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NASCAR 2001 (PSX) Hands-on Preview

Platforms : Playstation, Playstation 2
Release Date : Fall 2000

Screens (13)
One of my favorite racing series has been the NASCAR series from EA. I have played a version from each year since 1998 on one platform or another. Heck, I even played (and loved) NASCAR Rumble on the PlayStation. But there was always this nagging issue that the NASCAR series was a bit on the arcade side. Each year the end result seemed to be the same - the handling and gameplay was more like an arcade game than a simulation. Now comes NASCAR 2001 on the PlayStation. The press releases from EA claim a new engine with better graphics, physics, and AI. And without a doubt, this is the best yet in the series.

Graphically, NASCAR 2001 takes on a more refined look. In keeping with last year's version, the number of on-track cars is reduced from the previous editions. To the NASCAR purists, this is disappointing. It would be great to have larger fields, but I applaud EA for sticking with their 18 car model to keep the game speed up. The game moves at an even pace throughout by restricting the field. Also, it seems like the amount of pop-up is reduced in the 2001 version compared to the 2000 version. If you stay focused on the track and surrounding cars, you won't even notice the pop-up in the distance.

The cars look a little better. The advertising on the various cars is plentiful and surprisingly clear. There will be no mistaking who is behind the wheel of any car. Equally impressive is the view from the rear view mirror. In a couple of races, the cars ahead of me got tangled up. Their tires started smoking as the cars went spinning. As I passed them at 180 mph, I could see them spinning off the track in my mirror.

The sound has not changed at all since last year. For me, this means the first thing I did was turn off the terrible Southern rock soundtrack. The commentary is similar the 2000 version, meaning it is sparse. Commentary is pretty much limited to where you are in the field or any lead changes. The spotter calls, however, are perfectly executed and make you feel like you are strapped in a real race car. The car sounds include engines that sound natural and pitch up or down depending on the revs on the engine. When slowing down for a corner, the sound pitches down exactly as you would expect. Tire squeals give an audible clue to let you know if you are taking a turn at too high a speed or are just out of control.

But the guts of the game is the racing, and I am extremely happy with what EA has delivered in this year's version. One of my biggest complaints about the NASCAR series has been that winning a race was always a crapshoot. On the super speedways, once you took first place, the second place car would almost always pass you on the next lap. To win a race, the best strategy was always to be in second place on the penultimate lap. You could never simply run away from the competition. Thankfully, it appears that this bug has been fixed. In a few races, I built leads of several seconds and lost sight of the opponents in my rear view mirror. If you have a strong car, you should blow away the competition, and finally it appears that this is the case. Thank you, EA.

The car handling still is on the arcade side, but you have to give EA some credit for that. A true physics model would mean that the slightest tap from behind as you enter a turn would send your car spinning into the wall. That certainly would turn the casual (and not so casual) racing fan away from the game. Even when tapped you have an incredible sense of control. Mind you, there are times when you get loose, but with good techniques you can battle your way through it. Speed bleed-off going into turns is effective. By lifting off the gas your car automatically slows down. Furthermore, you tend to bleed more speed off as you drive through a curve. On the negative side, drafting is over-emphasized. If you pick up the draft, you accelerate and make passes as if the opponents were sitting still.

The AI of the opponents is fantastic. There is nothing like heading down the straight at Daytona three wide. The AI cars each take unique paths around the track, darting in and out of the draft. At the super speedways, you see the long locomotive of cars lined up one behind the other utilizing the draft. On turns, some cars take a high line while others take a low line.

Where the game breaks down is on cautions. During many races a car would hit the wall or spin off the track. At no time did the caution flag come out despite setting the option. I really wanted to pit under the yellow flag to see how that worked out. More times than not, the car that just crashed would get started again and trail the field. Hopefully the feature was not in its final configuration for this beta build of the game.

Speaking of pit stops, gone this year is the interactive pit system. I actually liked the interactive button combination puzzles from the 2000 version. You may recall that the Parappa-style interactivity influenced your pit times. I like the interaction, as it is better than simply watching the pit crew for 20+ seconds.

The racing takes place in a couple of modes. The Quick Race mode puts you right into the race. The Single Race mode gives you the opportunity to tweak your car, qualify for position, participate in the Happy Hour session, and finally race. The car tweaks are virtually identical to previous editions of the game. Racing takes place in one of three difficulty settings. For season fans, you can customize your own schedule or take part in specific season types, including short tracks, speedways, or road courses.

There are over 20 tracks in NASCAR 2001, with many of them being the actual tracks used for NASCAR. This is the first time you will be able to race at Daytona in the NASCAR series, and you can do so at day or night. Extra fantasy courses are available from the start, and the courses play well. I liked the fantasy tracks in NASCAR 2000; their design was both challenging and fun. This year is more of the same. The track designs are great in terms of both graphics and driving characteristics.

I eagerly await the final release of NASCAR 2001 later this year. There are a couple of minor issues (yellow flags, excessive drafting), but for the most part this year's version of the NASCAR series is shaping up to be the best yet. In fact, for oval track racing (NASCAR, CART, IRL, or otherwise), this may be the best ever on the PlayStation. The mentality of the field is realistic, the handling is improved, and the overall experience is better.

By: James Smith 9/1/00

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