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NASCAR Racing 3 (PC)
Hands-on Preview

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Screens (9)
NOTE: this preview is based on a beta copy we received that is incomplete at press time.

Since the Alpha preview was done only a short time ago, I'm going to focus this preview on some of the features that were not present in the previous release. There have been several improvements made since the Alpha, and things are looking pretty good from where I sit--here's a quick look at the latest info and impressions. As usual, I'll break things down into different categories for easy location of the important parts for each reader.

The interface really hasn't changed since the Alpha, but everything is functional now. It's basically a cross between the previous NASCAR release and GPL--and very well done, if you ask me. No digging through several layers to get what you want, just the basics, listed here in order:

    Single Race--A single race or test session, with the usual options--you can choose the track, number of opponents and opponent strength, set the rules and weather, and choose the entry list you want to use. The big difference here is the ability to race in a 43-car field, something that has been asked for repeatedly, and Papyrus delivered on this one.

    Championship--Basically the same as N2/NR1999. You can set up a championship season by choosing the calendar, entry list, rules, race length, and weather. Multiple seasons can be run at the same time.

    Multiplayer--This is the big one for most sim racers--how is the multiplayer going to work? N3 has built-in support for IPX and TCP/IP networks, plus multiplay over the Internet. After choosing to host a race, there are options to set a maximum latency (from 0-500 milliseconds) and the number of drivers allowed (in the Beta, this is set to 32 max--no word on whether there will be more in the final release). From there the usual track, length, and weather settings are available, as well as two new options--AI cars and preferred car. The preferred car will allow each player to choose a car to drive, and so long as everyone has the same carset loaded each will be able to drive his (or her)own car. Neat touch, if you ask me, and will be great for league racing. There are seveal different Arenas in a drop-down menu, but I don't really know how they will function. I guess that will have to wait for the final release, too.

    Driver Info--Not much to explain here, but there are some changes since N2. The most noticeable is the ability to sort entry lists by number or by name, and the overall appearance is much nicer. The individual driver skill ratings have more flexibility, with settings for qualifying, short tracks, superspeedways, and roadcourses. This should make it easier to get realistic, true-to-life performances out of the drivers.

    Options--As in N2, there are 3 main areas: Controls, sound, and graphics. The addition to the controls menu is the single addition of a force feedback check box. The Papyrus or DirectX driver choice is still present, and the calibration and assignment works the same as in NR1999. Under the sound heading, there are a few new items--a choice of high (16-bit) or low (8-bit) sounds, and a checkbox for reflections. This was greyed out on my system, so I can't comment further. The graphics screen has the on-off controls for textures, choices for cars drawn ahead and behind, and the familiar NR1999 functions--but there are a few noteworthy additions. First is support for Glide and Direct3D acceleration. This is another feature that has been requested often, and finally makes its debut here. The resolutions range from 640x480 to 1024x768, and there is an option for anti-aliasing. The other new options consist of setting how much track is drawn ahead (helping to eliminate pop-up on faster systems), and skid mark and replay buffer sizes. With these set higher, the dynamic skids will stay longer, and the replays will be longer. Obviously, N3 offers a lot of options to make it perform well on a variety of systems.

    View Replay--this is a new feature, pulled directly from GPL. It allows viewing of replays without loading the track, and offers replays sorted by track, driver, or both. Handy, and a nice addition.

    Exit--If I have to tell you...

Big improvement here...the screenshots about say it all. The tracks are very nicely done, the new shaded groove is a vast improvement over N2's skidmarks, and the cars are pretty nice as well. The framerate seems to be capped at 32 fps--I haven't seen anything higher, and at low settings it hits 32 and stays there. With the resolution at 800x600, all graphics options maxed out except cars ahead (10) and cars behind (4), my system returns framerates consistently in the 28-31 range. Not blazingly fast, but very driveable. I like the dynamic skidmarks, too--they add a little touch of reality, and that's what we're all after, right?

Another couple of neat little touches (really just fluff, but they help with the immersion factor) are the animated flagman and the blinking caution lights around the track. Much better than the little flag hovering in mid-air, and more true-to-life.

