NASCAR The Game: Inside Line Review – Xbox 360

NASCAR has almost turned in to a year round sport. They have races almost every weekend, a passionate (i.e. inebriated) fan base, and enough drivers fighting that they consistently end up on ESPN SportsCenter highlights.

NASCAR has a long and bumpy history in the videogame world. There were games tied to specific drivers, official NASCAR arcade games, a few licensed “simulation” style games, arcade “carnage” style games, and arcade kart racing. Most recently EA had NASCAR 09 (their last edition) and Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 included NASCAR in their excellent game on the PS3. But despite the realism of Turismo, it was only a few cars and tracks, not the full schedule. The only real competition for anyone comes on the PC with ultra-realistic iRacing, but you need to drop significant cash for a PC and graphics card to get the most out of it.

Eutechnyx came along in 2011 and dropped a surprise on everyone when they released a fully licensed NASCAR 2011 The Game. There wasn’t much advance buzz about the game… and it pretty much landed with a resounding thud. It was… okay. People were hungry for an updated NASCAR game with excellent graphics and authentic tracks, and Eutechnyx provided those things. But there just wasn’t much to do in NASCAR 2011. The list of things lacking in NASCAR 2011 was quite long. Many people tried it but most who were serious about racing jumped over to iRacing on PC or kept playing the much more robust NASCAR 09 on consoles. Let’s face it, there are tons of user created cars on the internet and if you have Photoshop you can make your own updates.

I stuck with Gran Turismo 5. It provides the all-around racing experience with just about every class of car and type of track available around the world… and it’s fun, especially with my trusty old Logitech steering wheel. So with predominantly mediocre reviews, Eutechnyx had their work cut out for them in 2012.

With the first introduction from Carl Edwards you get a little idea what is in store. Eutechnyx updated the graphics for NASCAR Inside Line to be on par with Gran Turismo. Even the sound has been updated with crowd noise and FOX’s Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip in the broadcast booth. Don’t worry, if you don’t like DW’s “boggity boggity” you can turn it off.
The actual driving itself is as easy or difficult as you want it to be. When you start the game you are asked to drive a few laps and the game recommends help settings for your driving style. Everything from braking to anti-wheel lockup measures can be tweaked to your liking. In easy mode you will quickly be winning races even when you start at the back of the field. For the most realistic experience the Normal and Hard settings really push the bounds of my patience. But winning a race is its own reward complete with “burnout mode”.

The normal Xbox 360 controller works fairly well for NASCAR Inside Line but the subtle touch needed to keep the car in line really begs for a wheel controller. There are many deals available this time of year for Logitech and other great wheels for under $100 which I highly recommend.

The crash dynamics have improved but not in a way many gamers would want. Eutechnyx now has a much more advanced damage system where impacts and velocity have a more direct effect on parts of the car. The tire smoke is a bit more realistic and scuffs on the paint are spot on, but you won’t see any flying parts or tires rolling down the infield. Every racer tries the infamous turnaround head-on collision to take the entire field out. But NASCAR Inside Line puts an immediate stop to the shenanigans by bringing out the caution as soon as you start going to wrong direction. You can do it in practice but don’t expect much. The cars act like a solid one piece mass so there are no particle explosion graphics or much of anything. Even running an opponent into the wall yields little excitement. There’s usually some smoke and a few sparks along with the requisite panel damage but the parts never fly even if someone gets airborne. It’s sad but NASCAR Inside Line still has the underlying problem from 2011. Aside from the strategy of passing people, it’s just not much fun. Those looking for crashes will still have to play Burnout Paradise.

There are over 40 of NASCARS’s top drivers and teams in the game including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Danica Patrick. There are also 23 officially licensed tracks. Despite a fairly immersive career mode, this is only Spring Cup racing. So moving up in the ranks is really just moving up in the standings since you already got your Sprint Cup ride. It would have been great to see people start in carts, dirt track midgets, outlaw and other local legend type racing. Moving up to the truck or Nationwide series to be finally recruited for Sprint Cup would have been a great career option. But not in NASCAR Inside Line.

When you start in Career Mode you have the bare minimum car. As you begin to win races and accumulate money, you can upgrade your car engine, transmission, brakes and other parts. You can also purchase packages that improve durability, fuel efficiency and other areas. Along the way you will pick up sponsors and awards. Big sponsors mean big money. Sponsors in NASCAR Inside Line include many of the ones in real life NASCAR including Home Depot, Goodyear, M&M’s, U.S. Army, Target, McDonalds, Bass Pro Shops, KLOVE Radio, Wheaties, Best Buy and many others.

