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NASCAR 2001 (PSX) Review

Background Info

Screens (13)

Are you ready to drive around in circles? Although the season has been going strong since the early part of the year, EA has just released the latest installment of their NASCAR series, NASCAR 2001. Utilizing a new game engine, this version of NASCAR looks to be the best yet of the series on the PlayStation.

In addition to the more than 30 drivers available in the game, there are more than two dozen tracks ranging from short tracks to full road courses. A mix of real courses and fantasy tracks have been created inside the walls of developer Black Box. The game even touts the addition of driving habits for virtual drivers based on their real-life characteristics. All of this, combined with quick graphics, puts NASCAR 2001 a car's length ahead at the finish line.

Presentation/Graphics : 93
I was fortunate enough to preview a late beta version of NASCAR 2001. I was happy with what I saw in the beta, and the final release hasn't changed at all. NASCAR 2001 sticks with strategy of the 2000 version. The field of drivers is reduced significantly to only 18 cars on a track. By restricting the number of cars, the developers are able to add more detail to the tracks and cars without sacrificing the fluid pace of the game. Pop-up has plagued the game in the past, but this year's version looks great. While there are objects that appear out of nowhere, they aren't too obvious.

Cars feature the same amount of advertising seen on the actual cars. Jeff Gordon's car has the bright color scheme and DuPont logo. As you approach a competitor, the car looks better and better. The one odd aspect of the cars is that they cast an odd shadow when at close range.

Tracks look just as good as the cars. Grandstands and press boxes are located in the proper locations. The track surfaces range in appearance from black asphalt to cracked concrete. Fencing is visible as you rush by, and a pixelated crowds fills the stands. Racing at night is a surreal experience as stadium lights shine brightly on the track. During day races, you can expect cloudy or sunny weather. Overcast skies have various shades of gray, whereas glare from the sun hits you on sunny days. During races you'll spot a blimp or helicopter, which has a working blade, overhead. Both airborne entities move across the track and follow the action.

When cars collide, they trade paint. Glancing the wall leaves paint on the wall. On your next time around the track you'll notice the paint you left is still there. Likewise, tire marks remain on the surface for the duration of the race. The working rear view mirror lets you block oncoming traffic and also provides some spectacular views of cars spinning out.

Six camera views are available, including two first-person views. A bumper camera provides the smoothest racing, although purists may opt for the in-car view complete with gloved hands and a full dash. The third-person views range from the close to the far. The pace of the game seems to dip just a bit with these views. Additionally, I found the views difficult to use when in traffic.

The screen is managed well. Items which can be turned on and off include a track map, a few gauges, lap times, car condition, and the rear view mirror. The track map shows your position as well as the position of the leader. The damage meter displays the conditions of the tires and different parts of the body.

Presentation/Audio : 78
One of my biggest complaints about the NASCAR series has been the music. I live in the South but I can't stand Southern rock. Besides, I bet Dale Jarrett or the Labonte brothers aren't listening to the radio during the race. If drinking milk is a tradition at Indy, my tradition is to dump the music in NASCAR. This leaves the sounds of machines, the commentary, and the spotter calls.

While the engines change pitch as the gas in increased or decreased, I felt the cars had a somewhat cheesy quality to them. It made me think of my youth when I learned how to program sounds on my old Atari 800. I want to hear a deeper roar at low speeds and a shrill whine at the upper end. On the positive side, cars have realistic sounding impacts. Furthermore, audio clues such as screeching tires let you know when you are on the brink of instability.

Bob Jenkins and Benny Parsons provide the commentary again. The commentary is anything but plentiful. For the most part, the booth sticks with calls on your position as well as position changes in the field. However, the calls of the spotter add to the realism. Spotters let you know what is happening in your blind spots. They are invaluable when blocking an opponent.

Other sounds of note include the rush of air you hear as you drive near the walls and pass by the chain link fence posts. Also, the crowd cheers as you pass the bleachers. No crowd noise is heard away from the stands. As you near the stands, the noise gets louder and louder. On the way past, the cheers diminish. Unfortunately, the cheering only takes place on the last lap. The only other time you may hear the crowd is when cars impact or you hit the wall.

Interface/Options : 90
When NASCAR 2001 starts up, the main title screen lists a Quick Race mode, single or two player action, an options menu, and a preview of other EA titles. The Quick Race mode puts you in the middle of the pack on a randomly selected track. One- and two-player racing can be on a single track or as a season. Seasons range from a full season to shortened seasons based on preference. You can opt to race short tracks, super speedways, or road courses. If none of those appeal to you, you can create a custom season of your favorite tracks. During a championship, actual NASCAR scoring rules determine the points leader. Before you start a season, you can select the difficulty of the game (3 levels) and driver. You can also create your own driver which allows you to customize the make and color scheme of the car. All of this is explained in the manual, which covers every aspect of the game.

Once at a track, the full NASCAR experience awaits. A full race weekend is scheduled. Unlimited practice runs are available, and once the car is tuned to your desires you complete a two-lap qualifying run. The custom settings are a carbon copy of previous editions of the game. You can adjust options such as tire pressure, gear ratios, and down force. As a final check of the car before a race, the Happy Hour session lets you race against others in the field. Finally, the actual race, which can range from 3% to 100% of the actual race length begins.

