The commercial rights holders of NASCAR, America’s most popular motorsport, don’t mess around with major marketing products such as an official video game. In fact they’ve got the 2009 NASCAR title out a full eight months before the season even starts.
But is it any good? And what ideas should Codemasters nick from it for their F1 game?
NASCAR 09 is produced by EA Sports who hold official licenses for many other major sports including football (FIFA) and many American series (National Football League, National Hockey League). The NASCAR licence also uses features from EA’s deal with American sports channel ESPN.
If you think this sounds like an overkill of licensing, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
I’ve never played a racing game where arranging sponsorship was such an integral part of the racing experience. Before you can get your career started you have to plaster your car in real-world sponsor’s decals, and each sponsor requires you to achieve certain things during your season – race finishes, pole positions etc…
Does it add anything to the game? Er, no. This is about getting NASCAR’s sponsors even more face time.
Before you get started you have to pick which driving mode you want. If you’re too lazy even to brake or lift off the accelerator when you reach a corner, you need normal mode. If you’re happy to make that basic concession towards actual driving, but still don’t want to shift your own gears, there’s ‘professional’ mode. Yes, this is very much an ‘arcade’ game.
The career mode simulates the three major tiers of NASCAR (see right for game pack shot), from the top-of-the pile Sprint Cup down through the Nationwide League and Craftsman Trucks – the latter being where you start out. This is a smart touch and an F1 game that included GP2 and some Formula Three championships would be an excellent idea.
Having customised my Craftsman Truck in a striking shade of pink with yellow-orange flames (what would they say in Talladega?), and judiciously applied stickers for Food City, Food World and Bare Auto Parts, I’m keen to get stuck into Career Mode.
But Jeff Gordon, your guide through NASCAR ’09, ushers me into a perplexing ‘challenge mode’ instead. Here you have to complete a series of tasks such as lapping an oval at an average of 150mph in order to gain performance points for your car. The challenges becoming increasingly frustrating and are rather unimaginative, so I dive into the menus and find my way to career mode.
Now things start getting interesting. At each race weekend you can practice and qualify, or just jump straight into the action. Qualifying is very straightforward – you can bounce off the walls to your heart’s content and still take pole with little difficulty.
But don’t treat your competitors with the same disrespect as the walls. The surprisingly tough driving standards rules will have you hauled out of the race if you try to progress through the field by bumping your rivals out of the way.
With practice there are some naughty things you can get away with (anyone who’s seen “World’s Most Shocking Police Videos” or played Grand Theft Auto will be familiar with the PIT manoeuvre) but normally you don’t want to risk getting caught.
If you do trigger a crash you’ll notice two things: first, the impact rendering on the cars is terrible. Smack into a barrier head-on and the car will barely bend at all. Rival cars bounce off each other most unrealistically.
But one realistic addition to the racing is the safety car (‘caution’) periods, which are a big part of NASCAR racing, but rarely appear in F1 games. You don’t actually get to drive during the safety car phases – it just sort of fast-forwards – but you do get the option to pit.
So here’s the critical question: is it actually fun to play?
Up to a point, NASCAR ’09 is quite entertaining. Jockeying for position with 36 cars is a blast (and so much more fun than those racing games with puny six-car grids). But the endless ovals get very repetitive, there are a lot of silly distractions from the racing that don’t add anything to the game, and it’s not challenging enough.
I hope next year’s F1 game by Codemasters will be a bit more ambitious, a bit more realistic, and a lot more challenging.
Oh, and calling a game ‘NASCAR 09′ when it features the 2008 season teams and tracks is stupid.
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