(Please note that all screenshots are taken from Xbox version)
I'll admit it, the commercial sold me on this game. The prospect of swapping paint with some of my favorite drivers and the images of smashing Jeff Gordon into the wall over and over again really appealed to me. I just knew that the game wouldn't disappoint, I mean TV would never lie to me, right?
Well in a sense it did, that prominantly displayed Colloseium-esque race track never made an appearance, but I wouldn't let that one setback stop me from playing this game, I had my sights set on old number 24 and he had another thing coming to him. So I fired up the game with thoughts of haunting Jeff Gordon from the onset of each and every race, assuring that he would get a DNF for the entire season. In other words, I was going to make him my bitch.
All right, so I was less than succesful, but I did manage to screw the little bugger from time to time, and when I wasn't trying to maim that old Dupont car (let's see them Teflon coat that!) I was actually enjoying what the game had to offer me and in many ways, this is the best arcade-themed Nascar game ever to be released.
Mr. Gordon, meet Mr. Wall
Newbies to the franchise have to understand that this isn't your garden variety Papyrus designed NASCAR game, the truth is far from it. It's very forgiving to those who are new to the sport and have yet to grasp the intricacies and more importantly, to those who have a hard time making left turns at a very high velocity. Yea drafting plays a vital role in your success on the racetrack but it's been reduced to arcade-like elements, featuring a small indicator that fills as you gradually build up more draft. Tweaking your car consists of doing a few minor things such as changing the gear ratios and tweaking the tire PSI ratio, a grease monkey's delight this is not.
But that's the beauty of it all, you don't have to know the best line for each of the 20+ officially licensed tracks (an optional feature will put it on the track for you) and you don't have to know the names of each and every individual driver not named Dale Earnhardt Jr. to enjoy the game. Just grab your controller, hit the track and punch the gas, that's it. Optional assists will help even the most novice of gamers get into the action, helping you with stability controls and braking. In fact it's so easy that my girlfriend, who has no prior knowledge of the finer workings of NASCAR, had little trouble getting in to this game.
Think you're better than the rest of the population? Then prove it, turn off the assists and hit the track, just make sure to have the number of a good body shop handy because you'll need it. Surprisingly, the game features some pretty accurate on-track physics. Trying to punch the gas on the 1st turn of the California Speedway? You can expect your car to get loose and run up in to the wall. Swapping paint with the guy in front of you? Get ready to witness an amazing crash. Speaking of crashes, they exist on three planes as opposed to two so prepare to witness cars that roll and become airborne. The physics are highly realistic, lending each of the vehicles a very solid and convincing feel.If you're a true fan then you'll want to check out the career mode, where you can participate in 20 consecutive seasons. That's not all though, you'll have to manually hire your 11 man pit crew, repair your vehicles, research new technology and build up new parts. It's a very deep and engaging mode that really extends this game's replay value. You'll even manually sign sponsorship deals, each of which have their own expectations for your season. Some of the expecations range from things such as expected finish higher than Ricky Rudd to a Top 5 finish at Daytona. Fail to do so and they'll pull their deal, relieving you of a whole lot of cash.
Not that big of a fan? Then why not try the season mode, a race through a user selected number of races. Best of all? You can go at it with your friends, up to three others to be exact. Points are tabulated with compliance to the Winston Cup regulations, meaning that you can earn points by placing in a race or leading laps. Of course the person with the most points at the end of the season wins. In the season mode you won't have to worry about money or repairing of vehicles, just qualify for the race and you're off.
If you've got a few minutes to kill then you'll want to check out the Arcade mode, again available for up to four players. In it you'll participate in a single race of your choosing. Qualifying is optional, if you choose to bypass it you'll start out in the middle of the field, and according to my girlfriend, that's not too bad of a thing. Starting out in 11th means that there are still a ton of cars to smash in to.
If you're a true fan of NASCAR then you'll want to check out the Lightning Challenge, a series of situations that mimic real life instances. This mode pits you in the driver seat of a racer at a pivotal point of a race. As a nice touch you'll hear the actual MRN call from the race before you're thrust into the situation, you'll get an introduction from the driver who lived the experience. Passing the challenge earns you a thunder plate (an unlockable that is very similar to the Madden Cards) that will give you extras such as legendary drivers and race tracks. You can earn more plates by passing the Thunder License, a set of challenges set on the game's various tracks.
Going toe to toe with Mr. Viagra himself
In a word Nascar Thunder 2003
is beautiful, the way the sunlight gleams from off the horizon, the ways the vehicles shine and glimmer in the twilight, the way the cars spin and flip as they crash, it's all very poetic. Everything in the game looks great and while all three versions of the game look quite similar the Xbox version gets the nod for the best looking of the three with the PS2 version lagging just a bit behind. The textures are just a tad bit more blurry and the frame rate tends to dip a bit when a few cars are on the screen. Overall I'm very impressed by the visual look of the game, even the cockpit view (a very welcome vantage point) looks highly realistic, featuring all the gauges that you would expect to populate the vehicles.
Pit stops are fully rendered as well and as another welcome addition, you'll actually see your pit crew make mistakes this around, instead of just wondering why more seconds ticked off the clock than usual. You'll see cool things like a tireman bumping a fuel man, causing the nozzle to pop out of the gas tank, and more importantly, cost you a few more precious seconds than you would have liked. As if that wasn't enough you'll even see a fully rendered celebration sequence if you win a race, complete with driver jumping out of the window and putting a Gatorade-like bottle on top of his vehicle as he hoists the trophy above his head. More nice touches whose absence wouldn't detract from the game, but whose addition really makes this game that much more special.
In all three versions you'll have a choice of selecting either your pit chief's voice or music for the in-game audio. If you own the Xbox version then you'll be allowed to make your own custom soundtrack from all of the music that you currently have on your hard disk. If not then you'll be able to choose from four tracks, headlined by Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride and backed up by Fenix Tx's Get In to My Car. The rest of the game's audio is pretty nice although the roar of the engines seem to drown out the pit chief far too often, some minor tweaking will need to be done to find a good comprimise.
This game is far from perfect though, I wish that the pitting interface was far more intuitive. In fact you don't even get to control your vehicle on its journey down pit row, the AI controls it for you and you're presented with a menu. The replays are just absolutely lacking, being reduced to a minor highlight reel at the end of each race, showing some rather questionable "highlights." Why not just allow me to watch the whole race in its entirity? I want to see that amazing move that I did on lap 152 to overtake Mark Martin at Talledega, I want to witness that amazing 15-car wreck just one more time. In fact replays can only be watched from pre-determined camera angles that really never quite show you what you want to see. The only time you can see wrecks is after a yellow flag caution where yet again, it never does quite show the whole picture. I want to see what happened and who was affected, why not let me control the tape and viewing angle?
I likes to ride in style
The driver AI is also rather hit or miss on many occasions, sometimes they'll do nice things like cut off the best line or block you as you try to pass on a long straight away, other times they'll rear end you or drive you into a wall for no apparent reason. This is especially annoying when you realize that there was plenty of room for them to pass you on the inside that could have been used to avoid the accident.
While it isn't without its problems and hitches, Nascar Thunder 2003
is the best console Nascar title available to date. Heavy on both features and entertainment, each and every race provides an amazing experience that is light years ahead of what the competition is providing. If you're a fan of Nascar, or just a fan of racing in general, you definitely won't want to pass this one up.