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NASCAR Racing 3 (PC) Review

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There is certainly no denying the facts--NASCAR is the most popular form of motorsport in the US, Papyrus is the reigning king of NASCAR simulations, and NASCAR Racing 3(N3) is one of the most anticipated titles of the year. These three things together can spell disaster for a new release if it fails to meet expectations, or can provide the publisher with a top-selling title if it's done well. The camps on both sides of the issue have been pretty vocal about this one, with one side stating that it's just more of the same, and the other saying it's another evolution in a great series and worthy of the praise it has received to date.

The biggest reason for this rift is the decision Papyrus made not to use the Grand Prix Legends physics engine for this release of their NASCAR sim. This prompted many cries of "Foul!" from the hardcore sim community, and there are still some who are very disappointed in this development. The reason given, that the system requirements would far outstrip most PCs we own right now, does hold water with me--Grand Prix Legends is a chore for almost any PC to run well, and that's with a limit of 20 cars and some pretty empty environments. So, for the record, I think the correct decision was made in this case. When the average gamer's hardware is capable, I hope to see the GPL engine in a NASCAR sim, but I can understand the reasoning used in this instance.

The Alpha and Beta previews of N3 were fairly in-depth, and I'll try to not be repetitive here. The focus of this review will be on things that are new or improved in the final release, and providing scores for the title. On with the show.

Presentation/Graphics : 88
As I stated before, the overall look and feel of N3 is half N2, and half Grand Prix Legends. Everything has a much more polished appearance than in the previous NASCAR titles, and it is now a pure Win9x environment. The initial presentation of N3 is very good, with a real NASCAR look--well done. The opening video is similar to the one used in the 1999 Edition of NASCAR Racing, but the footage is from the 1999 racing season, and I still find myself watching the entire thing sometimes.

When discussing graphics, a reviewer is really setting himself up for some controversy--there are only a couple things in this area which are really objective, and the rest is mainly dependent on personal taste. I'm going to try to divide this into those two areas, with the objective area containing comments on features and frame rate, and the subjective part focusing on the actual appearance.

Objective observations--This release has many features not present in earlier incarnations of the NASCAR series, and most are welcome. First among these is support for Direct3D accelerators--something that has been eagerly awaited among the non-3Dfx crowd, and a necessary addition to the sim. There is a software mode, which I really don't recommend, and support for 3Dfx cards using the Glide API. I found the usual advice applies here--on my 3Dfx hardware, Glide performed better overall. It's great that the users of TNT and other good accelerators can now enjoy NASCAR racing in accelerated form, and it was overdue.

There are 3 resolutions supported--640x480, 800x600, and 1024x768. I chose to run N3 in 800x600, and I think this will prove to be a popular resolution for most racers. It is a big improvement over 640x480, and doesn't carry near the frame rate hit of 1024x768. Other features in N3 include translucent smoke and dirt (which we've all heard about ad nauseum, but it is a great addition and looks wonderful), dynamic skids, and a shaded groove on the track--no more cartoony skid marks showing the fast line.

All this is well and good, but how does it affect framerates? A solid, fast frame rate is crucial in a racing sim, probably more than in any other type of software. My results were pretty good overall, and with some tweaking I'm sure the average gaming system will handle N3 pretty well. As I said, I run in 800x600, with all graphics on, 16-bit sound, track drawn ahead at the maximum, and draw 12 opponents ahead and 3 behind. This was what N3 defaulted to after running setup, and it seems pretty spot-on. With the sim configured this way, my system returns a solid 28-31 fps during a race--it'll drop to 20 or so on the start, and in very heavy traffic may drop to 25-26, but it remains driveable the entire time. Amazingly enough, I haven't noticed a big hit on frame rate during a spin or accident, even with all the smoke in the air.

Subjective observations--Everyone is going to have opinions on what makes a title look good, and not everyone will agree with me on this, but here goes: N3 provides the most believable racing environment I've witnessed yet. It's not as bright and flashy as NASCAR Revolution, or as painstakingly detailed as GPL, but overall it looks extremely "right." The biggest drawback, to me, is the lack of different body shapes for the cars, but this is mainly noticeable in the replay views, and not while racing. The cockpit is still 2D, but it looks great--all the gauges work as expected, there are a lot of good details--notes on the dash (All switches up), the big red over-rev light, and a different dash panel for night racing are just a few. The shadows in the cockpit are still static, and there is, thankfully, no lens flare.

