Say it ain't so! Having revolutionized PC vehicular competition and proven definitively that a truly authentic computerized driving experience is entirely within reach, the most dominant racing series of the last decade is headed for that great oval in the sky. Though designer Papyrus Racing Games may return to the PC at a later date with a new driving game, it has officially ended the run of its flagship PC series, NASCAR Racing. Fortunately, it hasn't done so without one last hurrah. Papyrus's latest game, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, makes a great finale for the world's foremost stock car racing series.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season features an improved instant-replay option.
Those familiar with NASCAR Racing will feel immediately comfortable with the latest game. Once again, Papyrus has focused on NASCAR's premier series, the Winston Cup, and the developer has gone to great lengths to bring the full flavor of the Cup to your computer. In NASCAR Racing 2003, you'll find all 23 venues frequented by the pros, including the freshly renovated New Hampshire facility and the recently revamped two-mile road course formerly known as Sears Point and now named Infineon Raceway. As in real life, the game features night driving at several of the tracks, including the Bristol and Daytona circuits. It also offers one fantasy track, the extremely fast and crazily high-banked holdover from NASCAR Racing 2002 Season, Coca-Cola Superspeedway.
And fortunately, the latest NASCAR game doesn't skimp on drivers, cars, or teams, either. Though some of the Winston Cup's lesser-known part-time competitors don't make an appearance, all the big names are here, along with generally authentic colors and most sponsors other than alcohol and tobacco interests. In fact, those who say real-life NASCAR is simply a high-speed PR gimmick for its sponsors will quite likely have the same complaint here too. Whether you're sitting inside your car, monitoring the action from one of the game's many alternate viewpoints, or watching the proceedings afterward via the revised replay suite--which is now better than ever thanks to an improved control setup--you'll feel inundated by corporate signage and logos, but again, it's just like the real thing.
Like most of the previous NASCAR installments, NASCAR Racing 2003 doesn't take a huge leap forward. The truth is that Papyrus began with a superb foundation nearly 10 years ago--which in itself was made possible through earlier benchmarks such as 1988's amazing Indianapolis 500: The Simulation--and has continued to enhance and improve the formula with each new game.
NASCAR veterans will recognize the game's interfaces and general design. The opening menu looks similar to that of previous games, with the exception of a new backdrop and one important revision--the elimination of Darrell Waltrip's track tours, which were a nice addition for newcomers and a point of interest for veterans. However, NASCAR continues to offer its driving lessons mode, a 10-part sequence of tutorials first unveiled in NASCAR Racing 2002 Season. The comprehensive driving lessons cover a broad range of important topics, from general rules to pitting strategies, drafting instruction, and tire and fuel management, and they are therefore highly recommended to those who want to take the game and their racing to the next level.
A pack of hungry stock cars readies itself for an upcoming corner on Watkins Glen.
Yet NASCAR Racing 2003 shines brightest on the track. Many have tried, but to date no other game has delivered the same level of authenticity; the same feeling that you are indeed in control of a large and very powerful stock car. And in NASCAR Racing 2003, that experience has been enhanced. If you play at the highest realism setting with all the driver's aids switched off, you'll find your car to be even more difficult to control than in previous games. And should you ever get into a position where a corner of your car lifts from the racing surface, you'll soon realize just how easy it is to get one of these things airborne, and cornering is also more challenging in NASCAR Racing 2003 than ever before. In fact, some beginners who try to play at the highest realism settings may get frustrated and simply give up.
Fortunately, rookies can always turn to the game's optional driver's aids. Though the first few NASCAR games were designed strictly for hard-core racing fans, the series now caters to both the expert and the newcomer. NASCAR Racing 2003 has optional features such as automatic transmissions, antilock brakes, traction control, invulnerable cars, and simplified "arcade" control to help beginners get started. The game even has a new set of incremental steering, acceleration, and braking adjustments to give you greater control over your input.
All these extra aids are a good thing, because rookies would have a very tough time keeping their vehicle running properly without them. Indeed, wrecking a stock car has never seemed easier. Now, tires will explode after just a few seconds of brake lockup. Vital components will expire or weaken after mild instances of contact. And as always, over-revved engines are potentially dead engines.
Though NASCAR Racing 2003 still doesn't show a driver's hands and arms, the cockpit is otherwise excellent.