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NASCAR 2001 (PS2) Review


New Screens (10)

Screens (10)

Yeeeeee hawwww! If you didn't know already, it's time to saddle up the horses and go for a ride. Horsepower, that is. The NASCAR series makes its debut on the PlayStation 2 hardware just in time for the upcoming 2001 season. If you think it's just a bunch of hillbillies watchin' the cars go by and smelling exhaust, well, you're right. But even race fans north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Appalachians appreciate this sport where cars drive in circles, err ovals. Heck, even NASCAR features a few road courses to tax the drivers' driving skills.

NASCAR 2001 hopes to recreate the redneck experience on the PS2. Besides featuring 37 real NASCAR drivers, 12 tracks, and all the teams and sponsors seen on the NASCAR circuit, NASCAR 2001 boasts AI based on driver tendencies, a full damage model, and rich graphics. Simply put, the game promises the world. This gamer had NASCAR 2001 on his short list of PS2 games to get, and I don't even live in a mobile home or have a father who is also my brother. I love racing in any form, real or virtual. So does NASCAR 2001 finish in front or in the middle of the pack?

Presentation/Graphics : 30
With the PlayStation 2, there comes a certain expectation. Sony promised stunning graphics for eager developers. Of course, it's up to the developers to fulfill their end of the deal. In some respects, NASCAR 2001 is what you would expect from a first generation PS2 title. However, the game falls flat on its face in many areas that could easily turn most gamers away from the title.

First the good. The game renders the cars to exact detail. There are multiple views in the game, from three third-person perspectives to a bumper camera and a nice in-car view. For realism, the in-car first-person view can't be beat. A detailed dash consisting of working instruments keeps you keen on the status of your car. The gauges are occasionally covered up by a large steering wheel rotated by gloved hands. A few extra items are modeled to give you the authentic NASCAR feel. Whichever view you use, you'll notice the detailed stickers on every car. The M&M's car is perfect with every color represented. The logos of carmakers are easily readable as well as every other piece of text on the skins. Even if you've only seen a commercial with a NASCAR racer, you'll appreciate how real the cars look. Likewise, the tracks are fairly realistic. Fencing lines the outside of the track, and if you slow down enough you can count the chain links. Below the fencing is the brick wall, which has accurate lettering spelled out at each track.

Other graphical wonders include smoking tires. During a race, one of your AI opponents may spin and fill the track with white smoke. If you are behind the driver, the scene is reminiscent of Tom Cruise in [I]Days of Thunder[/I]. The entire screen fills with a realistic white cloud and you struggle to make it through unscathed. If you don't make it through clean, your car can suffer damage. Damage is updated in real time during the race. If you bang a fender too often, you'll see it. If you scrape the wall, sparks fly and you leave some paint on the wall. While the paint effect is not as exaggerated as on the PSX version of the game, it is still there. The most subtle feature is shading. As the race progresses, the angle of the sun changes and affects the shading of the cars.

Even with all of the power of the PS2, NASCAR 2001 only bumps up the number of cars from the PSX version by 2. Races have 20 cars, and unfortunately they tax the PS2. Pop-up exists on the horizon; entire sections of grandstands will appear out of nowhere. At the beginning of a race, you'll also experience some slowdown. But those problems pale in comparison to perhaps the most embarrassing graphical mistakes on any PS2 game.

At many times during the race, the game goes from its high resolution mode to an obvious interlaced mode of half-resolution frames. The game stutters and the lower resolution screens pop in and out. The effect makes the game look no better than a PSX game. The beautiful decals turn into blocky messes and the entire flow of the game takes a nosedive. After a second or two, the game pops back into normalcy. The kicker is that this phenomenon occurs more often when you bring up the rear view mirror. In NASCAR, the drivers depend on spotters. While cars don't have side view mirrors, they do have rear view mirrors. The rear view mirror is essential in planning blocking strategy. Yet in NASCAR 2001, the rear view mirror completely destroys the graphics to the point where you won't want to play the game. To even get some enjoyment, you must play without an essential component of NACAR racing. If you want to at least get a glimpse of the traffic behind you, you'll end up playing in a third-person mode. This leaves unfulfilled fans of the first person, such as myself, yearning for a realistic experience. Even in the pits the game appears to switch to this half-frame mode. The pit stops looked no better than a PlayStation game and were downright embarrassing. The crew members' animations were sloppy over the pixelated character models.

Presentation/Audio : 80
When I was but a wee engineering student, I had the pleasure of seeing a presentation by none other than The King, Richard Petty. One of the highlights was before the talk when one of his old cars was started. The rumble of the 700-plus horses under the hood was impressive. While NASCAR 2001 can't completely recreate the experience, it does a good job. The sounds of the cars as they gear up are realistic. Equally realistic is the response as you enter a turn. Letting off the gas lowers the pitch of the engine giving you an audible clue that you are slowing. Likewise, tire squeal lets you know if you are losing grip. I would routinely use the aural clues to straighten my wheels.