The tracks are very nicely done--the rendition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is great, with the partially constructed "pagoda" in the infield, the brick stripe near the start-finish line, and the museum visible in the infield. The other tracks seem to have received the same attention, aside from the road courses still having walls where there aren't any in reality. I don't know why this is the case, but hopefully the 2 twisty circuits will receive the same attention to detail as the ovals in the next release.

The new animated flagman is a neat touch for realism's sake, and is much better than the little disembodied flag floating in the cockpit. I also like the flashing caution light at points around the track--attention to detail once again. The specular highlighting is a nice addition--there aren't any reflections, as in the overdone gloss in NASCAR Revolution, but you can see the light play across the car surfaces, highlighting areas of the surface as the cars pass.

The paintkit still uses a limited palette, and this was explained by a Papyrus employee in this way: A 256 color palette is actually used, but the colors not in the paintkit are used to provide the highlighting effects. I'm guessing that if all 256 colors were used in the paintkit, that would make the highlighting much more difficult to apply, and it's my tendency to trust the developers on this one. It is still possible to turn out some high-quality paint jobs with this palette, just as it was in the previous releases in the series. This time the read me file includes detailed instruction on using a third party graphics app to paint the cars. This is one reason I don't focus on missing drivers or the lack of manufacturers in N3--I know that it will be remedied by sim fans in a very short time.

Presentation/Audio : 92
The sound in N3 is, in a word, outstanding, especially in 16-bit. I won't go into a ton of detail here, having done so in the preview, but some of the high points are a much more realistic engine sound (and I detect a hint of gear whine in there, too), separate voices for the spotter and crew chief, and a much better noise on contact with the wall or another car. I actually cringed the first time I smacked the wall at speed. Those of you with a 4-speaker setup and an A3D 2.0 compliant sound card will really be impressed, from what I hear, but even my 2 speaker stereo card sounded good.

All in all, this is a very well put together NASCAR package. There are prettier titles, and some with more features. But by putting the whole package together, N3 can run with any of them.

Interface/Options : 96
I covered this area in depth in the Beta preview, and I don't want to beat a dead horse, so I'll hit the high points again. First off, the interface shows a lot of both NASCAR 2 and GPL influence--GPL definitely shows up in the replay screen, which is almost a dead ringer for the one in that sim. As has been the case with the past several Papyrus releases, everything is logical and easy to use, without multiple nested menus or arcane terminology. Options are exactly where you think you'll find them, and nothing is unclear or difficult to access.

The options for the races are as complete as you'll find anywhere, with almost every aspect of an event being adjustable--race length, number of competitors, weather, rules, and more. These same options are available to the host of a multiplayer event as well (more on that later). Sound, graphics, and control options cover pretty much all the areas you'll need to get N3 running well on a wide variety of systems. For more detail, see the Beta preview, where I detailed some of the choices available.

Another way to tweak N3 to suit your tastes is available through an .ini file in the N3 directory--it's all laid out in easy terms in the read me, and here you can adjust things like force feedback parameters, multiplayer diagnostic logging, and disabling Windows keys on your keyboard. This is a very adjustable, flexible simulation, and it should be able to run well on most any modern PC.

With a good mix of depth and simplicity, N3's interface is a winner, and the wide variety of options available should provide a solid racing experience for the casual gamer and sim aficionado alike.

Gameplay : 84
The actual racing has always been the strong point of any Papyrus effort, with realism and good competition the norm. The experience in N3 has been touted as being more realistic than ever, due to enhanced car physics and better AI. I'd have to say that while still not perfect, N3 provides a very good NASCAR racing experience. Here are some thoughts and observations.

Car Physics--Even without the full six degrees of freedom present in GPL, the driving model in N3 is a notch above those in N2/NR1999. There is a different feel to the car which is kind of hard to describe, but it feels a lot more "alive"--not necessarily any easier or harder to drive, but there is more feedback on what the car is doing. Some of this is attributable to the improved sound, and I'm sure a lot is due to the force feedback, but it all adds up to the car feeling more like a real car. It's now possible to get into a power-on oversteer situation (not easy, but possible), and I have had a few instances of snap-spinning after hitting a curb or getting into the grass. These are things I never experienced in N2, and tend to make you more careful at times. It's also possible to run more than one groove at most tracks, and I've run 8-10 laps in a row side by side with the AI, and it's truly fun to race that way--especially now that the AI seems more intelligent.

