Reviewed: September 21, 2006
Released: September 6, 2006
As we approach the fifth year of Electronic Arts’ holding the exclusivity rights for producing NASCAR-licensed video games, we can look on the past four iterations and agree that the franchise has consistently improved with each successive release.
From the bare-bones NASCAR racing of the old NASCAR Thunder, to the off-the-speedway racing of NASCAR Chase For The Cup, to the car-hopping strategy aspects of NASCAR Total Team Control – there’s no denying that EA’s NASCAR franchise has spent a great deal of time in the body shop over the past half-decade.
Considering all of the innovative modifications the series has seen over the years, it makes it all the more disappointing that EA’s newest NASCAR release – NASCAR 07 – makes little or no improvement on the franchise, and in the end feels more of a roster update than a true sequel.
And while the hardcore NASCAR fanatics are sure to go ape over the incremental changes, most casual gamers will find themselves longing for a break from the monotonous left turns.
So what old stuff has EA given us in NASCAR 07?
Thankfully, the “Total Team Control” elements of NASCAR 06’s release are back. This means that gamers can once again warp between team members’ vehicles during races, and bark out orders to teammates (via USB headset) during racers. Admittedly, the Total Team Control is a bit gimmicky, but it really does add a genuine element of strategy to the game, which serves to make the game more accessible to lesser and non-NASCAR fans.
EA also hangs onto the Intimidator® function – which allows you to apply pressure to specific cars ahead in the pack and bully them into making a mistake.
Coupled with the Intimidator®, the Grudges and Alliances system once again comes into play. The AI is aggressive as ever, and they can (and do) hold grudges against you for your sins committed on the speedway. Smack a driver one too many times, and he is going to get you back – generally at the most inopportune time.
Last-lap nudges into the infield happen on a regular basis – obviously a real downer after completing a tedious climb through the 43-person pack – so the mechanic of making or breaking alliances with the other drivers is of the utmost importance. Sure, sometimes the game’s logic for who is friend or foe is questionable (a simple nudge might turn an ally into a rival in the blink of an eye) but it is pretty cool to be accountable for your actions.
All of the standard racing styles of the previous years are here – the Whelen Modifieds, Craftsman Truck Series and of course the Nextel Cup Series. Gamers can either light up a quick Race Now arcade race, or take a driver through the usual cast of career modes, including the ever-popular Chase For The Cup and Fight For The Top modes.
Did EA add anything new?
Yes – the Variable Driver Attribute System and the Dynamic Driver Attributes – which is a complicated way of saying that each driver comes pre-programmed to perform better on certain speedways (short, long, road course) than others based on his background and skill.
The game then incorporates a skill-based points system which rewards (or penalizes) gamers for their driver’s actions on the racetrack.
These points are earned for actions like clean passing, using the Intimidator®, sharing a draft, etc., and can then be used to boost your driver’s skills (filling in weak areas) and even for some side game wagering. All of this is tied into the new Adrenaline Meter, which gives the driver an immediate boost of skill during the race. It all sounds complicated, but it does work.
Still, while the VDA and DDA are a nice addition to the game – it is nowhere near as innovative an element as last year’s Total Team Control, and variable stats really should have been a part of the franchise from day one.
On the technical end, EA reports to have attuned the car control and added a slider-based vehicle settings system to make driving seem a bit more intuitive and manageable – but only the die-hard NASCAR gaming vets will really notice.
While the car did seem to hold a bit more stability in the longer races, the overall response is still a bit on the squirrelly side. And as for the enhancements made to the vehicle settings system, it is nice that the developers give free rein to tweak even the finest minutiae in the downforce and power-to-weight parameters – but the level of detail quickly reaches the point that you have to be a NASCAR aficionado to even comprehend the effects of minor modifications in tire pressure and spoiler angles.
So this all sounds good, where are the problems?
On a technical level the game falters so seriously that it makes a negative impact on the overall gameplay experience. A NASCAR game needs to be fluid and smooth – and NASCAR 07 is neither. Plus, some seeming minor glitches have some serious consequences that deal a blow to the gameplay.
For instance, the rearview mirror is basically useless in NASCAR 07 – and that’s a huge no-no for a NASCAR game. The deal is that the in-mirror framerate is so slow, it literally looks like a series of snapshots being laid on top of each other. I’m not kidding when I would say that while the game itself is pushing maybe 30fps at its best, the rearview mirror is maybe in the single-digits.
While I would normally save framerate issues for the Graphics portion of the review, in a sport like NASCAR – where managing the cars behind is every bit as important (if not more, even) as managing those that are ahead – you simply cannot survive if you cannot see behind you.
