar tracks, as with all courses, the turn left stereotype does not apply to the different road race-style tracks like Watkins Glen and the aforementioned Infinion raceway, which after playing a race must have been crafted by the most evil design team this side of the creators of Ataris ET game. Each track comes with its own set of difficulties, banking angles and straightaways. You may have an easy time at a track like Pocono which is stretched out well for beginners, however, may have a hard time at a place like Bristol with its high angle banking and low speed racing geared toward jockeying more than the race itself.
Graphics: 5.5/10. Somethings lacking. Sponsors are here. Oddly shaped race vehicles are here, but its hard to figure whether the game is going for realism, or something a fair bit cartoony. If were looking for realism, well, the most realistic graphics come during the loading screen when the lanyard flicks back and forth. You get the sense youre headed toward something great, and then you get a fantastic looking track with fancy sponsored boxes and flat grandstands. Unlike the real Nascar, the cars here just dont seem to pop to life with the same vigor, and neither does the rest of the game. Sadly, you dont get to see your pit crew working on your vehicle, though you do get to watch the entire drive into pit lane and then choose (once your car is parked) which services will be rendered to the vehicle.
Sounds: 3/10. A racing game really needs to have a good sound base. At no point while playing this do you really feel in sync with anything really. Your pit crew do speak to you on the mic, and you do have your basic tire screeching and such, however, theres nothing to pull you in farther. With fairly bland background graphics to boot, and less than lively grandstands (even in the deadest of heats,) theres little personality. Huge accidents barely make a noise, and with little more than your pit crew talking to you and a few noises here and there, theres not much more to speak of. The in-game soundtrack has a few licensed songs, but seems to rely heavily on ZZ Tops La Grange and a Disturbed track. Naturally, these songs do not appear during races by default, which is understandable considering this is supposed to be a simulation.
Controls: 10/10. Realistically, theres not much more you can hope to attain out of the games controls. Really, you need your accelerator, you need your brakes, and you need realistic steering. The games realistic damage variables make it so that if you mess up too many times and hit the wall too hard, you WILL feel it and your vehicle will drive all wonky, reflecting the damage you have done to it. Keeping straight will become extremely difficult, and you will have to drive with caution or drop out of the race altogether. Theres nothing you can do here, but you cant fault the games mechanics because technically, it is doing everything right, and punishing you for your terrible driving. A 10/10 normally denotes perfection. Well, for a racing simulation, you get no boost, no power drifting, or need to e-brake and fishtail around corners. This isnt the best controlled racing game in the history of video games, however, you cant take points away for what a game doesnt have because it doesnt need it.
Gameplay: 5/10. This game wont appeal to most gamers. Really, this game is for a specific target market, and Im sure it will hit that market positively. Nascar fans have already given this game some pretty rave reviews, and it has tested and played well amongst that demographic. For the rest of us, however, admittedly this is a fairly bland racing title with some semblance of promise wrapped up in pretty tracks and lots of corporate sponsorship. I do give Activision a lot of props in attempting to recreate all of the cars as best they can, even bringing aboard male enhancement pill sponsors. Alcohol sponsors, however, continue not to be in the game for the sake of maintaining its rating (as any alcoholic inclusion would likely result in it having to be an M rating.)
This game will be fun at times, but frustrating most of it. The race physics here are almost too much to bear, and may drive people away from the game (no pun intended) rather than bring fans into it. It seems that much like THQ has done with WWE All Stars, if you want to draw casual onlookers into Nascar through the use of your video games, you may have to deviate from the norm, and sadly release another title like PS1 forgotten memory Nascar Rumble.
This game is seriously for the hardest of hardcore NASCAR fans, who will probably love the massive roster, detailed vehicles and huge selection of courses. For everybody else, well, to be honest, there are so many better racing options out there for you. This game will either provide you with 20 minutes, or 20 hours of fun depending on where you fall into your love of Nascar or simulated racing titles. If you are not a fan at all and like fancy crashes with cars driving crazy speeds and jumping mountains, stay away and go play Burnout or Split Second. If you crave that somewhat authentic driving experience because you wake up every Sunday to watch the races and want to act it all out again, this game might be for you.
Graphically, this game isnt as crisp as the EA titles, though I would say Activision did well to represent all possible sponsors to give this a better sense of realism and the game does have a lot to work with for future years. This definitely isnt a must-buy title, though if you do need your NASCAR fix at all costs, give this title a look, but know going in that you arent faced with a great gaming experience, and you might need to give it a couple years before the next great Nascar title hits the market.
Suggestions: I'd love to see an arcade-style variation to the simulation-style variation. Allowing the serious and the casual to switch off back and forth would be a huge step forward, as would better race physics and vehicle damage, allowing with knocking vehicles out of races because they're too damaged.