A damage model is included in the game. A model of your car can be shown in a corner. The condition varies from a perfect green to a damaged red. If you tend to hit the walls often, the right side of your car shows more damage than the left. Damage regions include the bumpers, quarter panels, doors, tires, and engine.

Once a race finishes, a few highlights are shown followed by the finishing order. Sadly, the race standings are incomplete. The finishing order is shown along with the points won for the race and number of laps led for each driver. At the bottom the winning time is posted along with the margin of victory. I was hoping the game would list the amount of time each driver was behind the winner.

Gameplay : 87
On the track, if you've played NASCAR in the past you know what to expect with a couple of exceptions. One thing that has always bugged me in the past versions is the AI of the leaders. You could never run away from the field and the leader always switched from lap to lap. On the super speedways it was advantageous to be in second place on the penultimate lap. That usually meant a sure victory for you. By contrast, if you led the second to last lap, the second place CPU car always seemed to make a pass and hold it. You had a 50/50 chance of winning. All that has changed this year as you can actually drive away from the field to an extent. I routinely was 4 or 5 seconds ahead of the second place car. Unfortunately, late in races the AI cars tended to get a speed boost. If you race cleanly, however, you can usually prevail.

Before each race, the car is set up in a configuration suited for the circuit. Unlike last year's version which required you to fiddle with the settings to produce a faster car, I find my car can dominate right out of the box. This is good news to the casual gamer who doesn't want to mess with the nuts and bolts of the game. However, purists won't be amused by the shortcuts. There is only slight room for improvement. Also, I noticed no measurable advantage using one driver over another.

Drafting is a key element of NASCAR racing. A train of cars drafting together can speed along faster than an equally configured single car. Drafting is excessive in NASCAR 2001. If you pick up the draft, you get sucked towards the car ahead. Even when you pull out of the draft you maintain your speed rather than slow down due to drag. On the super speedways you can go from last to first in just two laps using the draft. On the short tracks, the draft can improve your position by two on the brief straights. The bad news is there is no option available to lessen the effect of the draft.

The physics of the cars are rooted in arcade racing but there is some semblance of reality. In the draft, cars are more unstable as the down force decreases. Trying to escape the low pressure region created by the draft requires a bit of muscle. Quickly turning the wheel and letting go usually ends with your car getting sucked back in. The handling is sluggish as befits a stock car. The nimbleness of open wheel racers is nowhere to be seen. There are limitations to the physics to suit the casual racer. Even though I've spun by getting tapped at the outside rear, more times than not you simply can't spin. You can enter a turn a 200 miles per hour and pull the wheel full left. Rather than spinning, your car exhibits nothing more than a state of understeer. Oversteer must be a bad word in NASCAR 2001. Furthermore, starting from a stop you should be able to do 180s by gunning the throttle and turning the wheel to the maximum. The friendly physics prevent this level of realism.

The AI drivers certainly make the race interesting. Drivers drive various lines around the circuits. I've seen as many as 3 cars side by side entering turns. Cars will dive in and out of the draft line to make their moves. The AI cars do make mistakes at times, such as banging into the wall and spinning. Despite their errors I have yet to bring out a yellow flag. Yellow flags appear with the same frequency as Halley's comet. The only way I was able to bring the yellow flag out was to stop my car on the track and point the nose against traffic. My car quickly went under the control of the CPU as the yellow came out. The only control you have during a yellow flag is the decision to pit or not.

Once in the pits (pit stops can be scaled for shorter races) the interactive pits of NASCAR 2000 are a thing of the past. All you do is decide which tires you want to replace, whether or not you want to repair damage, and gas up the car. I personally liked the interactive pits since they added another element to the game. The pits stops in NASCAR 2001 routinely last over 22 seconds, which is unrealistic for a Winston Cup pit crew. Using the interactive pits of last year, you could achieve more realistic times near 15 seconds.

Replay Value : 83
NASCAR 2001 is the best version of the NASCAR series to date. Some annoying AI issues have been fixed and the end product is an entertaining race for the flag. With simple handling that will appeal to a wide mix of skill levels, the game is easy to step into. While some may be bored by racing in circles, the diversity of the tracks keeps the game fresh. Different driving techniques are required for short tracks, road courses, ovals, and super speedways. Even the fantasy courses in the game are a challenge.

Personally, I find driving on super speedways boring. Some tracks, such as Talladega, let you run flat out. You never let off the gas unless in traffic. There simply is no challenge or intrigue. But the other types of courses at least necessitate the use of the brakes. With the large number of tracks, I can customize the game to suit my tastes. If you race the full season with the full race settings, you are in store for at least 50 hours of racing. If you have the patience, you couldn't ask for a better return on your investment.

Overall : 86
Despite a small field of cars, NASCAR 2001 gives the virtual racer a sense of the thrill of NASCAR racing. The large number of tracks, including the unique fantasy tracks, adds to the value of the game. The AI has since last year, and last year was a slight improvement to the previous versions of NASCAR. While the game has some simulation aspects to it, it is rooted in arcade gaming. As such, it isn't as deep as it could be. As it stands, however, NASCAR 2001 is the best yet in the series.

By: James Smith 9/28/00

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