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NASCAR 2000 (PSX) Review

Background Info

PSX Screens(8)

The highly entertaining NASCAR series makes it back for yet another year on the Playstation. But with fewer on-track cars, NASCAR 2000 stresses graphics over realism. The trade-off is not too bad, as the game offers plenty of good play in a couple of game modes. Those looking for an arcade-style racer with a few simulation elements thrown in will appreciate the quick pace of some of the modes but may ultimately find the game too easy. For sim buffs, you'll find yourself asking for more out of the game.

Presentation/Graphics : 92
The back of the jewel case for NASCAR 2000 states it has new hi-res graphics, and they don't disappoint. Many of the tracks have updated graphics, and some tracks are simply spectacular. One of the custom tracks features nighttime racing with an amusement park along the course. Trackside advertising signs are discernible, and logos are more defined on the cars, while the cars themselves don't have a blocky appearance. However, while the cars do look good, the game suffers from the same problems that have plagued the title in years past. There is a fair amount of pop-up and draw-in in the distance, as grandstands appear out of nowhere. Adding a rear view mirror to the display compounds the problem. However, I personally don't have a problem with the graphical "defects," and neither should the avid gamer. Your eyes should be glued to the road and competition and not the scenery well ahead of the other drivers. On some of the road courses, NASCAR 2000 models elevation changes well. Subtle dips come across and you get a sensation of a bump in the road. Road courses also improve the sensation of speed in the game.

Another slight graphical issue is slowdown. Slowdown occurs rarely and is usually isolated to the beginning of a race where there are a number of cars on-screen at once. The frame rate only drops a couple of frames, and it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the game. Once the field spreads out a little bit, the game runs smoothly for the duration of the race.

A positive to the game is night driving and races which start late in the day. For late day races, the sky turns darker with each lap until eventually darkness hovers above. The track lights increase in intensity as the sky gets darker, and you feel as though you're driving a Friday night Busch class race.

Those familiar with the NASCAR series will note that EA has always managed the screen well. Elements such as the odometer, tachometer, race position, and race map can be hidden or displayed, and the positions of the tools keep them out of the main view of the track.

As mentioned earlier, there is a rear view mirror in the game. Its view is somewhat narrow as cars close in, but it can be a useful tool. The views in the mirror keep pace with the action ahead of you. At one point, I hit a car hard enough to cause the car to go airborne. The rear view mirror was my only opportunity to see what became of the car, and I could clearly see the car twist and turn in mid-air and tumble to the ground.

Replays at the end of the race show a few highlights from the race. You can't replay the entire race, but the AI selects about a minute's worth of video to show. The replay graphics are of the same quality as a Gran Turismo-style replay. The cars are clean, and the action is constantly switched from one frame of reference to another. Maybe the next version will have full race replays, especially for the shorter races. Obviously keeping data for a four hour race is too much, but a little more would have been great.

Presentation/Audio : 85
One of the first things I do when I start a racing game is turn the music off. While I am a fan of virtually every type of music, for some reason, driving games tend to have awful tunes in my opinion. And the NASCAR series, unfortunately, features one of my least favorite types, guitar rock. The music gets too repetitious and is more of an irritant for me. This year's version features Blues Traveler.

The commentary, while spread thinly throughout the game, is good. A nice touch is in the practice sessions where you hear a few NASCAR facts, such as why tape is placed over the grill or some other technical detail. The pit crew communicates with you as driver, but it tends to repeat itself. Almost every time you brush the wall, you'll hear about how a hammer will fix it or to use your brakes. However, it also proves to be useful. Spotters make calls as you approach traffic to let you know if it is clear up high or down low, and when a car is closing on you and is in your blind spot, the calls are invaluable. It's great that EA has a spotter available in the game. The pit also keeps you abreast of your fuel and tire situation, as if you could not see the "tires worn" or "low fuel" signs flashing at the bottom of the screen.

The in-car sounds provide a realistic environment depending on your setup. Coming out of the television speakers, you'll probably just hear the engine, which changes pitch depending on how much gas you give it using an analog controller, and some engine noise from the competition. However, throw some headphones on and your ears hear things like never before. The careful ear will notice the air blowing by the car at 200 miles per hour. The stereo mode gives a clue to which side a car is on, and using surround sound, you'll hear cars go by. To get the full atmosphere, skip the TV speaker and throw the headphones on.