The sounds take a step back with the commentary and crashing. The spotter does a fine job providing a traffic report. The positional calls are factual, but the spotter (or the pit crew chief) often mistakenly calls out your lap time progress. I was chastised with "You're off the pace." That would be fine except that the calls were made with me in the lead and pulling away from the field. The commentary quickly gets stale. The same comments seem repeated in the sparse dialogue. When the field is approaching pit stop time, one of the commentators (Bob Jenkins and Benny Parsons call the action) goes spastic about the pits. I swear I heard about how the field was preparing to pit for a minute straight. The sound of crashing seemed like a mix between crunching sounds and dishes breaking. Whatever it was, it didn't seem realistic. What would a NASCAR game be without bad music? For fans of Southern Rock and other lousy styles, you'll be right at home. For others, you'll be thankful for the ability to turn the music off.

Interface/Options : 60
Consider NASCAR 2001 a stripped down version of the NASCAR franchise. NASCAR has always been a favorite of mine on the PlayStation. While the first version I played, NASCAR 98, pretty much stuck to racing on real tracks, subsequent versions added little nuances to increase the value. Whether it was the excellently designed fantasy tracks or Race Against the King in NASCAR 2000, I always felt you got plenty of bang for the buck. Now comes the first NASCAR on the PS2, and the options are slim.

The menu system spells out exactly what you get in the game. The main menu provides the option to engage in a quick race (random driver and track), a one- or two-player race, set some stylistic game options, or check the credits. The available options include sound and display switches and a selection of controller mappings. If you select either the single or two player option, you move to a submenu where you can select either a single race or a championship season. In addition, you can also set up the gameplay options, including AI difficulty (3 levels), the physics (arcade or sim), race length, damage, yellow flags, and pit mode (normal or short, meaning fuels and tires need attending to more often). Once on the track, you'll notice that while you can still set the car up, practice, qualify, and race, the Happy Hour session has been removed from the game. The Happy Hour session lets you see how well your car performs with live action prior to an actual race. Its exclusion signals a gapping hole in the game that is sorely missed.

An option which is also missing is support for older PSX peripherals. While the back of the box states that analog control is supported, the support seems isolated to the Dual Shock 1 and 2. I don't have any of the new steering wheels released with the PS2, but I do have some legacy racing controllers from the PSX. I tried both Interact's Ultraracer hand wheel and full-sized V3 wheel to no avail. The hand wheel would not work at all, and the V3 would only work in digital mode. I've used these two controllers successfully on the import PS2 with Ridge Racer 5, so I know they work with the newer hardware.

Gameplay : 70
NASCAR has never received kudos for realism. It's an arcade racer pure and simple. EA has made some tweaks along the way to make it appear as a sim, and the latest release is the closest yet to a sim-based title. You can race in a single race or in one of three championships (a full season or two half seasons). The championship season is based on the actual NASCAR points system. Once on the track, you can assess just how realistic this racer is.

The game's box proudly proclaims that your 19 AI opponents have independent AI modeled after their real-life abilities. While I can neither substantiate nor discredit this claim, I can say the AI-controlled cars are impressive. On the ovals, cars dodge in and out of traffic. Your opponents will make every attempt to pass and slip in and out of the draft. On the super speedways, there is nothing more exhilarating than racing three abreast in a turn. Of course, the amount of exhilaration is directly proportional to the steadiness of the graphics. You'll certainly recognize different driving characteristics between the super speedways and the road and short tracks. What you'll also notice is that the AI cars' strategy doesn't change as you alter the difficulty setting. Rather, the AI cars only get faster. The Veteran level, which is the middle ground, is challenging initially on the ovals and tough on the road courses. On the Legend setting, the cars blew by me.

Where the AI took a leap was near pit time. During one particular race on the Veteran mode, I came from the back of the pack to lead the race after a few laps. After about 50 laps, I took my 3 second lead into the pits. I was worried as none of the other cars headed for the pits. I was worried the pitting was completely overlooked. Nonetheless, after about 10 laps I came from a lap down to take the lead again. By that time, the AI cars decided they needed to pit. After their round of pits, I was up not by 3 seconds as before my pit stop, but a full lap. It seems as though the game was letting me catch back up. Repeating the game on the Legend level showed I lacked the stuff.

