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NASCAR 99 (PSX) Review

Background Info

Trading on the incredible popularity of the sport itself, Electronic Arts' Nascar 98 was one of the best-selling games released for the Playstation in 1997. With gameplay situated midway between arcade and simulation, and a great two-player racing mode, its appeal was broad. Nascar 99 takes most of what was good from Nascar 98 and enhances it. Does this translate into a cosmetic makeover or a worthy upgrade for owners of last year's model? Let's take a closer look and find out.

Presentation/Graphics : 88
Nascar 99's graphics are a noticeable step up from last year's in many ways. The first thing that becomes apparent is that the overall graphic look is far cleaner, having lost most (but not all) of the graininess of its predecessor. The framerate is also quite good but does bog down occasionally depending upon the track graphics and the number of other cars on screen. Overall this isn't a problem though.

The car models look even better than last year, featuring more detail, and reflecting damage to a greater extent. In a nod to the current trend towards environment mapping, a glint of sunshine can sometimes be seen off the back end of your car, and shadows from the window frame are cast inside the car in the cockpit view. While these are nice little touches, there's nothing here that will strike fear in the hearts of the developers of Gran Turismo or Need for Speed 3.

The real-life Winston Cup tracks appear faithfully represented; however, as in Nascar 98, there is some noticeable draw-in but not to the point of distraction. In fact there seems to have been some improvement in this area, and this is commendable given that Nascar 99 also moves faster and smoother than last year. Nascar 98 lacked a little in the sense of speed department and this has been remedied in 99, especially when using the bumper view. The racing surfaces, with minor exceptions, look good and differ from track to track. Along with the trackside graphics, this contributes to making each course look unique. Once again, any rubber that's laid is there for the duration of the race. It's another of those little things that enhances realism.

Nascar 99 offers a variety of views including the ubiquitous chase and bumper perspectives. The cockpit view makes a return with greater detail and a better sense of being there. It's also far more driveable than last year, but still offers a greater challenge than the more traditional views--not necessarily a bad thing. What is a bad thing, however, is the absence of a rear-view mirror. It was there last year, where did it go?! I suspect it was sacrificed at the expense of maintaining framerate, but jeez. A look back button may cut it in some racing games, but not in Nascar. I want to know who's drafting me at all times and whether he's looking to go high or low on me so I know which way to block. Sure, your pit crew chief will bark advice over the radio but, you know what, I don't always trust the guy. I sometimes think he's secretly on payroll with the Rainbow Warriors. Next year, please let me see for myself.

Nascar 99 also marks the debut of night racing (at Charlotte, Bristol, and Richmond), and it looks terrific. Racing Charlotte and watching as day turns to dusk and the track lighting begins to glow in anticipation of nighttime is a sight. Well done.

Presentation/Audio : 88
Here's a note to EA regarding what they've done to the music in Nascar 99: Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! Lemme see... Stevie Ray Vaughn, George Thorogood, and Joe Satriani versus Molly Hatchet - no contest! Five minutes of Flirtin' With Disaster in Nascar 98 before I turned it off was more than enough to embed it in my brain for longer than I care to recollect (with apologies to MH and their fans the world over). Suffice to say, the music is much improved.

Sound effects were great last year and are again this year. The sound of your own engine and those of other cars are convincing, as are tire squeals and crash sounds. Effective use is made of surround sound which, in the absence of a mirror, give you aural clues as to the position of the other cars around you. The sound comes together in a loud and dynamic package, which is perfectly in tune with the sights, sounds, and rockin' attitude of Nascar racing.

As mentioned earlier, you now have a good ol' boy crew chief delivering instructions over your radio. He'll alert you to approaching cars and give you advice on whether to stay high or low on turns. With the number of turns you'll make over the course of a long race on an oval track, this can become a tad annoying. Furthermore, if you blindly heed his instructions you'll sometimes find yourself biting off a big chunk of wall. Better to trust your own driving instincts based on the situation at hand. Still, his inclusion is more help than hindrance, and his periodic encouragement and cajoling aid in spicing things up.

One major beef with Nascar 98 was the near complete lack of commentary. That shortcoming has also been addressed this year. Bob Jenkins returns, this time with sidekick (and ex-Nascar driver) Benny Parsons along for the ride. The two provide a live FMV intro to each half of the season, and running commentary throughout the race itself. They'll keep you abreast of who's running in what position, provide technical information about the cars, and throw in bits of Nascar trivia. While certainly an improvement over last year's sparse commentary, it gets repetitive pretty quickly. Benny must spend a lot of time thinking about his stomach because he thinks every track on the circuit has the best food. The commentary is fine for shorter races, but you'll likely want it off if you're going to take on any long ones. If that's the case, the music alone should serve you well. However, if you go that route you also lose your crew chief, which is a shame.

One complaint with the sound is in balancing the sound effects with the commentary/music. If you crank the sound effects (and why wouldn't you?) the commentary becomes almost completely drowned out at times, even with the volume maxed. The sound just isn't mixed very well. Fortunately, your crew chief comes through a little louder. A little more volume on the commentary that didn't come at the expense of the sound effects would have been welcome.

Interface/Options : 88
The best news in terms of Nascar's interface is its vastly improved load times. Nascar 98 seemed to take forever to load before qualifying or a race. Not anymore. Ready to qualify? No more watching the entire field scroll by before you get at it. By the time the first couple of cars pop up you're ready to hit Start and go. A very welcome improvement.