Interface/Options : 95
NASCAR 2000 supports a wide variety of controllers, including steering wheels, the NeGcon, the dual shock, and digital controllers. For some reason, the NASCAR series has always seemed to be completely playable with just the simple digital controller. In fact, I've always found it difficult to play this title with a full-sized steering wheel, but the digital controller always had excellent control. A controller such as the NeGcon or UltraRacer provide even better control. No matter which controller you ultimately select, make sure it is selected in the game options menu. Keys are mapped differently depending on the controller, and you may miss out on some functionality if you incorrectly set up the game.

Menus are easy to work through, and the manual does gives a thorough description of all of the options. To the casual racer, some of the car setup options are always tough. Your average Joe just does not know what left and rear bias or wedge is, but the manual gives a short explanation as well as the ramifications of changing the settings.

Gameplay : 82
There are no less than four ways to play NASCAR 2000. The game provides a Quick Race, Single Race, Race Against the King, and Season mode. The Quick Race mode is pure arcade action. You drive a randomly selected car on a randomly selected track against 15 other drivers. Starting in the middle of the pack, the race lasts only a fraction of the distance of a full 100% race. Most drivers will find this mode easy. Too easy. If you can't place first on the first try, then you will most certainly do it next time out. And on some ovals, you'll find yourself moving from ninth to first during the first lap. Unfortunately, you can't change any options to increase the difficulty. You are stuck with a mode which is way too easy and fails to capture your attention.

You can race Richard Petty on one of 10 tracks in the Race Against the King mode. In this mode, it's just you and the King in a car you select. Just like the Quick Race mode, it's not too difficult beating Petty, especially with the lack of difficulty settings.

So two modes down (and out in most drivers' books) and two to go. Fortunately the other half of the game shines brighter. In Single Race mode, you select a driver from among 33 NASCAR drivers or create a new driver from among six available pre-rendered cars. Races occur on any of 18 NASCAR tracks or 5 "fantasy" road courses. Once in this mode, you can set the difficulty to your tastes. There are two predefined difficulty settings, rookie and veteran. The difference between the two is in the opponents' strength and the effect of drafting. The settings can be changed, so you can adjust the strength of the opponents as you get better, or if you've got a big ego, set the opponents' ability low.

Races are either 3%, 5%, 10%, 25%, 50%, or 100% of the real race length. Perhaps the diehards out there can race a 100% length race, but most folks just can't devote four hours to driving around an oval, at least without sponsorship. If the 5% length is selected, you have the option of including a mandatory pit stop during the race. This adds a little strategy to the game as well as variety. The pit stops can be selected as either normal or interactive.

The interactive pit stop is a great addition to racing games. In the interactive mode, once you are in the pits, button symbols scroll across the bottom of the screen. The object is to hit the correct button as it passes under a highlighted area. To put this option to the test, I pitted using the non-interactive option. The pit stop took a little under 19 seconds to complete (top off the tank and change all four tires). Then I selected interactive pit stops and pitted. I didn't touch any of the buttons, so I missed the entire pattern. The pit time increased to over 21 seconds. Finally, I pitted and nailed the pattern. The payoff was a pit stop just over 15 seconds. Since racing is often won and lost in the pits, every second is critical. And giving the user control over his own destiny makes the experience more engrossing.

Back to the season mode, the next step is to practice, qualify, race, set the car up, or go to "Happy Hour." The car setup screen allows you to tweak the settings and get the most out of your car. The practice mode is an unlimited practice session which proves valuable to assess the settings. By default, you start last in 16th position, but you can improve your grid position during a one lap qualifying session (or two on the short tracks). The Happy Hour is just another practice session but with the full grid on the track. This gives you the opportunity to test your settings against live competition before the actual race. Some tracks require a great detail of setup. If you go into the race with the default setup, you may find that you lose seconds per lap. It's frustrating, but it gives you a sense of a real race weekend. And each track requires a unique setup. Some of the ovals have higher banking and the weight balance has to be shifted.

Once you start racing, it's you against 15 other drivers. Driving through heavy traffic at over 150 miles per hour is a rush, especially on the short tracks. Cornering begs attention, since if you don't slow down for the corners, you'll quickly find yourself up in the wall. Unfortunately you can't burn off sufficient speed by letting go of the throttle unless you do it early. To stay competitive, you have to carry plenty of speed and burn it off at the last moment, so braking becomes important. If you do find yourself in the wall, you quickly lose about 20 miles per hour, even on a gentle touch. On the other hand, running through the infield only barely affects your speed but can drastically affect your control. Staying below the line too long, however, eventually reduces your speed.

