'Round and 'round she goes!
There's nothing like gettin' behind the wheel of a 200+mph tire-smokin' American V8-powered NASCAR stock car. As Robert Duvall said in the movie Days of Thunder, "Hey! There ain't nuthin' stock about a stock car." And so it is with EA Sports' first venture into NASCAR for the Nintendo 64.
I'll have to admit, racing games are by far one of my favorite video game genres. Man, we used to literally pump quarters into Atari's Hard Drivin' (still the best driving simulator around - sorry, Daytona!) when it first came out. No other game - arcade or console - has even come close to duplicating the driving experience as well as Atari.
NASCAR '99 is a decent console racer, but nothing really differentiates it from other racing sims. You pick a driver, you tweak your car's setup (downforce, wedge, gears, etc.), and you try to get first place. Yawn. Sure, EA's added some fancy touches such as night races at Bristol and Charlotte and newspaper headlines after each race, but these are merely minor gimmicks. When is someone going to put out the Madden of NASCAR titles for the consoles? I'm talking about designing and building your own car from scratch. Racing for cash and premium sponsorships. Hiring the fastest pit crew west of the Mississippi. Playing a car owner and looking for the next Jeff Gordon that'll take you to the top. True, NASCAR's spotlight is the races, but wouldn't it be great for a game to encompass the whole behind-the-scenes experience and not just a few hours worth of racing on Sundays?
This game is heavy on bios of all the drivers as well as all the tracks. Conspicuously, Daytona is missing from the game, which is much akin to playing a football game without the Super Bowl (those darn licensing rights...). There are also "hidden" drivers you can access such as 'The King' Richard Petty, but this usually entails racing more laps than anyone has the patience for. All the driver nicknames are included as well to give the game an added air of authenticity, from "Mr. Consistency" Mark Martin to 'The Ironman' Terry Labonte.
Car physics feel right and car adjustments aren't just a psychological option; you can really feel the difference in the car. Kudos to EA for not cheesing out with the "lazy susan" syndrome in the car's handling characteristics, especially on the winding road courses (see F1 World Grand Prix).
Gameplay suffers from one major and inexcusable omission; there is no rear-view mode during a race, which makes it really difficult to gauge if someone's breathing down your neck. Another problem I have with the game is the rolling starts. It just feels really cheesy and you don't get the excitement of puttin' the pedal to the metal when the flag drops.
EA included a "drafting" feature in this year's game. For those of you not into the racing lingo, drafting is basically tailgating the guy in front of you and improving your top speed by staying in his slipstream to reduce drag and get an aerodynamic advantage. This is denoted in the game with a drafting meter that increases the longer you stay behind the driver. When it reaches the appropriate level, you can try passing him. It's a great idea, but in practice it feels a little gimmicky. Still, a nice touch.
The detailed graphics look good for the most part. Individual car graphics look great with plenty of colorful paint schemes and sponsorship decals. Light reflections off your nice shiny car look good, as do the smoke clouds when you take out some of your fellow racers in a fender- bender. Details are also accurately reproduced. You can watch pieces fly off other cars if you accidentally (or in my case, purposefully) bash them from behind. Tire skid marks stay on the track and roof-flaps on your car will open if you suddenly find yourself in a spin. The cockpit view is really cool, though the driver's arms look too boxy.
Although the graphical details are well-done, everything else isn't. The backgrounds of the tracks look hugely unimpressive and the texture of the track itself is extremely bland and forgettable. Computer car movements also look very jerky and unrealistic. In fact, the game is like racing 64-bit cars on a 16-bit track. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but F1 World Grand Prix looked so much more impressive graphically that I'm a tad spoiled.
The sound is much improved from NASCAR '98. Thankfully, EA got rid of that good ol' boy country stuff for some more mainstream rock (Joe Satriani's Surfing with the Alien). That's the good news. The bad news is you'll hear that same song so many times it'll make your teeth grind. Similarly, the speech in the game gets repetitive and isn't really needed. Like Dan Dierdorf's remarks on Monday Night Football, the commentary only points out what was entirely obvious anyway.
One last thing I want to mention is the manual (for those of us that actually RTFM). EA did a spectacular job with its comprehensiveness, including tips to help out new players as well as ably explaining every feature of the game. Every game producer should follow EA's lead as some very good games have very thin instruction booklets that hardly tell you anything about the game.
As far as N64 racing sims go, I've played much better, namely F1 World Grand Prix. NASCAR '99 just doesn't have anything that makes it stand out from the crowd, and its mediocre graphics make this an average game at best.