Each year ever official sport under the sun receives an annual iteration that is supposed to represent the interests of the fan and current movements in the sport. The NASCAR franchise started revving its engines back in 1997 and ever since there have been some steady improvements in the gameplay, graphics, sound, and authenticity. With that in mind there is one thing to consider when looking at this series. Does it appeal more to fans of the sport or gamers on a much broader level? I personally have never had an interest in NASCAR and therefore approach this series from the perspective of a racing game fan. On that level the experience doesn't quite deliver but there are plenty of things here that make the title at least worth taking for a test drive.
Like most every other sports franchise that hits the video game world NASCAR 09 comes with a variety of modes for gamers to sink their teeth into. For the most part these modes may be familiar or not seem that outlandish but there are a few changes afoot for this year's installment that may make fans of the franchise more than happy to get behind the wheel.
Right from the start Jeff Gordon becomes more than just a cover model and he takes you through most of the game. His digital representation offers insight and tips while you're playing and it serves as a nice companion through the variety of modes and gameplay options. Wonder about a particular sponsorship offer? Well, Jeff has an opinion and his inclusion in the game feels like more than just a tacked on feature. It's a nice addition that definitely helps the authenticity factor.
Before we get started talking about the various modes of the game and what's exactly under the hood here it's important to mention the two different control schemes. If you're a NASCAR series veteran then there is a set up available that will make you feel right at home. However, if you're simply a gamer new to the franchise and you're looking for a more natural arcade-like experience then the rookie controls may be right up your alley. Either way you slice it all around the control is fine tuned and much better with this year's installment. Cars were very difficult to manage in the previous version and it was far too easy to spin out of control; thankfully that's not the case here.
Once you get a handle on the controls it's time to delve into what NASCAR 09 has to offer. An all new career mode offers different series to race through, reputation to earn, and contracts to sign. It's definitely where you'll be spending the majority of your time with this game. There's a decent amount of room for customize your experience here as you can jump in or simply work your way up the ladder from the Craftsman Truck series to the Sprint Cup. Along the way you'll earn reputation points for winning and performance and you'll acquire new contracts by doing so. There's really no money to be had here though so I'm not entirely sure what the point of that particular feature is but I digress.
When you're done with the career mode you'll definitely want to check out the Sprint Driver Challenges as it definitely has more variety to offer. You basically have to do certain things in order to meet the objective at hand and there's a decent spread of material offered here with over 70 challenges in all. The point of this mode is to test your abilities and give you reputation points which can be applied to the career mode to help flesh things out.
With regards to gameplay modes there is a very competent online mode which offers multiplayer compatibility for up to 14 players. The races are lag free and there's a decent amount of options available so if you're in the mood for some human control challengers this is definitely the place to be. When I attempted to sign on there weren't many people to race against but you could easily set something up with a friend.
Apart from these gameplay modes there are also some customization features incorporated into the game. You can tinker with the look of your car a great deal but the tool that is implemented here is very cumbersome to say the least. It involves jumping through a lot of hoops and to top it all off if you bring your car online only your friends can see your designs. It begs the question of why it was included in the first place though I'm sure some fans out there will get some enjoyment out of it once they figure it out.
All around NASCAR 09 is better than 08 in many ways but it's still not a "great" game that's going to dethrone some of the more popular franchises. Races feel dull after a while and though there are many fine moments there's nothing outstanding. The career mode has some nice tweaks, the challenges do offer some nice variety, and of course the control is simply better this time around (but it's not "great"). In the end this one splits the audience down the middle between fans of the sport and lovers of racing games. There are many features that appeal to both though I'm not entirely sure the game caters to one more than the other. Because of that it feels like it's a jack of all trades and master of none. Rent it if you're interested but don't expect an experience that will blow you away.
With the PlayStation 3 there are certain expectations for graphical performance and quite frankly NASCAR 09 comes up short in many ways. First of all it supports 720p output rather than a full 1080p so right away you know that it's not going to look as sharp as it possibly could. Other than that the PS3 version features shadow flicker, jagged edges, some funky textures, and clipping throughout. It simply lacks the polish enjoyed by other bigger and better racers and because of that NASCAR 09 is an easily forgettable game. Oh, and if you're looking for extensive or detailed damage to the car models don't bother; there's very little here that prompts oo's and aah's.
The sound effects in NASCAR 09 are nice and they take decent advantage of the Dolby Digital presentation. Cars rev, tires screech, and metal scrapes like you'd expect they would so at the end of the day at least the sound is authentic. The music however, is not quite my cup of tea and there's very little that stands out or is worthwhile. With that being said the voiceovers are very good and Gordon is represented well through his dialogue.
I hate to break it to fans of the sport but NASCAR 09 is not the be-all and end-all video game experience. This year's edition is decent but it doesn't stand out in any way and it doesn't really raise the bar of expectations. The gameplay has been improved over the previous outing though it's still nothing that makes an impression. The career mode offers enough depth to make it worth while for fans looking for more and the multiplayer is ok if you're looking for a way to kill time but it doesn't stand out. A poorly implemented customization feature disappoints and the graphics just aren't up to snuff. At the end of the day you're looking at a slightly better than average racing game with the NASCAR logo slapped on. It won't really blow fans of the sport or lovers of racing games away but it is good enough to at least warrant a rental to see if you can get some extra miles out of it.