Summary: It's high time for some tire-burning, chassis-spinning, throttle-choking, downshifting action on the tilted banks of the oval. Check out Jakub's take on this Nascar-inspired racer for the PC, oh, and don't forget to bring your steering wheel and pedals.
Dirty little secrets
Hereís something Iíve never been compelled to share before (indeed, compelled to not share under any circumstances) Ė I like NASCAR. Not the actual NASCAR of course, just NASCAR games. Thatís because Papyrusí NASCAR Racing series is the Quake of driving games.
Why is that? Well, for one, NASCAR is a ridiculously simple sport. Like chess or Quake, there isnít all that much to learn about it. The rules severely limit the amount of modifications possible, leaving the teams with few options for screwing up balance Ė like fine-tuning and cheating (which is an art form in NASCAR). This simplicity means that as with Quake and chess, wins are determined by a driverís ability to master the subtlest skills. In real NASCAR, a healthy budget for creative cheats and engineering the living crap out of your chassis and engine tend to fudge the process a bit, but even so the sport is remarkably competitive. NASCAR Racing from Papyrus gives teams no budgets and thereís no way to cheat, so it really is down completely to the skill of the driver.
Think GT3 is realistic? Think again. The grippiest tires last a ridiculous 3 laps, and cautious driving to conserve rubber isnít as effective as it should be. Brake fade? Whatís that. Fuel? What is this Ďfuelí you speak of? Body damage? Weight balance? Yeah right, not on a 4MB PS2. GT3 is realistic compared to NASCAR Racing 2003 the way Battlefield 1942 is realistic compared to the real Omaha Beach.
Of course, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season only has to worry about what is basically one car and a rather limited set of modifications to the car, most of which are rather simple Ė like camber, tire pressure, spoiler angle, weight balance Ė and even seemingly meaningless changes like the percentage of the grille to be covered by tape. Because so little is allowed, each of these changes is actually more significant for that. When you canít bump up the horsepower but need acceleration at speed, the 4mph top speed you might gain from going from 30 to 70% grille coverage is invaluable. NASCAR, like football, is a battle that comes down to inches. Over a hundred laps, every single advantage makes a difference. Itís like being able to strafe jump a little bit faster in Quake III. If all other things are equal, that will win you the game. And in NASCAR Racing 2003, everything else is equal.
SIDEBAR: NASCAR isnít really that bad of a sport, actually. I mean, with the F1 rule changes and the turn-prohibiting nature of road courses (since you have to sacrifice the line to pass, or risk a pass by forcing yourself into a lane), itís pretty much the only racing that has any passing left. If only it didnít happen on just left turns.
Believe it or not, until Half-Life 2 and Doom III come out, this is the most CPU intensive game out there. Even at a mere 800x600x32, the framerate hit is too prohibitive to turn all the options on. The more cars on a track, the worst the performanceĖ but disproportionately so. This supports our theory that the AI and physics calculations put are more stressful than any fancy graphics.
Thatís not to say that the game is ugly by any stretch of the imagination. While it might lack a certain pixel-shaded flair, the level of detail remains suitably impressive. Cars are of course the big focus, and the textures on them are truly beyond comparison. The designers went not just for detail, but authenticity. The cars sport the logos they do in real NASCAR, and even the interior touches are there Ė like gen-yoo-wine Autometer gauges.
Even though thereís little opportunity for special effects, the ones that do make it are done properly Ė and even contribute to the game. While the fantastic skies and sun are pretty much only there for show, the smoke from a crash not only looks good but is important in helping spot trouble. However, the most impressive effect has to be car damage. Not only does the sheet-metal bend gradually (and is slowly bent out in the pits), damage has a profound effect on gameplay. Even a relatively minor hit on the front end can kill top speed on straight tracks, while rear damage tends to damage stability.
As with the graphics, itís tempting to call the sound effects ĎSpartaní, but that gives the wrong impression. While itís true that thereís no excess or luxury, this is actually a good thing. The sparse environment makes the game all the more serious Ė and this is the most serious racing game ever. However, the quality of the sound effects cannot be questioned. The sound of a tire indicates just how hard youíre pushing it, and after a while you can shift just by listening to the engine.
Thatís not to say all is perfect. The voice acting is quite disappointing, and thereís really no good reason why. Nobodyís expecting Minsc or Illidan Stormrage, but weíd hope that the pit boss would sound better than the choppy. mixed. words. like. an. automated. phone. service.
SIDEBAR: Cars, particularly race cars, are a bad investment. Stay away from modifying yours if you ever want to have money. Iím serious. Itís like crack, but thereís no way to quit.
Newton loves Papyrus
NASCAR Racing 2003 has every option any NASCAR or race fan would want. Itís possible just to go on test runs, play single races or replay the entire season. The length of the races can be set as a percentage. So whether you want to get the entire race over and done with on a gas tank, or run the entire marathon at Daytona, itís up to you.
The gameís depth gets a new level should you choose to race longer. Not only do you have to worry about driving properly, you now have to plan pit stops. How long do you want to wear your tires? Thereís a yellow flag with 15 laps to go Ė do you take advantage of the opportunity to move up easily, or do you think youíll be running on empty by the time the checkered flag comes around?
Of course, thatís not all to the game. No amount of features or realism is worth a damn if the driving game doesnít have good feel. So believe me when I tell you: NASCAR 2003 has all the feel you could want and more. Even when limited by the joystick controls (ie, no analog throttle, poor steering control), the game provided me with absolutely awesome feedback Ė on the level of the vaunted Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec.
Multiplayer is great. The community is friendly and the Sierra matchmaking interface is as simple as battle.net. Besides, itís the only way to get a realistic challenge. Setting the computer playerís difficulty tends to turn races into either guaranteed wins or guaranteed losses, but a human opponent is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Just donít play destruction derby out there, or youíll run out of friends quick.
There are very, very few things that irk us about NASCAR 2003. First and foremost is the performance. The team at Papyrus might have been looking far into the future with NASCAR 2003 since this is the last game of the series for a while, but one would hope that a full track of cars wouldnít bring a 2GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of DDR to its knees. This isnít a killjoy, but itís something that potential buyers should watch out for. You can simply forget about running a full complement of cars and high detail on todayís hardware.
The other issue is that the box is missing the most important system requirement: steering wheel and pedals. Itís not to say that NASCAR 2003 is unplayable without those, but itís quite tedious. Being able to modulate the throttle makes driving all that much more fun, while having an actual steering wheel will keep your arm from cramping up into a pretzel. The game is aimed at hardcore racers who will have the equipment anyway, but casual fans should be aware of the problem.
SIDEBAR: (psst, Tomís right. Get Xbox, get KOTOR. Just donít let him know I said that.)
Never lush Ė realistic and Spartan without being ugly. Donít expect fancy effects, unless they make the game look more real.
SIDEBAR: One of the secrets to NASCARís success is that racing in it is relatively affordable. Of course, the big, huge, monstrous 190mph crashes help.
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What? Jakub the import-fan liking NASCAR? This is too much. And comparing this game to Quake? Blasphemy! Doesnít matter how hardcore it is, it is not H4rdc0r3 li3k Qu4k3!
SIDEBAR: Ready to hit the oval super speedways with Nascar Racing 2003? Did Jakub forget to fasten his racing harness and rammed the safety barrier head-on at 190mph thus, giving the game such a high score? Let us know!
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