NASCAR Racing 3 (PC)
This is the one a lot of people have been waiting for. NASCAR is, of course, the most popular form of motorsport in the US, and Papyrus is the only developer to even come close to getting it right. With the terribly disappointing NASCAR Revolution and the way behind the times NASCAR Road Racing being the only recent titles on the shelves, the market is definitely ready for a quality authentic NASCAR racing simulation.
I'm fairly certain that most anyone in the market for NASCAR Racing 3(N3) is familiar with the Papyrus/Sierra offerings of NASCAR Racing 2 and the 1999 Edition, so this preview is going to focus on the improvements made over those releases. I think these can be divided into 4 main areas--racing, graphics, sound, and multiplayer. This preview is written based on an alpha preview release, in which there are only 2 tracks and quite a few features which aren't complete, but I'll do my best to give you an overall impression of the progress made.
This, of course, is the important part. As we saw with NASCAR Revolution, pretty graphics and high tech presentation mean nothing if the racing stinks. Happily, from what I've seen, N3 maintains the same high standard set forth in other Papyrus sims.
The basic driving model and car physics in N3 aren't the ones from Grand Prix Legends, but rather tweaked versions of those found in NR 1999. This caused quite a stir in racing sim circles, but I tend to believe Papyrus on the issue of playability on today's hardware--even monster PCs have trouble with a full field of 20 in GPL, with most of the cars out of sight. How would these same systems deal with 43 cars in one pack? I think we'd all be playing the NASCAR version of Myst--a slideshow. I hope that a GPL-based NASCAR sim is in the future, and hopefully I'll have an 800 Mhz PC with a Voodoo 4 to run it.
The racing in N3 will feel very familiar to anyone who owns N2/1999. At times the handling feels a little more lively and the car seems to have more tendency to oversteer, but that may be a result of several things--not necessarily anything in the physics themselves. This time around, we get the full 43-car field to race against--a great addition, but I was hoping for bigger entry lists, with some cars not qualifying for each race. Maybe in the next version.
With only Lowe's Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Raceway Park included in the version I received, I didn't get a chance to see how the AI behaved on a large number of tracks, but I definitely saw improvement on those two. The AI races very hard, but not in a kamikaze fashion--if you have the preferred line, the AI will back off and let you have the spot in most situations. Once again, this seems to be closely tied with the aggression ratings in the driver's skill settings. I saw a few instances of AI cars getting together and spinning, and actually saw an AI driver make a pretty nice save of a loose car--it seems that the AI routines have been worked on, and the racing seems a little more realistic.
For the morbid crash fanatics among you, the answer is no, the cars still don't flip. In the age of roof flaps and other safety features, it's rare for a NASCAR stocker to leave the ground anyway, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything, but there are bound to be some that are disappointed by this fact.
The garage area has been changed to provide a few more adjustments to the car: Front and rear sway bars, and the ability to add or remove tape from the grille. Added to what was already present with N2, this provides enough realism to satisfy almost anyone, I think, although a way to trade horsepower for reliability would be nice. The garage interface has been made more attractive, and is very easy to use--nice job.
The 3 ways to get on the track--Test session, single race, and championship--are still present, as are all the settings for weather, number of cars, rules, and race length. The AI speed is fully scalable, as in N2, and there is an easy-to-drive Arcade mode as well. This is something that the series has always done well, and racers of all skill levels should be able to find a comfort zone in N3.
As for the series and tracks included, the only thing mentioned is that the Cup and Grand National series are included, drivers and tracks. I wouldn't count on Daytona--but who knows what might show up this time. Personally, I'm going to miss the Craftsman Truck Series tracks, but I doubt most people will.
This is probably the most improved area of N3. For a sim based on a 3-year-old engine, N3 looks stunning. The 3D car model has been improved greatly, with a much more rounded and true to life shape (yes, it's still the same for all 3 makes). The in-car graphics have received some attention, too, and you can see from the screenshots that the result is pretty terrific, much better than in previous releases. The tracks have always been nicely rendered in the NASCAR series, and N3 is no exception if the two tracks I had access to are any indication.
The biggest news on the graphics front is the addition of two things--support for Direct3D accelerators, which fans have been clamoring for, and the ability to run in resolutions from 640x480 up to 1024x768. At higher resolutions, this title looks great, and the addition of D3D will make a lot of people happy. There is still a Glide renderer for those of us with 3Dfx gear, and a software mode for folks with unaccelerated PCs. The same on/off/auto settings are available for a huge array of graphic details, providing a means for slower systems to optimize framerates. One feature which I would recommend leaving on is the smoke--in hardware rendering, it looks fantastic, and there's nothing like driving into a cloud of translucent smoke, seeing the dynamic skidmarks going toward the wall, and hoping to come out the other side intact. Take a look at the screenshots, and you'll see what I mean.
On my system, the framerate was consistently in the 30s, which provides a very playable situation. Oddly enough, N3 with 43 cars seemed more fluid and steady than NR1999 with 39, maybe due to an improvement in 3D renderers. At any rate, N3 provides a very satisfying graphics package overall.
Not a lot to say here, other than that the sound has been improved a bunch. There is a new high quality/low quality selection, but the high quality sounds didn't sound quite right- I believe that's one thing that still needs work. The features list mentions positional audio via DirectSound 3D and A3D, but to be honest, I didn't notice if it worked for me or not.
The engine sound is leagues better than the one used in the previous releases, and sounds a lot like a real race engine. Skidding and collisions sound more substantial, too, really causing you to wince if you lose control and head for the wall. The spotter/crewchief is still present, and the options (aside from the high or low quality switch) are the same as in N2.
Here's where the big news lies--N3 will include free Internet multiplayer. It remains to be seen how latency issues and connection stability are dealt with, but it's a huge step in the right direction. Here's what I've been able to discover so far:
Like I mentioned, we'll have to wait and see if this can provide the kind of stability needed to race in close quarters with other drivers, but I'm definitely pumped up about the possibilities this brings.
What we really have here is a major update to NASCAR Racing 2--a much more complete and satisfying redo than the one done for the 1999 Edition. By adding support for most 3D accelerators, a nicely done overhaul of the interface, seemingly smarter AI, and the free Internet play, it appears Papyrus and Sierra have produced (or are in the process of it, anyway) another winner, and at this point it looks like they will remain the King of NASCAR sims.
AMD K6-2 450, 64MB SDRAM, Creative Labs 3D Blaster Banshee AGP 16MB, 40x CD-ROM, Ensoniq Audio PCI, ACT Labs Force RS.
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