In the gaming world, The “National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing,” more commonly known as NASCAR, has taken a lot of rhetorical dings, dents and wipeouts. But in the real world, the sport whose origins stem from speakeasies and prohibition is hitting on all cylinders.
[image1]Fact: NASCAR’s television ratings are second only to professional football. The predominantly left turn-centric races are broadcast in more than 150 countries. The sport enjoys over 75 millions fans that are not afraid to drop a cool 3 billion on licensed merchandise every year!
I guess, eventually, crime does pay for those who want to go fast.
But I don’t care how sumptuous your Spicy Cheese balls are, EA’s latest offering, NASCAR 08 is a below average racer lightly peppered with a few exciting moments. Staunch NASCAR fans will feel compelled to buy it, and may even forgive it, but a brand new and utterly flawed career mode, sub-par graphics and mind-numbing A.I. are more than enough nails to flatten this racer’s Goodyear Eagles.
You can almost hear the slow “hisss” of escaping air as you begin the game’s career mode or Chase Mode, as it’s titled. Tragically, this is where you will spend the most time. Your first step is to select your car manufacturer and paint scheme. NASCAR 08 showcases an impressive number of cars and drivers from all the familiar licensed manufacturers – Toyota, Dodge, Ford, Chevy etc. But you’ll need to earn a car before you can even think of entering a race.
To do so you must complete ten license challenges for each of the games seven track types. Each license challenge is supposed to teach the ins and outs of NASCAR racing, like gaining speed by drafting, appropriately entering the pit for maintenance, maintaining a certain speed, overtaking competitors, maneuvering through crashes and so forth.
[image2]This new career mode is really more like a tutorial and should’ve been optional or canned altogether for a true “career” mode. NASCAR 08 may be the first and only NASCAR game for the Xbox 360, but it's not like they just invented the sport. The in-game branding, drive-mechanics, real-life drivers, cars, advertising and the like, obviously cater to fans familiar with both the sport and the games that came before this one. So what’s with the noob treatment?
Also one particular "license" skill you must acquire is never and I mean NEVER, needed. Learning to evade and weave through a pile-up sounds awesome! But as soon as an accident begins in a real race, the scene changes to a race official waving the “yellow flag” (bad driver!) followed by all the competitors being reset in a single file line. Huh?!?
Upon completing each license for a particular track type, a two-race “Contract” will become available (note: each contract race is 20 laps). Complete the contract to win a car. You can now use said car to enter the Nextel Cup Championship. Finally, it’s actual race time! So why did you pick a car in the beginning of the game? Good F’n question!!
[image3]To give yourself an edge, each car’s performance can be tuned, tweaked and customized with 40 different tuning options. You’ll be thankful this bit is so in-depth. The handling for each car is incredibly sensitive. In fact, I had to adjust the controller sensitivity in addition to tuning and customizing before I felt my car was anything but directionally bipolar.
Infallible racer A.I. doesn’t help things much. They all drive the exact same line, which is the quickest and most efficient trajectory for each track. Unmolested, the computer-controlled competition is like The Tick – “Nigh invulnerable!”. They are nearly impervious to full on broadsides, bumps and the perfectly timed P.I.T. maneuvers I learned from watching Cops.
But once you get all this together and you make it to the championships, the game does provide some honest, if not exhilarating, racing. NASCAR 08 stays true to the congested cluttered mass of cars for which the sport is known. Just don’t make a mistake. Not one. They are virtually impossible to recover from. A simple nudge and loss of speed can mean certain disaster.
Incidentally, these slight nudges always result in the not-so-slight vehicle damage. Damage modeling is always welcome but not when your car crumbles and folds like an amateur UNO player at a professional Poker game. Add to that the fact that much of the damage looks like it was imported from NASCAR '98.
[image4]Speaking of graphics, the frame rate stays smooth and constant at all times but everything feels flat and uninspired for the white box. Games like Project Gotham 3, Test Drive Unlimited and several others are far ahead of the technological pack in this circuit. The smoke effects are good but what we've seen in the upcoming Need for Speed: Pro Street already looks more impressive.
The online options don’t impress much either. Stat tracking has been removed and I think I saw a tumble weed tumbling by as I was waiting for other players in the lobby. I definitely never saw a full compliment of racers. One cool piece: you can practice driving while you wait for other players. Maybe somebody knew competition would be scarce.
Listen! If you’re a fan of the sport and you own a set of NASCAR Underoos for each day of the week, then you already own the game and you just came here to write me hate mail. But for those of us looking for a better more improved NASCAR driving experience on a console, it’s best to pull out 07 on previous systems or wait for EA to take this design back to the garage for ’09.