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. Speaking of NXP; as far as I can tell it does absolutely nothing. Maybe you can use it to unlock new driver-specific paint schemes, but if you can, I never earned enough to. I never earned enough because the game’s difficulty is brutal, even on easy with all the driver assists (traction and stability control, ABS, steering, and auto-brake) turned on. My car spent so much time rubbing up against wall that I’m pretty sure it should register as a sex-offender. As far as I can tell, there were several reason for my familiarity with the wall. The main culprits were other drivers that would, as soon as you tried to mix it up and pass in the main group (otherwise known as “the only interesting part of the race“), tap you in the behind and spin you out - it would literally happen to me every lap. It’s not fun to spend as much time facing backwards as facing forwards during a race. This created 2 separate problems: one, cautions were completely random. This meant the even a violent collision and spin could result in your car being bypassed by the whole pack, leaving you in last place and facing the wrong direction because there was no caution. The second problem was being spun out into pit row only to receive a penalty for exceeding the speed limit. That’s some serious nonsense right there - like an NFL player being called for offsides after the play was over as he was walking to his bench. Other issues included a brake warning that often came too late for me to do anything, and a rewind feature - ostensibly a mulligan for bad drivers - that often didn’t go back far enough to allow me to avoid the events that led to me rubbing one out against the wall (again).
Even the ability to tune my car didn’t alleviate my constant crashing issues. NASCAR 2011’s tuning system, while functionally similar to Forza’s (minus the purchasing of upgraded parts), never paid off the way it did in Forza. I could dial back oversteer in that game, for example, but all the fiddling in the world never produced any noticeable results in NASCAR 2011. I did, however, enjoy the paint customization. It’s nearly as deep and, frankly, a little easier to use than Forza’s. But even that was not without its issues: There were no head or tail light decals and placing words requires awkwardly placing each letter individually. Entering one medium-length word required so many button inputs, it was hardly worth the effort. The only other option of note in career mode was to view your car, but all you could do was spin the virtual camera around it. With no zoom, what’s the point?
All in all, career mode, such as it is, was a bust for me. There were no multiple seasons and no feeling of building and climbing the latter to success that have become standard in most modern licensed sports games. I was looking forward to learning the ropes and getting a sense for what being a NASCAR driver is like, but there was just nothing to hold my interest and make me care about what I was doing.
So career mode is a failure, maybe the straight single player mode would be better. After all it contained the ability to select any racer, paint scheme, track, and included the interesting “eliminator” mode where after a certain interval of time, the last place racer was kicked off the track until the one was left and crowned winner. However, the racing was identical to career mode. For me, that meant lots of facing the wrong direction and rubbing against the wall. At least, as with career mode, each race is very customizable. Everything from AI difficulty to transmission type (auto, semi-auto, and manual) to number of laps, and drivers assist sliders were customizable- and many, if not all, could be altered during the race. That was a nice touch.
Single player also offers a practice mode and track testing. Practice lets you select the car and track, then drive it, while track testing is more for gear heads who want to optimize a set up for a given track. It’s basic stuff, to be sure, but it at least you’re not being spun out constantly so you can appreciate the sense of speed and growl of the engine. That leaves the various multiplayer modes. The game gets props for offering split-screen, however, it’s you and your buddy, marked as “rival,” against 41 other drivers. You can race for bragging rights if you want, but is it worth bragging about finishing 30th, while he finished 34th? Online limit’s the racers to 16, so you can beat your buddies outright, but part of what makes NASCAR what it is, is the mass of 43 cars often in formation traveling at 180mph. 16 cars removes that mass and trades it for lots of open space.
So the game modes are very basic, but it’s 2011. Surely the game offers jaw-dropping graphics and sound, right? The answer is “sort of.”
Graphically, the game looks good, but that’s it. The car look good and are highly detailed, but there are some noticeable jaggies here and there. Also, on one occasion my steering wheel disappeared mid-race. The tracks themselves, also look nice but do suffer from moments of pop-in, especially on the road courses where winding twists and turns often catch the engine off-guard, forcing it to throw a bunch of details up at once. The touted crash damage is less impressive. Bits of debris that litter the track after crashes look like so much schmutz and crumpled panels that stay on the car just look jagged. Also, the crash physics are very floaty. Sure, a violent collision can send you airborne, barrel rolling, but when you land, the impact doesn’t convey itself to you.
Much like the graphics, the sound is a mixture of good and not so good. Engines sound great, but do drone on after a while, while tire squeals and crashes are appropriately noisy, but nothing special. Less than “nothing special” is your spotter, who, by my estimation, is completely useless. He yells out bits like “clear on your left,” or “focus, no rookie mistakes” but much of it is too late to be of any use. More annoyingly, he spends a disproportionate amount of time complaining about his food or how hot it is. I shudder to think what 200 laps of “a bird just pooped on my hotdog” would feel like.
The music doesn’t fare much better. I hope you like ZZ Top because that same ZZ Top song is going to play every time you boot the game up and mess with your options before a race. But at least ZZ Top isn’t bland like the rest of the, maybe 4 or 5, licensed songs that play during various menus. I didn’t recognize a single one and I wasn’t compelled to find them out either, but I understand that music is subjective and that your mileage may vary.
All that leaves me to talk about is the single worst part of the entire game: THE LOADING. There is so much loading in NASCAR 2011 that it really grated on my nerves. There is a loading screen in between every screen-change during the game. It even loads before and after pit stops. What’s worse is that during loading screens, they try to make it less dull by offering NASCAR trivia up like you’re waiting for a movie to start in the theater. Unfortunately the questions are as dull and bare-bones as the rest of the game: nicknames, dates of birth, slang terms, team assignments, and car numbers are all they ask about. A typical question goes like, “what race track in Indiana is known as the “yard of bricks?” I know bad comedians like to pretend that NASCAR fans are stupid, but c’mon, even an idiot would know the answer to that. This is a game for die-hard NASCAR fans. Ask some question that only die-hard NASCAR fans would know.
Overall, I feel like this game had so much potential, but failed to live up to any of it, and that, perhaps, it didn’t know its audience. It looks good and it sounds good, but it’s probably not hard-core enough for the die-hards due to it’s lack of features, but too hard-core for arcade racing fans as the turning is a deep as I’ve ever seen in a racing game. Maybe it’s just growing pains, after all this is Eutechnyx’s first attempt at a NASCAR game. Often times, a “first” in a sports franchise will suffer as features are left by the wayside to ensure the core gameplay is up to snuff. Hopefully, that’s the case here, and next year’s version will be the game true racing sim die-hards can get behind.