Why did I fail to compete at the Legend level? I tend to think it's because of the tuning options. No matter the difficulty setting, the AI cars appear to be ideally tuned for each track. If you play the game with arcade physics you have 3 setups available prior to a race, such as neutral, tight, and loose. With the physics set to simulation, you can alter the car's spoiler angle, suspension (loose to stiff), wedge, gearing (simplistic overall gear ratio), tire pressure, and transmission. Heading to a track, the game does not prepare your car to give you a fighting chance. It's up to you to tune the car for each track. Unfortunately, to test a setup, you have to sit through about a minute of load time before practice. This makes setting up a car a chore. It's especially frustrating when your car starts to skid on the track no matter the settings. The AI cars appear to drive unrealistically at times; I've seen AI cars drift or slip without leaving skid marks.

It seems that whatever you do, you can't overcome understeer. The cars have plenty of power under the hood, and the game is definitely using rear-wheel drive cars. You can make doughnuts by punching the gas from rest. But once at speed, you can't finesse your car through some turns unless you slow down more than your competition. This brings up another issue, which is braking. I must confess that I have difficulty using two thumbs to race cars. While analog steering is no problem, I can't get accustomed to using the right stick for the gas and brake. I'm left using the square and X buttons for brakes and gas, respectively. Now recall that the buttons on the DS2 controller are "analog." NASCAR 2001 doesn't utilize this feature. The digital nature of the games response comes into play with braking. From 70-190 mph, if you lightly press the brakes (square button), you slow down. If you hold the button down for about 3 seconds, your car suddenly skids and starts to go sideways. This completely erroneous braking model had me tapping the brakes or mentally counting to 2 and releasing the brakes.

On some tracks I thought setting up the car would turn the trick. On some courses, the settings most certainly manifested themselves as performance gains or losses. But on some tracks, changing the spoiler angle was strange. At Darlington, I used the spoiler angle to improve my cornering abilities. However, there was absolutely no change in power between the two spoiler angle extremes. I expected much more drag when the angle was set to the max. Instead, I was befuddled when the car produced the same RPMs for a given speed no matter the angle. Tire pressure supposedly affects speed in the game, but its contribution appeared negligible.

The biggest factor in making it to the front is the draft. While I like the drafting model for the most part, I noticed one hole. Unless you are almost directly behind another car, you won't pick up the draft. In reality, there is a large enough wake behind the cars to allow you to be a few feet outside the trajectory of another car. Other than that, the draft lets you accelerate quickly (which you should with the drag force minimized).

While there are some issues with the gameplay, I must note that the game can be fun. I doubt the game will appeal to casual racing fans due to the complexity of setting up cars to be competitive. But diehard racing fans will appreciate the extra effort required to be successful in the game. If you stick it out past some of the appalling graphical and handling problems, you'll find a game with some nice racing. As a NASCAR fan, I've seen enough races to recognize realistic driving patterns. NASCAR recreates the experience very well. You can lightly tap an opponent on the rear quarter panel and send him spinning. Likewise, the pack will bump into each other from the side as cars fight for position. The subtle up and down motions reflect the true nature of the cars as they travel down the track. I had the impression that this NASCAR was the closest yet to a true sim without going the final step. Maybe next year?

Replay Value: 60
Honestly, first impressions are crucial. The first impression that NASCAR 2001 leaves is quite distasteful. The graphics at their best are decent, but nowhere near the quality of other PS2 games. At their worst, they approach the level of a PSX game. Yes, they can be that bad. NASCAR fans may decide to save the extra ten bones and opt for the PSX version, which offers almost the same level of play but with more tracks.

Graphical problems not withstanding, there are some gameplay issues. The understeer is frustrating, as is the sight of the AI cars passing you as you slow down to make some turns. While slowing down you must be careful of losing control for no apparent reason, particularly the road tracks. I mastered Monaco GP 2 on the Dreamcast, yet NASCAR 2001 has me befuddled. Just when I think the physics are good, something comes along to shatter that image.

Still, I am strangely enjoying the title. Yes, the graphics suck at times, but the game somehow pulls me in. It's almost like enjoying having needles stuck in my eyes. I'm a glutton for punishment (as evidenced by my love for games like Monaco GP 2 and F355 on the Dreamcast), and I must feel I can't rest until I have mastered the game. I admit that I'm probably an atypical gamer in this respect. The game takes at least 3 to 4 hours to begin to enjoy, and I'm well aware most of you won't get past the first half hour.

Overall : 61
Unless you are a racing fanatic, like myself, NASCAR 2001 offers little to the casual gamer. The graphics at times are terrible, bordering on a PSX-like appearance. The actual gameplay is a mixed bag. There is some good side-by-side racing, but the game is a stripped-down version of the PSX title. With all the extra power of the PS2, all EA could do was add two more cars to the field. The 20 cars race in a pseudo-sim. This leaves arcade and sim racing fans alike scratching their heads.

By: James Smith 1/2/01

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