We got the black flag.
As most racing fans know, NASCAR Racing 2 has few real competitors in the slow-growing genre of realistic driving simulators. While arcade racers are piling up faster than a first-turn wipeout at the Bristol International, only Grand Prix II, Indy Car Racing II and Microsoft's new CART Precision Racing offer authentic physics, pit-crews, spotter relays, modeled tracks, weather variance and simulated professional opponents. The dearth of choices surely means that the NASCAR Grand National Series Expansion Pack is welcome news to NASCAR Racing 2 fanatics.
Now most expansion packs can be placed into one of three categories: those that give you what the original game promised but lacked (the add-on for X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter that will finally provide a strong single-player campaign); those that extend a great game to new heights (the Quake add-on, Scourge of Amargon, that had new weapons, monsters, destructible architecture and better single-player levels than Quake); or those that extend the game's life by giving you more of the same (the new campaigns for Longbow in the Gold edition, for example). The NASCAR Grand National Series Expansion Pack falls safely into the third category.
Though there are a variety of ways the year-old NASCAR Racing 2 could have been substantially improved -- 3Dfx support, in-game music, pit-crew animations, a rethinking of the menu structure, better on-line help -- none of these enhancements have been made. Instead, the add-on offers new cars, drivers and ten tracks from the 1997 Grand National Circuit. A painless installation creates a "Season Schedule" option on the Race Weekend menu; from here you can choose the original 1996 circuit or the new expansion circuit. As a bonus, Papyrus/Sierra has included two extremely fun "fantasy" Need for Speed-style tracks which are quite unlike any of the realistic rides you'll normally find in the original NASCAR Racing 2. The hefty 65 MB add-on also updates the original by fixing a few multiplayer bugs and providing a new mid-race save feature--after the third lap you can now save your race while you are driving.
My favorite new track is the Texas Motor Speedway; this is the one place you can mash the gas with little or no breaking and still survive. Other notables are the expansive California Speedway (another long track rendered in wonderful detail) and the Hickory Motor and South Boston Speedways--two short tracks (under a half-mile) which makes for non-stop swerving and dodging even if you're ten laps down. In general, the new tracks have a slight bit more detail than the original NASCAR tacks; you'll still see the requisite spectators, RVs, advertisements, trees, camera crews, announcers and a few surprises here and there.
NASCAR Racing 2 fanatics who have mastered the 1996 circuit will obviously consider this expansion pack a "must-have." And for frustrated drivers, the new ability to save races in progress will certainly be welcome. But apart from this new save feature, the NASCAR Expansion Pack offers no significant improvement in gameplay, graphics, or sound. This raises the question of value. I suspect that for most users -- who probably never even made it through the copious tracks in NASCAR Racing 2 -- this add-on will just be overkill. The fantasy tracks and bug updates are available online for free (www.sierra.com), and $29.95 is a high price to pay for just ten tracks and a new set of computerized opponents. For the addicted, the NASCAR Racing 2 Grand National Series Expansion Pack is a good fix -- it may even stave off the shakes until Christmas 98 when NASCAR Racing 3 should be out. For the rest of you, hold out on this one.