Reviewed: April 27, 2003
Released: February 4, 2003
Iíve always been a huge NASCAR fan, partly because my dad was and partly because I grew up living only 20-minutes from the Texas Motor Speedway. A couple of years ago I got my dad a gift certificate for the Team Texas Ride Along Ė one of those deals where they put you in a real stockcar with a real driver then take you around the track for a 4-lap ride going 150mph. After listening to him rave about the experience non-stop for a month we both decided to enroll in their Driving School.
A month later we were both sitting there going through training before we were put into real cars to learn and execute real maneuvers. We got to race six different 10-lap sessions where we learned to pass, draft, and race side-by-side (very unnerving by the way). That experience will probably be the greatest thing I will ever do in my lifetime, unless I go back and enroll in the Advanced Driving School, which is something I plan to doÖsomeday.
For those of you who donít have $1,900 lying around or that donít live within earshot of the TMS you can settle for what is easily the ďnext best thingĒ, Sierraís NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. And even though racing with a full field of 42 cars at simulated speeds of 200mph can never compare to actually driving one of these machines at 160mph against 9 other cars on a real track, itís pretty darn close.
Please donít take the previous three paragraphs as me simply bragging about doing something that so many NASCAR fans would dream of doing. Iím merely trying to establish my credentials for the upcoming review. Papyrus has become synonymous for serious racing sims, and I was more than pleased when given the opportunity to tackle this latest racing game. Hopefully I can add a unique perspective to my review that a reviewer who hasnít driven one of these cars could not.
Youíve probably already peaked at the score so you know this game kicks ass, and Iím about to tell you why, but it is also important to know that this title marks the last NASCAR game to come from Papyrus. Apparently Electronic Arts has wielded their unstoppable corporate hammer and smashed the competition, proving once again that if you canít buy it, destroy it. Iíve never been a big fan of EAís NASCAR titles in the past, so if you want the ultimate NASCAR game make sure to get this one and hang on to it. Itís likely to become a collectorsí item.
If you know anything about auto racing then you already know what the gameplay is like. You strap yourself into a hurtling piece of steel and tear around a track at speeds reaching 200mph. Rookie drivers will find the video tutorials and optional driving aids like steering and braking assistance very helpful and the ability to toggle the ideal racing lines is a wonderful way to plot the optimum path and learn your way around each of the 23 tracks.
I was disappointed that the interactive track guides are not part of this edition. Those were extremely useful in last yearís game and newcomers to the series will miss them, even if they donít know what theyíre missing.
If youíre a veteran of the NASCAR series nothing has really changed in the gameplay department. Youíll slip behind the wheel just like a comfortable pair of old shoes and only then will you realize just how much has been improved in ways that many will never notice or appreciate.
The physics engine for this final edition is perhaps the finest ever created Ė yes, I believe it even usurps GPL Ė both in car handling, performance, and overall realism. Assuming you are using a force feedback wheel (and why wouldnít you) the first thing you will notice is the highly detailed tracks that bring every bump to life whether it be a rumble strip or a small dip in the tarmac.
The cars themselves are insanely accurate. Having driving a couple myself I can attest to the fact that it doesnít get much more real than this. Using data from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and Jasper Motorsports Papyrus has created a simulation that is likely to impress even professional drivers. One concept that has finally been realized is the continuous pull these cars have due to the camber adjustment that makes them turn easier on the curves. You actually have to counter-steer slightly to the right to maintain a straight driving line.
Of course you can disable or subtly tweak the realism settings however you choose. If NASCAR 2003 is anything itís configurable. There are so many settings and options you can play with you could spend hours in the game before ever leaving the pit.
Once you do hit the track you have all your optional modes like practice, qualifying, single race, or tackle the entire season going against the entire pack including AI representations of some of NASCARís best drivers. The AI is very challenging and also configurable. Papyrus calls it ďAdaptive AIĒ, which had me worrying that it would be the old rubber band effect, but these computer-controlled drivers simply follow the rules of racing. They drive all the best lines, they pass when itís safe, they pit when they need to, and are subject to the same random tire blowouts or blown engines that you are. Best of all, the cars react to you. They donít blindly follow some pre-programmed path to the exclusion of safe driving habits, but they do manage to get into a few wrecks of their own from time to time.
As in previous games you can adjust the overall difficulty/aggression of these drivers with the percentage slider. Setting this at 100% is something to aspire to, and will provide the ultimate in realism and challenging racing. You can also go in and tweak dozens of stats for each individual racer, their car and even their pit crew. Updated rosters, and stats are also available for download, which will certainly make this the last NASCAR game you ever need to buy.
