NASCAR 2011: The Game
NASCAR has all but been forgotten in the video game arena, mostly because Electronic Arts cut out support for their fanchise after the release of NASCAR 09 in 2008 due to stale interest in the sport. Fortunately for car racing fans, Activision and UK developer Eutechnyx are taking the brand name for a spin around with track with the release of NASCAR 2011: The Game for the Xbox 360, PS3 and the Wii. If EA approached NASCAR from the building-a-career level, you could say that Eutechnyx approached it from the arcade point of view. They waste no time launching you directly into a race right at the start and immerse you in what it feels like to be at a live NASCAR event.
Right from the start, you can launch into any of your favorite tracks without having to unlock them or drivers for that matter. You can, however, earn NASCAR Experience Points (NXP) by achieving goals like gaining position on the track or placing at the end of the race. These points can be spent on sponsorships which, when applied to your car, can unlock bonus multipliers to rack up even more points. You can also open up more track designs and various modifications to your vehicle with the extra points. There are plenty of tuning options for the NASCAR gear heads out there and creating a personally modified car is pretty satisfying, especially when you start winning consistently. However, the career mode is extremely shallow and you will find yourself only spending time to earn points for a lack of larger goals that a career mode could have provided.
If you have played one of EA's final outings, you will find the handling to be pretty similar. You will need to stay in constant control of your car in order to avoid wildly spinning out of control on a poorly thought out turn. The player has the ability to allow damage incurred on the track to alter car performance and I actually prefer it that way. The damage models on cars are impressive, especially during major wrecks. If you can barely slip through a series of wrecks on the track, consider yourself skilled and lucky. You can also gain several positions if you navigate carefully around wrecks, even with the yellow flag wildly snapping in the wind.
Beyond playing through the limited career mode, you can also try your hand at multiplayer matches. Unfortunately, the races are limited to 16 racers and don't allow bots to drive the remaining cars. Some of the tracks seem far too big for just 16 drivers. There's also a extreme amount of lagging during matches that makes you think that we have returned to the days of dial up. Heck, it looked similar to Namco's early attempts at Ridge Racer on the Xbox 360, notorious for poor online play and rubber banding cars. Beyond the online problems, it's also difficult to find a race with the poor setup to the lobby system. You just randomly pop into matches without being able to choose from a list. I'm also surprised that there wasn't more thought put into building an online rewards system that allowed you to build up a racer in career mode. Hopefully a season mode will be included in next year's version as well.
I actually preferred the cockpit view during races. It's exceptionally detailed and true NASCAR fans will want to live through the eyes of their favorite racer. Just peek around the drivers seat to check out the flapping straps against the windows as you race around the track at 150 mph. Tracks are equally detailed and the game does a great job implementing lighting changes during different times of the day. Car models are colorful and designed appropriately, but don't be surprised to see the occasionally clipping problem when moving around on the track. The remainder of the level design seems much like an afterthought as the developer focused mostly on the core experience. However, I'm pretty impressed with the silky smooth framerate that only takes a slight hit when major crashes occur.
The constant roar of the engines is definitely typical of a NASCAR race (and yes, I've been to one before). Road noises like the slight wafting of drafting and the screeching of trading paint are also represented in the sound effects. In addition, the directional sound mixing is superb and you can really hear when cars are approaching from all around you. The pre-race announcers are definitely as good as anything you would hear when watching a race on FOX, but your teammate's constant barrage of slow advice and repeated phrases will want you make you leap out of the car and pretend you are on fire, Ricky-Bobby style.
As a first try out of the gate for Eutechnyx, NASCAR 2011: The Game holds up moderately well. That being said, they will need to work on building a more in-depth career mode and a much smoother multiplayer experience if they really want the franchise to take off next year. It seems like the presentation and general racing experience were more important for this year's outing. NASCAR fans can find a good bit of enjoyment in NASCAR 2011: The Game, but the Need for Speed generation will likely get bored easily and move back to Shift 2 for the time being. Highly recommended for NASCAR fanatics, mildly recommended for racing fans.