With the doors at Papyrus Racing Games now firmly shuttered, and now that EA Sports has sewn up exclusive rights to develop and publish NASCAR-branded games until the end of the current decade, there's just one place for PC race fans to get their NASCAR fixes. Luckily for all concerned, that place is none too shabby. In its latest stock car opus, NASCAR SimRacing, EA Sports offers just about everything a racer could want (with the exception of a comprehensive printed manual) and works hard to satiate the thirsts of both the action/arcade crowd and the generally more demanding devotees of realistic/simulation competition. It has, for the most part, succeeded. Despite a few quirks, NASCAR SimRacing is a very workable journey into all corners of the NASCAR world, and the game's a real step forward for the EA Sports NASCAR franchise.
Like prior EA NASCAR titles, and like most EA titles regardless of the genre, for that matter, NASCAR SimRacing is a big, bold, brash and broad affair. And as expected, it sports full licensing for that ultrarealistic faÃ§ade that's helped EA become the gaming juggernaut it is today. Certainly, if you want all the external NASCAR trappings, all the team and series sponsors, and all the appropriate team colors and paint schemes, you've come to the right place.
The game features no fewer than 28 tracks, 25 of which are culled from the real-life NASCAR circuit and three of which are pure fantasy. Nearly two dozen of them are ovals, but NASCAR SimRacing quickly dispels the wrongful notion that if you've seen one oval track you've seen them all. Indeed, each "roundy round" is a completely unique experience, from its character flaws (such as elevation variations, bumps, and width deviations) to its length, degree of banking, rubber-blackened racing line, and distinctive track surface.
You won't feel short of potential rides, either. More than five dozen vehicles and drivers are offered spanning NASCAR's three most important "leagues": the National Series, the Craftsman Truck Series, and the top-rung Nextel Cup Series. And, yes, there is some distinction between classes. Surely you'll find yourself moving much quicker and feeling more exposed to danger in a Nextel car than you would in a truck (which, of course, isn't a truck at all but is simply a slightly less powerful purpose-built racecar with a truck shell). By default, Nextel races are longer than those in the other two classes, and they're sometimes held at different tracks. Indeed, the three enclosed fantasy courses effectively take the place of Craftsman Truck and National tracks the game development team couldn't model due to insufficient data.
Undoubtedly, since EA Sports is now the sole provider of NASCAR PC games and must now answer to not only its already-established action/arcade fan base but also a legion of authenticity-craving Papyrus veterans, the big question is whether NASCAR SimRacing satisfactorily models a realistic stock car racing experience. The answer is yes.
Though it's no Grand Prix Legends in that it doesn't take the whole realism thing to frightening new heights, it does offer an equivalent experience to the vaunted Papyrus physics model as seen in that company's final NASCAR edition. You may not realize this, however, the first time you hit the track, especially since by default the game activates a sweeping collection of aids designed to simplify the experience for newcomers and "arcade" drivers. (Things become very different once you start removing these aids, though.)
NASCAR SimRacing does not fall victim to the pitfalls that have so often marred other racing games when they first ventured into the realm of simulation. Cars do not feel too loose, too tight, or too bizarrely magnetized to some preordained driving line. They most definitely ride upon four unique points, and their power-to-weight ratio seems bang on. If you get a little squirrelly, you can usually catch it if you exercise moderation and pay attention. If you don't, or if you keep a death grip on the stick, you're history. Much of your time will be spent preparing for turns, correcting yourself during them, and trying to slowly reel in and hopefully move smoothly past your peers. Fast oval setups pull noticeably to the left, and cold tires must warm sufficiently before you can really start moving around out there.
One complaint likely to rear its head over the course of the next few weeks and months is that the development team perhaps didn't go far enough. Even when all driver's aids are removed and difficulty levels are cranked, hardcore experts will likely wish for just a little more danger, just a bit more skittishness, and just a tad of that "edge of the envelope" feeling. But handling physics are just one part of the equation. The racing action must also be up to snuff, and indeed it is. In fact, NASCAR SimRacing delivers some of the best up close bumper-to-bumper dicing to ever grace the PC environment. In this game, drafting is critical...and the closer the better.