Speaking of the AI, there have been a lot of improvements made. In the time I have spent with the final release of N3, which is considerable, I've seen very few instances of the AI doing really stupid things. Yes, they still occasionally bunch up behind a wreck, and will pinch you down onto the apron sometimes(but I've seen humans do this, too, so it's not unexpected), but the improvement is noticeable. As I stated above, you can run two wide now with confidence, and the result is not always a wreck as it was before. There is no getting a fender under the other car and knowing he'll move up out of the way, either--the AI cars will defend their positions aggressively, but will yield if you get fully in the fast line. The adjustments made to the aggression setting in driver info has a more pronounced effect now, it seems, and the AI display a wide range of styles. Racing the AI is now fun--not as good as live competitors, but fun nonetheless.

The car setup screen will be familiar to anyone who has N2, with the addition of grille tape and sway bar adjustments. Both of these are really useful additions, and affected the car in much the way I expected--with the grille completely taped off for qualifying, you will see higher speeds, but don't expect the engine to last more than a few laps. I haven't really gotten into working on setups yet, as I've mainly used the Ace setups supplied (which are pretty good this time), but the same general process used in N2 will work here--there are just a few more options.

The setups used with N2/NR1999 can be imported and used in N3, but I found them to be uniformly loose--if you use your old setups, be prepared to do some tweaking.

The drivers list includes 25 Winston Cup and 20 Busch Grand National drivers, and they all seem to be fairly represented here. This is, in reality, not a big issue because of the ability to edit and create drivers and cars. I'm willing to bet that by the end of September, we'll all be able to race against a full 43 car field of real Cup and BGN drivers--one of the things I love about this series.

There are only 2 tracks missing from the Cup schedule, Daytona and Pocono, and one from the BGN series, Daytona. This is due to licensing issues, and is the only real detraction from running a championship season. I wish Sega would let go of the Daytona license, and let someone do something decent with it (Daytona USA? Please give me a break).

Now we get to the sticking point--multiplayer. I'm not going to really pass judgement on the few hours I have logged, but I didn't have any bad experiences. When I chose the multiplayer option and selected join via Internet, the software found the 2 servers quickly. I found a race using a 128K ISDN line on the host machine, with a ping of 167--not bad, so I joined and expected the worst.

What I found was a pretty stable and warp-free connection. Granted, there were only 3 human drivers connected, but during the 2 hours or so we were hooked up I didn't see any warping, and we were able to run in very close quarters without incident.

The second race I participated in had about 12 or so drivers, and while I didn't have any problems, some of the others reported some latency issues. The racing was still pretty good, and I didn't see any warping on my end, but that doesn't mean it's going to be great for everyone.

I see the latency limiting option for the host coming into widespread use--if everyone in the race has a good connection, it can only improve the experience for everyone. I'd say that pings somewhere around 180 or so will be about the limit without creating a problem.

As I said, I'm not going to declare the multiplayer a success quite yet, nor will I deem it a failure. I do think that with the right situation and a properly tuned system, there will be some good times to be had with it. I really think that it's up to us, the sim racing community, to make the best of what we're given.

In the end, what we have here isn't a brand new experience, but rather an improved, updated evolution of something that was already a crowd pleaser. Most of the problems with previous titles have been addressed, and it is a good, solid racing sim--even without the latest physics engine. I think anyone who gives N3 a try will come away with a good feeling about it.

Replay Value: 90
Replay value is high for any racing sim, since each race is going to play out differently. As you progress and get faster, the AI can be scaled to higher levels, keeping the sim challenging and rewarding when you do well. If the multiplayer aspect works well for you, the replay value is limitless. Just as NASCAR Racing 1 and 2 are still a fixture on many hard drives, I can see N3 being raced several years into the future.

Overall : 90
As I said in the preview, N3 is a much improved and polished N2. Some of the same things that made N2 great are still present, and most of the problem areas have been addressed. If the multiplayer function becomes as solid as we experienced in the NASCAR Racing Online Series, the overall score would gain a few points, and that may become reality. There are still certain limitations imposed by using a fairly old game engine, and there is some genuinely great stuff here--I believe that N3 is well worth the purchase price, and is far and away the best NASCAR sim on the market. There will be some who disagree with me here, but my advice is to grab this one and run with it.

By: Scott Moore 9/20/99

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