NASCAR Inside Line includes realistic race weekends with practice, qualifying and races. Invitational events offer unique challenges with Eliminator, Gauntlet, Thunder Lap and Driver Duel. You can tinker a little bit in the garage with your setups to get every last hundredth of a second of speed out of your ride.

Customization is an area I enjoy the most in games. Custom teams in FIFA Soccer and custom clan tags in Call of Duty can really add something unique to a game. It personalizes it for you. EA’s NASCAR 09 utilized Photoshop files for users to make their own custom paint and decals. There are thousands of .PSD files still available on the internet for people to use – everything from corporate cars to your favorite sports teams. But that requires the developer to have a server dedicated for hosting. The problem with that is they eventually turn the server off like 2K Sports just did for College Hoops. So then you are kinda hosed – especially if the developer dropped the license and doesn’t make a game to upgrade. Eutechnyx went a little different route, instead trying to put the major tools of Photoshop directly in the game. It’s similar to what you use in Call of Duty games for your clan emblem.

NASCAR Inside Line has significant functions for your creativity to be expressed. You can make your own text, decals, and color combinations on just about everything. Text is limited to a few specific font styles, but other items can be created if you work with shapes and layers. Surprisingly they didn’t include individual text characters as decal shapes so when I tried to make a Green Bay Packers “G” logo it took way too long with way too many layers. It can be done; it just takes a long time. A significant number of sponsor logos are included but you won’t find alcohol or tobacco products and there are quite a few sponsors missing. It’s free advertising for them so it’s a mystery why anyone would not want to be included. I suppose some wanted to be paid for their logo use. Regardless, making custom cars can be really fun and creative. All it takes is a little time.

Xbox Live online racing has also been improved with up to 16 players competing. It can be a lot of fun, but as usual, your level of enjoyment is going to depend on the other players. Inevitably there is a dork in the group who wants to crash people so short races end up being mostly run under caution. Unfortunately my time online was marred with multiple lag and graphical bugs. The main problem I ran into was other drivers going up and down the track at whiplash speed without spinning out or any real consequence. Then there was an odd “Fringe” moment when all the cars merged into one long stretch limo style combination (see our screencaps). Despite the occasional graphic hiccup, if you know your fellow racers and you all want to race, online can be fun, but beware the noob.

You can also play with 2 people locally via split screen. The screen is split horizontally for you and a friend to swap some paint. This is one of the few racing games I’ve seen where the graphics worked well in split screen mode. Most games have limited distance visibility due to screen redraw times. NASCAR Inside Line can provide significant multiplayer fun especially if you have a big screen.

Another area of NASCAR Inside Line is Highlights. These are scenarios from the 2011 and 2012 seasons where you can earn points by reliving or rewriting moments from previous seasons. Some of them are pretty basic where you pass someone on the final lap. Others involve drafting until the last second to slingshot to a win. The scenarios are fun for any fan – especially if you want to correct an injustice when your favorite driver got beat. Soon there will be 2013 Highlights available as a DLC from most of the races this season (Bristol, Kansas and Dover are not included I assume due to licensing issues).

The audio has also improved over last year. Menu music has a good mix of tunes from Transparent, Uncle Kracker, Staind, The Sheepdogs, Black Stone Cherry and others. While you are driving you get assistance from spotter Ty Norris and crew chief Ray Evernham. As I said before Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip are in the broadcast booth. The cars of course sound like every race I’ve ever seen along with cheers from the crowd when I passed another driver.

NASCAR Inside Line has 50 achievements available for 1,000 gamer points. Many of the ‘achievements’ are little more than playing the game. Purchasing an upgrade or taking a picture in Photo Mode are rewarded, but so is Finishing a race with the fastest lap 100 times. There are 6 secret achievements but you’ll have to get creative and spend a lot of time online. The “Polish Victory Lap” achievement by driving a victory lap in the opposite direction around the track is a real obscure one.

Unfortunately, graphical glitches and lack of other racing series really make NASCAR Inside Line feel like half a game. There is just so much more Eutehnyx could have done. What they did include is done well and if you are a NASCAR fan, your choices are extremely limited and this game is about the least expensive way to put you in the Sprint Cup. But if you just like racing in general, there are other great options from ultra-realistic F1 2012 to arcade style classics like Burnout Paradise and F1 Race Stars Kart racing. Many of my NASCAR loving friends are sticking with Gran Turismo or EA’s NASCAR 09 which can both be found in the discount bin at your local game store.

Eutechnyx did provide a good update from their NASCAR 2011 game, but unfortunately NASCAR Inside Line is still carrying some baggage that needs work. NASCAR fans will still enjoy racing with their favorite driver and getting a little taste of the NASCAR experience. The graphics and sound of NASCAR are there and if you have a wheel controller and surround sound with a subwoofer, you will spend hours making creating your car and driving till your heart’s content.

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