It's good then that the artificially intelligent drivers are both talented and skillfully aware of your presence. The truth is that they go out of their ways to avoid bopping you if you've done something stupid. And that's good news, because there's nothing worse than a great race ending suddenly and prematurely because of one microscopic slipup that probably wouldn't have occurred had you been in a real car on a real track.
This keen awareness is perhaps nowhere more evident than during those few milliseconds after you've passed a competitor in a turn and are then trying to gather your own car without grazing your competitor's nose with your tail. In the Papyrus version of NASCAR, this was always an inordinately difficult situation, often resulting in a rear-end nudge and a subsequent spin. In NASCAR SimRacing, a passed car is generally gracious enough to let you slot back into line. Even if you've pumped up the AI aggression, you aren't forced to stare down a bunch of suicidal maniacs. We would have preferred more independent collisions between AI vehicles, but maybe that will come in time.
Furthermore, those who don't occasionally bump and lean against competing cars will soon find themselves languishing behind, at least when the difficulty level is high. Indeed, car-to-car contact is common throughout, but it's an absolutely necessary part of the action if you want to win. More to the point, though, it's fun. It's really, really fun, especially considering the game's physics model permits car-to-car contact without activating a complete loss of adhesion. That's something you didn't find in the Papyrus product.
But if successfully competing at 95 or 100 percent difficulty is something you want to do, clean driving and mastery of your car are just the starting points. You'll also need to learn how to set up the darn game. The game offers a trio of default setups for each track, as well as three more "basic" adjustments (speed, handling, and response) to help get newbies acclimatized. But it also provides full garage facilities and sophisticated telemetry information for those who really want to get their hands dirty building the cars they'll need to emerge victoriously at the highest levels. And garage skill is an absolute must, as the game both enhances the capabilities of your opponents and makes your own car a bit less perfect as you incrementally dial in higher difficulty levels. Move from 85 to 95 percent difficulty, for example, and your once-smooth machine now redlines halfway down the front straight.
Once you get the hang of things, you'll undoubtedly want to engage in the game's career mode. Here, much of the silliness of past NASCAR Thunder careers has been eliminated in favor of a more subdued, realistic approach. Clearly, you'll quickly understand the meaning of consistency. You can win a ton of races, but if you're interspersing those victories with a fair share of sad-sack back-of-the-pack finishes or wipeouts, then you'll never rise to the top.
Otherwise, the career mode veritably brims with the same elements and situations facing a real-world team. Yet as promising as the concept seems from the outset, further investigation brings up holes. Simply put, the game doesn't go as far as it should. Yes, you'll involve yourself in research and development, thereby creating a much faster car, but it's all too easy. You merely dedicate funds to a given aspect (power, torque, grip, or aerodynamics) and then wait for a given number of races for that research to be completed. Applying more funds decreases the amount of time each new development takes, but there's, unfortunately, nothing deeper underneath. In the end, it all seems repetitious.
The world of sponsor relations is little better. You merely sign up as many sponsors as you can, and then you repeat the process as your contracts expire. There are no interesting asides, personality conflicts, or backroom battles. Moreover, your reputation bounces around like the scenery at a Hooters convention. We handily won three straight races and had top-dollar offers coming in from everywhere. We then experienced a single midpack finish and watched as our suitors, including "Little Tree Air Fresheners" for goodness sake, all but evaporated. We were informed that our reputation had taken a real beating. Later, following an event where we purposely demolished virtually every vehicle on the track, we were informed that our reputation had dropped "just a little." That's just wrong.
Yet if you can overlook some of the periphery, the career is generally an enjoyable place to be. Certainly it's a strong test of your overall ability. Additionally, several of the components are better and more sensible than those described above, and the nifty magazine headlines that highlight your latest triumphs are extremely cool.