In fact, it is so obvious that the developers realized their rearview mirror shortcomings, they simply stripped it from the default in-car views – where it has been for every prior version of the franchise – and made it a manually added option.
And not a surprise – the online play in NASCAR is as worthless as ever on the PS2. Still featuring support for only four players maximum, the action is once again so laggy that slogging through the jittery mess is more frustrating than fun.
But really, NASCAR 07’s biggest flaw is that it just lacks that new car smell that we have come to expect from the ever-evolving series. I was so hoping for something new to inject a little new excitement in the dry motor sport. Simply giving the same tricks from years before and tossing a few paltry tweaks and a points-based character development system (that should have been there all along) does not do a whole lot to keep my interest.
The NASCAR franchise has always looked a bit weak on the PS2, but we have always been able to chalk up the grainy visuals and jittery framerates to the fact that the game will at any given time display 43 onscreen cars battling it out for supremacy.
Over the past half a dozen years of holding NASCAR exclusivity on the PS2, the folks at Tiburon have managed to tweak out steady and incremental improvements in terms of visuals. NASCAR 07 is a different story, though – it actually seems to take a leap backwards in visual quality.
The overall visual quality is even more blocky and jagged than ever, and any opponents that fall more than even a few car lengths morph into an indistinguishable blob of pixels. While this might not necessarily be a deal breaker in the close-quarters bumping and nudging of NASCAR, it really deals a blow during the numerous wide-angle broadcast style replays that automatically launch during yellow flag events (i.e. crashes). More often than not, these distant camera angles will simply yield an mess of pixels rather than displaying the wonderful carnage within.
While the jaggies just make the game look ugly, there are a handful of framerate issues that tend to impact the gameplay in NASCAR 07 – most noticeably the rearview mirror issue mentioned earlier.
The speedway backgrounds are accurately modeled (as they are every year) and give a great sense of scale – but any real definition is lost to the heavy softening filters that have been utilized to both give a sense of speed, and to cover shortcomings in the coding.
That is not to say that the game is a total failure on the visual front – the game incorporates a few cool effects like lens flares and real-time reflections, and the in-car view really is pretty darn cool - featuring expertly-rendered representations of the padded roll cage, steering wheel, and Plexiglas windshield.
And finally, where I loved EA’s incorporation of FMV movie in their Need For Speed Most Wanted – the inclusion of FMV shorts featuring real-life NASCAR drivers comes across as a bit cheesy and outdated.
The silver lining on NASCAR 07’s dark cloud would have to be the sound design, which is top notch as usual. After nearly a decade of making NASCAR games, EA knows how to convey the aural aspects of NASCAR quite well and everything, from the rumbling of the 43 high-powered race cars to the rousing cheers of the spectators, is magnificent.
With each successive release of an EA game, I find myself growing more impressed with the selection of music chosen for EA Trax. EA is doing a great job of garnering a diverse selection of some of the biggest and best-known acts on the radio, sprinkling in a handful of the smaller or more-obscure bands, and coming up with soundtrack that nails the subject material on the head and has something to offer everyone.
Country, rock, emo, punk and rockabilly – they’re all covered and more. And while I might not be a Toby Keith or Breaking Benjamin fan, I was completely stoked to find old faves Southern Culture on the Skids finally getting mainstream props after fifteen years of obscurity.
Rating these NASCAR games is always particularly difficult for a reviewer like myself – and it is all the fault of you readers out there. You see, there are certain sects of readers who are diehard racing fans who want their games to look good, play well, feel fast, and most of all – be fun. The other sect are the NASCAR diehards, who could not care less about how the game looks, plays, or feels – as long as the rosters are up to date, and they can spend countless hours tweaking tire pressures, and riding that fine line of fuel consumption.
That said, NASCAR 07 is really for the diehard NASCAR fan that is dead set on keeping his or her game up to date. The game’s new features are not all that impressive, and the technical glitches are downright annoying compared to the previous years’ efforts.
NASCAR 07 really does compile the best gameplay elements from the previous four years’ worth of their NASCAR franchise. While this would normally warrant a hands-down recommendation – especially releasing this close to the (apparent) end of the PS2’s lifespan – NASCAR 07’s technical glitches really deal a serious blow to the fun.
I’ve grown to like EA again. As of late, they have been doing good for many games. And really, EA’s NASCAR series has been consistently solid for quite some time. Yet somehow, somewhere, NASCAR 07 slipped off course and is nowhere near the quality it should be.
Of course, to the diehard NASCAR gamers out there, NASCAR 07 could be a text-based strategy game, and they would still race to the stores to get their hands on a copy. And they will love every moment of it.
As for the rest of us, we are better of letting those gamers pass us by while we head to the rental shop.