The NASCAR games have consistently gotten better and better in the visual department but there has never been such significant or noticeable improvement than this yearís release. Every graphical trick and special effect has turned out to bid NASCAR a fabulous farewell as it leaves the Papy garage. Just about every graphical setting is adjustable, so you can fine-tune the game to your system.
I was able to run the game at 1280x1024 at full detail with a full pack of cars on the field, but then again, my system is obscenely powerful (P4 2.4ghz). Even if you have to crank down some details itís still going to look great. At least Papyrus was thinking toward the future and the more power and hardware you throw at it, the better NASCAR 2003 will look and play, even in the years to come.
The cars have never looked better and they now cast shadows and reflect the light and surrounding objects. The night races are incredible and the track lights will create a strobe light effect on your car and dash as you speed past the floodlights. Sunlight is still accurately modeled creating a suitable glare that will nearly blind you. It also creates some cool lens flares when watching the replays from the various track and TV camera angles.
I was surprised to find that a majority of the visual enhancements only make themselves known when you are racing from the cockpit view. Sure, you can race from the hood or even a chase view but come on folks Ė this is a simulation. Sit in the seat, put on your harness and drive the car like it was meant to be driven. When you do you will be treated to subtle realistic effects like dirt and oil that slowly gathers on your windshield. You also notice there is a much more realistic sway to the car as well as a vertical bounce. Combined with a force feedback wheel and a good sound system that lets you hear the engine whine when you break traction, and you are in store for one killer simulation.
Often forgot in racing games is the ever-so important rearview mirror. The mirror used in NASCAR 2003 is identical to the ones used in real stockcars; extra wide, giving you a huge peripheral range of vision behind you and to the sides including much of the interior of your car. If you had kids in the backseat you could keep an eagle eye on them as well.
There are plenty of special effects like skid marks that accumulate throughout the race. Iím not sure if it keeps ALL of them rendered or if the early ones disappear as newer ones are made. If so, I never noticed and at 190mph you had better not be counting skid marks. There are other nice effects like smoke from tires, and exhausts that backfire and pop.
My only minor complaint with the graphics is that the scenery around the track is a little sparse and primitive. Grass textures are a bit repetitive, trees are noticeably 2D backdrops, and the crowds are 2D placards with no life in them. Again, all of this is very trivial and you wonít even notice until you start studying the replays. Besides, I want my details on the track, not outside the fence.
Nothing on the PC can come close to the sounds that a real NASCAR vehicle can make, let alone 42 of them roaring around the Texas Motor Speedway. The air literally ďmovesĒ with the reverberations. Even so, NASCAR 2003 does a good job of putting authentic sounds into this game, even if they donít share the same intensity.
The sound is presented in 3D and if you have a 4-speaker setup you can hear the cars as they come up behind you and attempt to pass. Itís very cool and very real. The sounds are also suitably muffled or adjusted based on your current view. Riding outside the car obviously gives you greater volume.
The spotters have been greatly improved. Those of you who have played the previous games will remember that their advice was not always entirely accurate. This has been improved, so when they tell you to drive blindly through a smoking wreck and ďstay highĒ you can trust them.
For those that need some added extra value to their game, Papyrus has included their now-famous Paint Shop that lets you customize any or all cars of your choosing. I played around with this just for the purpose of this review but I have neither the time nor the talent to pursue a virtual career in auto-detailing. Iíll leave that to the more artistic race fans then download their work into my game. I will say that the Paint Shop is quite intuitive and easy enough to learn and work with.
Those looking to demonstrate their superior racing skills to the general public can head to the Sierra Network where you can almost always find a race going on day or night. As with any online experience, your enjoyment will vary with the community, and while NASCAR has a great deal of serious racers, there are just as many going online to create carnage on the track. If you plan to race seriously then you will want to get involved with an established league that filters out the troublemakers.
Papyrus has put everything theyíve got into this game and it shows. This is the ultimate NASCAR simulation and with downloadable content it will be the last one you ever need unless they change the rules, add a track, or make some other significant change to the sport.
I guess the ultimate praise I can give this game is that when I drove around the Texas Motor Speedway on my PC I had definite flashbacks to racing real laps around the real track. This is as close to the real thing as you can get without laying out some serious cash and climbing into a car yourself. It wasnít just the scenery but the overall feel of the car combined with the visuals and sounds. NASCAR Racing 2003 just brings it all together to create the perfect racing experience.