The front end and race menus are fairly intuitive but it does take a while to get a handle on what's located where before things become instinctive. What's nice is that many settings are auto-saved for you, even your favored view. Last year it was necessary to reselect your view for every session and you couldn't begin to scroll through those available until the game handed control of the car over to you. Needless to say, a real pain. This year, you select your view once and the game holds it. Great!

I only wish this extended to car settings. Nascar 99 offers many more car adjustment options (see Gameplay) than Nascar 98, which is good, but they aren't saved from race to race, which is bad. The settings reset to default every time you enter a new event. At a minimum, your previous settings should carry over, if even you don't have the option to save track-specific setups (which would be even better). It also would have been nice to tinker with car setup from the pause menu of a practice session rather than back your way out, make the changes you want, and re-enter practice.

Gameplay : 90
Nascar 99's gameplay is similar in most respects to Nascar 98, and that's a good thing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Odd that EA didn't apply the same logic to NHL 99, but that's another story for another review. Choose to run a single race at a track of your choice or enter a full championship which takes you to each of the 17 tracks from the Winston Cup circuit that have been included in the game. The number of cars/drivers has been increased from 24 to 31, but each race still only features a field of 24. In addition, six Nascar legends (such as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Davey Allison) have been included, but must first be unlocked by performing well in a championship season. Here's all you have to do: Enter a season with race length set at 50% or higher (this means races of up to 250 laps), AND finish in the top five in six specific races, with each one unlocking a different driver. Um, code please!

Once at the race menu, you'll likely want to tweak your car before hitting the track, and there's lots more to tweak this year. Want to adjust suspension stiffness? You can now adjust it separately for each corner of the car. Ditto for tire pressure. You're now also able to adjust wheel lock (turning radius), left bias (very handy for keeping your car away from the wall), rear bias (for front to rear weight balancing), spoiler angle, wedge, and so on. All of these additional options are great, and the manual takes a stab at explaining how they affect the way your car drives. However, the explanations could have been a little deeper for the non-mechanics among us.

Nascar 99 supports various controllers, including the Sony Dual Shock (with vibration) and Namco's NeGcon. Unfortunately, NeGcon steering is configured backwards (i.e. twisting the right half of the controller forward turns you left and vice versa) and there's no way to change it. This makes the game virtually unplayable with the NeGcon and ranks as a programming blunder of huge proportions for anyone who refuses to play racing games with any other controller. Fortunately the Dual Shock works pretty well but, here, you can't adjust steering sensitivity. This is another oversight because, while the default will suit some players, others (like myself) will find it a little touchy. The saving grace is that you can compensate to a certain degree by fiddling with the wheel lock adjustment in the car setup menu.

Car physics and control are, for the most part, very good. It's necessary to spend more time tweaking your car in Nascar 99 than in last year's version, because your car has a greater propensity to head for the wall. Sim-heads will appreciate this, but more casual fans are less likely to. One of the reasons that you'll see more of the wall in Nascar 99 is because you can't enter turns as fast as you expect to be able to. Unless you brake, gear down, or let off the gas in advance of a turn, you can expect your car to head for the wall like a magnet. This definitely takes some getting used to until you come to grips with the fact that you have to slow down early and ride through turns at less than realistic speed. Also, braking can be a bit of an adventure. At times, like when negotiating a turn, the brakes feel very sensitive. Don't be fooled, straight line braking is another matter entirely. Give yourself plenty of braking distance when bearing down on a slow moving opponent; otherwise, it's goodbye front end. It's too bad there's no brake sensitivity adjustment. I'd have gladly traded, say, independent suspension settings for that ability. Maybe next year.

Collision detection is very good, both in contact with other cars and the wall. You'll have ample opportunity to see first-hand as you're learning to drive. There are some great accidents to witness and, with damage set on, you'll drive under yellow for a couple of laps when they occur. Unlike last year, it's possible to pit during a yellow flag. Yippee!

Two player mode returns and is every bit as good as it was last year. The number of opponents remains fixed at six, but that still far exceeds pretty well every other racing game out there. However, if you're anything like my friends and I, most races turn into a heated battle for 7th and 8th. The temptation to crash and bang your buddy into submission is far too great to resist, even if it is to the detriment of your own finishing position. Great fun!

Difficulty: 92
At first glance, it appears that Nascar 99 has only two difficulty settings, Arcade, and Simulation. On closer inspection, you'll find that difficulty can be tailored to whatever level suits you. Settings can be customized to increase or decrease the AI of your computer opponents, and to adjust the relative strength of your own car in the areas of horsepower, drafting, and handling.

One of the knocks against Nascar 98 was that it was too easy. For better or worse, Nascar 99 has shifted more into simulation territory. This means that it's a little tougher to drive. Pick up and play types might be put off by this at first, but the increased difficulty will pay dividends in terms of long-term play value. After a short adjustment period to become comfy with the control, arcade players in the mood for a little rock 'em sock 'em race cars can simply turn off damage and have at 'er. Smash up your car? Not to worry. Press X to repair and, after a brief time penalty, you're back in business.

Overall : 89
Featuring better graphics, music, and challenge, Nascar 99 improves on its older sibling in almost every way. Hardcore fans of the first game will find lots to love here and will no doubt find Nascar 99 a worthy upgrade despite the lack of a rear view mirror and proper NeGcon control. Less devout followers and NeGcon-heads might well be satisfied to pop Nascar 98 into the ol' PSX whenever the urge to trade paint strikes them. Either way, EA's Nascar series remains a worthwhile addition to the Playstation racing library. Big fun and highly recommended.

By: Pete Anderson 10/20/98

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