Unless you set the car up perfectly, proper drafting is the key to success. An on-screen draft meter fills in as you pick up the draft of the lead cars. In the draft, your car quickly accelerates and captures the leading cars. But once in the draft, it is sometimes difficult to move out. Your car catches up to the car you are drafting so fast at times that you lose your perspective and end up bumping the car. Pull out too close to the car and you may have a slight loss in control. Thus, the game is trying to simulate the unsteady aerodynamics associated with high speed racing. Much like Formula 1 cars lose a substantial amount of downforce by drafting, stock cars suffer wind buffet loading leaving the draft. The instability is similar to driving down the highway near an 18 wheeler. Likewise, a car drafting you will catch up and may bump your rear, causing you to fishtail. A quick hand and some oversteer is necessary to correct the near disaster. Letting off of the throttle improves your ability to regain control and get back into the race.

If you graze the wall, the trailing cars are quick to take advantage of your mistake. Passing is quick in this case. However, if you hold your line, are aggressive, and don't make mistakes, the passing potential of the competition reduces. The AI cars want to hold the line and don't really move out of the line when they attempt passes in corners. They always seems to take the best line and almost always bully their way past you.

With some luck, you'll find yourself in first place and can hold the position with good driving and a good car setup. However, on one particular road course (25% length, one pit stop), I used a bit of strategy and pitted early. I cut the fuel load to have better times over the second half of the race, and once the other cars made their pit stops, I had a good 3 second or so lead over the second place car. But within one lap, the second place car overtook me while I was driving a clean line. My lap was within one second of the best lap time for the race, but somehow the second place car cheated and went into hyperdrive. This is just like previous versions of the NASCAR series where the first and second place cars would consistently trade positions. It was luck to actually win a race because of the consistent, and completely unrealistic, back and forth position changes.

Damage can be modeled in the game. At any point during a race, the damage overlay can be popped up, which gives you a status of car damage, gas mileage, and remaining fuel. The damage display shows the shadow of the car from above. At the beginning of the race, the bumpers, sides, quarter panels, and tires are displayed in gray. As collisions occur, body damage changes from green to yellow to red. Damage can be worked on in the pits, but if you have too much, you'll ultimately be out of the race. In one race I slammed the rear of another car, killing my engine. Nothing worse than coasting to a stop. Tire wear increases during the race and is also displayed as a color.

The season mode takes the same gameplay as the single race mode but gives you the chance to earn points based on NASCAR scoring for each race. Seasons take place over as many as 24 races, or you may select to race only the speedways, short tracks, or road courses.

One problem with the game is the lack of cars. With only 16 cars in a race, the field does not thin out much. The cars are fairly close in performance, so the entire field can stay together in one pack. Slower traffic adds an extra dimension to a game; traditionally you have to slow down for the slower traffic in certain areas of the track to avoid an accident. Slower traffic gives trailing cars an opportunity to gain on the leader. Without this feature, the racing lacks substantial strategy and just isn't as fulfilling.

Finally, the NASCAR series always seems plagued the somewhat mediocre racing. I don't think it's a problem with the game but rather the tracks. Going around in circles (OK, ovals) just gets repetitive. You always turn one direction. Fortunately there are road courses in the game to keep things interesting, but the ovals seem like a mundane exercise and don't offer the nail biting suspense of road courses.

Replay Value: 80
You can't help but think that this title is more arcade racer than a racing simulation. The cheating AI just shouts arcade. But as an arcade racer it can be enjoyable. The ovals can be classified as either short or long tracks. The short tracks offer enough white knuckles fun to keep the title fresh, but the pace of the longer tracks lets your attention drift too much. The road courses, like the short tracks, suck you in with the added variety and increased passing.

The season mode also adds to the replay value of the game, although you may find yourself anticipating the next track while cruising on the larger ovals. So the game is somewhat a mixed bag. If you don't mind the mundane mixed in with your fun, NASCAR 2000 offers potential. The Quick Race mode and the battle against Richard Petty are so insignificant and easy that you shouldn't even base your opinion of the game on those two modes. The meat of the game lies with the single race and season modes. But even many of the tracks during the season may prove too easy for experienced drivers.

Overall : 85
If you are looking for a NASCAR racer, there's only one place to find one. And if you are looking for a game that is pretty fun and lacks a considerable amount of depth, NASCAR 2000 will suit your needs. The game is not built on the same foundation as a game like Gran Turismo with its unlimited car upgrades and tuning options. The addition of the interactive pit stops adds to the game and makes you look forward to pitting. If you already have one of the older versions of NASCAR, I don't know if there really is enough justification to buy the latest. The bulk of the tracks are the same, the number of cars during a race has dropped, but the graphics have improved. So with all of the pluses and minuses compared to the previous version, this year's version is a push, suggesting a rental is in order.

By: James Smith 11/11/99

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