A lot has been said about the smoke, and all I'll say is that it makes N3 more realistic. In real life, drivers have to deal with it, and in N3 it will become a factor as well. The mirrors still aren't great, but the view during night races has been much improved, and they still provide decent situational awareness. I haven't tried it, but I'm guessing that they can be edited, as in N2, to tailor the view to your taste.

The only real complaint I have is in regard to the paint shop--it still uses a very low color count. Overall it's a huge improvement, with just about every inch of the car being paintable, but a 16-bit (or at least true 256-color) palette would have been great. It's possible to turn out some terrific cars with the colors available, but oh, what could have been....

A second, very minor, complaint is the lack of manufacturers--we have the Chassis 1, etc., here again. I say this is minor because it will be rectified within a week of the sim's release--I already made myself a Pontiac, and I'm sure the graphically correct cars will be produced in droves.

Wow...this is more like it. In the 16-bit mode, the car sounds are very well done, with my only complaint being that the engine sounds like it turning a few RPM less than indicated. It does have a deep, throaty sound, and the other noises associated with a racecar are a nice addition. The volume for each item is set separately, as in N2, and it's possible to get a good mix of sounds to suit your tastes. The spotter/crewchief is back, but this time there are actually two different voices--just like there should be. Overall, this is a very strong point- now I just need an A3D sound card to be truly impressed.

Anyone familiar with the last NASCAR title from Papyrus will feel perfectly at home in the cockpit in N3, but there are some changes, and most of them are for the better.

First thing I'll discuss is the garage, where many hours are spent by serious sim racers. There are no huge changes here from N2, but the few that are present are noteworthy.

There are 2 new adjustments, sway bars and grille tape. Both items should be self explanatory to readers of this preview, but I'd like to mention a couple things about the tape--it does seem to increase straightaway speed, and it will unquestionably shorten the life of your engine when set to a high number. It may provide a little more downforce as well--I haven't messed with it enough to really make a call on that effect.

The other handy addition is an export button, allowing setups to be exported to a text file. A good idea, and it will come in handy for keeping track of a large number of setups. The rest of the garage works the same as N2, albeit with a much slicker appearance. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

One thing missing from the garage is the ability to adjust springs and shocks separately. There is only a shock setting, as before (which I feel represents springs more than it does shocks), and I'm sure this is due to N3 being based on the NR1999 engine rather than the GPL engine. It's a disappointment, but the garage is still good, and functions as expected.

On the track, the racing is better than ever. After ogling the graphics I noticed that the car has a completely different feel than the previous NASCAR sim--much more "alive." I guess I'm trying to say that it actually seems that the car is moving around under you, with weight shifting and tires sliding. It's not easy to describe. There isn't the level of feel you get from GPL, but it's there nonetheless. I felt more of an illusion of being in a real car than I do in N2, and the environment is very immersive overall.

Part of the reason for N3's feel may be due to the force feedback--in this build it's very subtle, with forces that aren't very strong on my Force RS, but it is definitely there. I'm glad to see some attention being paid to FF in serious racing sims, as I think it is great when done right (as in the GPL 1.1 patch).

The only real addition to the pitstops is the ability to add and remove tape from the grille. This may not seem huge, but it is another step in the direction of realism. Now give us a track bar, and we'll all be happy.... or most of us will.

The AI seem much smarter than before. I haven't noticed the sudden braking when the green flag drops, haven't been run down to the apron by the AI, and have run laps in close quarters without any problems. Dover, one of five tracks in the Beta, is an absolute blast now. I never really liked it in N2, but the racier AI and great graphics have made it one of my favorite sim tracks after racing there in N3.

There will still be sim racers who are disappointed by not getting the GPL engine in N3, but I feel there have been enough changes in the engine to present a totally new experience. I don't think I'm the only one who will feel that way.

This is not really something that needs to be evaluated in a Beta (after all, it's a beta), but I felt I needed to mention it here. After dozens of hours, with different controllers, graphics settings, video drivers, and trying everything, the N3 beta has not crashed, locked up, or otherwise misbehaved even once. Hopefully this is a good indication of the upcoming product being a stable, bug-free environment for us to race in.

I think I've covered the majority of issues here. When the final release version arrives, I'll do a full review, as well as report on the multiplayer capability. N3 was reported as going Gold on the 1st of September, so it won't be long until we all have a new favorite NASCAR simulation.

By: Scott Moore 9/3/99

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