NASCAR 08's box touts the fact that EA's NASCAR series is the number one selling NASCAR franchise. Nowhere on the packaging does it tell you that it's the top-selling franchise because it's the only NASCAR franchise. However, the fact that there's no competition is made apparent as soon as you play. It's extremely light on features, online play is lacking, and its visuals do little to take advantage of the power of the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. NASCAR 08 is a competent racing game, but you can't shake the feeling that it would have been a whole lot better if there had been a competing NASCAR game out there.
NASCAR 08 features a solid number of tracks and almost every driver you'd want. The only major driver who's missing is Carl Edwards, but there are some notable track omissions, including Mexico City and Montreal. You can race a full, half, short, or custom season in the Nextel, National (Busch), or Craftsman truck series. You can race a season in the Car Of Tomorrow--but it's just one and done--there's no career mode.
The cars show a lot of damage.
Instead, there's a new mode called the chase. You start the chase as an unknown driver and your goal is to earn a contract by completing license tests. Each license is separated by track type. There's a license for super speedway, speedway, Car Of Tomorrow short track, Car Of Tomorrow speedway, Car Of Tomorrow road course, and Car Of Tomorrow super speedway. To earn a license you must complete 10 tasks, which teach you the basics of NASCAR racing. You'll learn how to draft, slingshot, and avoid wrecks, follow racing lines, as well as how to maintain your speed through difficult turns. The game uses some handy visual aids that show a car's draft and the optimal line around the track, so it feels very friendly to beginners. Once you've completed a license, you'll be offered a two-race contract with a racing team, and if you fulfill that contract, you can then race a season with that team's car. The chase is certainly a good way to introduce the sport to newcomers, and it's nice not to have to race through all of the lower-tier circuits as in previous years, but it's still no substitute for a proper career mode.
It's a good thing the chase is such a good teaching tool because actual races can be quite challenging--for both good and bad reasons. One area where NASCAR video games differ from most racing games is that one small mistake can mean the difference between finishing first and finishing last, even if you have damage turned off. This makes every lap important and maintains the intensity of the races. Never has the ability to be perfect been more important than in NASCAR 08. The game is best played with a steering wheel because the default controls are extremely touchy, making it nearly impossible to race in a pack. If you don't have a steering wheel, you can adjust the linearity and responsiveness of the controls to make them more forgiving. This makes the game much more playable. You can also use the Sixaxis' motion controls to steer. This works OK, but isn't a substitute for a wheel.
Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do about the game's artificial intelligence, which is quite poor. Drivers don't seem to have personality as they did in previous games, but they do all seem hell bent on wrecking you. Depending on which course you're on, opposing drivers will just as soon run into the back of your car as they will pass you. This isn't bump drafting either. They'll do it when they're clearly the faster car, they'll do it in turns, and they'll do it when you're racing three wide. They say "rubbing is racing," but when it routinely costs you the race, it gets pretty frustrating, especially when the CPU doesn't seem to wreck very often.