In 1995, a much younger me received a Sega Saturn for his birthday. That event led to my one and, until recently, only exposure to console NASCAR racing in the form of Daytona USA - a game many critics and gamers hated because it was a rushed port of a beloved arcade classic. I found it only dull and ugly. You drove around a track and sometimes, if you were lucky, you even got to turn right while utterly forgettable music droned on in the background.
Flash forward to today. Gaming is so much better. Graphics, sound, gameplay, story, and character interaction are forever improving. It’s a good time to be a gamer. It was with that positive attitude that I approached my time with Eutechnyx’s first foray into the world of NASCAR called, appropriately enough, NASCAR 2011: The Game. Unfortunately, despite all the ways gaming has gotten better, NASCAR 2011 was, to me, an identical experience to Daytona USA; specifically, I drove around a track and sometimes, if I was lucky, got to turn right while utterly forgettable music (also engine noises and goofy spotters) droned on in the background.
Because I am not a gear head per se, what I enjoy in racing sims such as this one is the opportunity to learn strategies and techniques and apply them to the best of my abilities on the virtual track. Forza Motorsport 3, for example, set me to the internet in a desperate attempt to learn about things like weight transfer, and threshold breaking. However, there is none of that in NASCAR 2011. It is strictly for fans of NASCAR, rather than fans of car racing, or fans of racing sims. That’s not to say it didn’t teach me anything. Drafting to build up momentum, then performing a slingshot around the car ahead of you taught that NASCAR and roller derby have more in common than I ever would have suspected. But, beyond that, there was nothing I felt I could glean from it that enlightened me to the world of NASCAR that I hadn’t already learned from ESPN and bad comedians.
So the game is thin in the, probably only important to me, “teaching” area, but what about the rest of it?
I’m sorry to say that the game is pretty bare-bones overall. Even though it comes with, upon initial inspection, a full-flavored suite of game modes, playing those modes reveals them to be utterly basic. The biggest offender, and the ones that will upset fans the most, is the career mode, and I use that term loosely. “Career mode” lets you drive as one of 43 actual race drivers, or you can choose a “blank” driver and give him a name, then name your racing team and pick from a limited number of car designs. After that, you jump into the NASCAR racing season, taking part in all 36 licensed races; then, if you qualify, you drive in “The Chase,” a 10 race playoffs-style series to determine the season’s champion. There are also several invitational events that require you to meet other goals besides “win,” such as drafting behind, then slingshotting around the other drivers. Awards for these invitationals are driver “accolades” that seem to be nothing but coins with the ghoulish head of the driver you passed impressed onto it. NASCAR pins can also be won and displayed online, but serve no real purpose.
Good so far, right? Well, once you finish the season, all you can do is pick another driver and do it all over again. The so-called career mode in this game would be a season mode in almost any other. There’s no career. You don’t start at the bottom, and work your way up to the top through years of hard work, while juggling sponsors over the course of several seasons. In NASCAR 2011, you start at the top, and your only goal is to win the championship. There are sponsors (and most seemed real to someone who isn‘t a avid NASCAR fan), but acquiring them is like a mini-game. You a gain sponsor through the meeting of 3 arbitrary requirements, such as, for example, making “The Chase,” gaining “15 fastest laps,” and leading for a total of 100 laps. Once signed, all you get are NXP, or “NASCAR experience points” bonuses, and you only get those where you meet more arbitrary conditions, such as leading every lap in a race, finishing in the top ten, and so on. However, these NXP bonuses are small relative to what you could earn for simply drafting well during the race. When you can gain over a thousand NXP for simply doing what you need to do anyway, getting an extra 140 for finishing in the top ten barely warrants mentioning.
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