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NASCAR 4 (PC) Review


Papyrus/Sierra's NASCAR Racing franchise has to be one the most successful in the history of racing simulations, with literally tens of thousands of fans worldwide. The series started with the original NASCAR Racing, followed by the first multiplayer racing system, code named Hawaii. That was really the trigger for much of the Nx series' popularity--being able to log on and race against a field of real people was unprecedented, and I was not alone in the receipt of several $400 telephone bills during Hawaii's existence.

1996 brought us NASCAR Racing 2, with several improvements--better graphics, better sound, different physics, and internet multiplayer through the Total Entertainment Network. There was even one season of fully sanctioned and organized racing, the NROS, with the finalists racing on a LAN for some pretty impressive prizes. Eventually, though, TEN folded (became, actually), and online racing was left out in the cold.

NASCAR Racing 3 brought built-in internet multiplayer racing to the series, but ultimately fell well short of what the sim racing community was looking for--the graphics and physics both looked a little dated compared to some of the title's contemporaries, and it just made us all crave NASCAR Racing 4 even more. Well, it's here--stocked with 21 tracks, 33 real drivers, new physics, and a brand-new graphics engine. Was it worth the wait? I hope to answer that question in the next few paragraphs, so read on....

Presentation/Graphics : 87
When they said NASCAR 4 had an all-new graphics engine they weren't kidding--it has virtually nothing in common with anything Papyrus has done before. It probably shares some underpinnings with the engine used in Grand Prix Legends (since N4 is based on an updated and modified GPL engine), but there have been several key improvements since the release of GPL. Most noticeable among these is full support for OpenGL and Direct3D (with DirectX 8, which is included on the CD)--and the conspicuous absence of any Glide support. Both 32-bit and 16-bit color are present, and there is no resolution cap in the code--whatever your graphics card will do, N4 will do as well--just be prepared for high resolutions to require some serious hardware. Papyrus suggests that all Voodoo users run N4 in Direct3D, and owners of Nvidia cards use OpenGL. During my time with N4 so far, I see the best results in Open GL at 16-bit on my Nvidia card. Here's a quick look at my system and the settings I use in N4 to get a good, solid 50+ frames per second:

System: AMD Duron 750@863, 384 MB PC133 SDRAM, SoundBlaster Live!, Creative GeForce 2 MX, ACT Labs Force RS with FF enabled.

N4 settings: OpenGL at 16-bit color, 1024x768, draw ahead 60%, behind 30%, 14 cars ahead, 4 behind, all other graphics at maximum. 12 sounds in EAX mode.

I've heard that N4 responds very well to RAM upgrades, so that may be a cost effective upgrade for those of you whose system struggles a little. At a minimum, I'd say N4 needs a P3/Athlon 600, 128 MB RAM, and a GeForce 2/Voodoo 5/ ATI Radeon DDR for satisfactory performance.

Enough technical stuff- how does the N4 world look to the eye? Well, a lot of that answer is going to depend on your perspective, like always. My opinion is that, while not as shiny and glitzy as NASCAR Heat, it's the best-looking NASCAR title we've seen. There are a few shortcomings, and it's still not the best-looking racing title overall, but N4's appearance is more than sufficient. The cars are probably the highlight of this sim, as they look terrific--and this time we have actual manufacturers, not the generic cars of NASCAR 3. Even Dodge is represented in N4, and the standard paint schemes do a good job of representing their real life counterparts, with the exception of the cars with alcohol or tobacco sponsors, of course. The car shape is a nice compromise between the 4 makes, but definitely favors the Monte Carlo--at least the c-pillar and trunk area sure looks that way to my eyes. All the shortcomings as far as paint schemes are concerned will be a non-issue anyways, since new ones are a snap to import, and car painting gurus are already hard at work to make things correct. You'll see a few cars in the screenshots that aren't included--the usual car sites already have many of the missing cars available.

The in-car view in N4 is done very, very well, as you can see from the screenshot. This time around, Papyrus has given us a full 3D cockpit, so there is the ability to look to the sides, not just straight ahead, and everything looks accurate and properly scaled. The mirror is nice, too, with an optional overlay of the inside of the car--nice touch. All gauges are functional, readable, and there's even a telltale on the tachometer--well done, Papyrus.

The tracks appear to be, for the most part, accurate reproductions of the real venues, with most of the little details such as appropriate billboards, flagpoles, and press boxes in place. The fences, track surfaces, and sky are vastly improved over the past issues of the Nx series--no more fencing that has 3-foot wide links. Dynamic lighting is done as well as I've ever seen in a racing sim, with moving shadows (both in the outside views and the cockpit) and some very impressive reflection effects. The replays in N4 are a joy to watch, and at times can be nearly mistaken for a TV broadcast--realistic camera angles and all.

Problems? There are a couple, of course. I've noticed quite a lot of clipping at times, with cars merging into the same space and separating with no ill result. The animated pit crew (which is pretty decently done, overall) looks a bit stiff and angular, and I've seen a few quirks in the damage sustained in an accident--like hitting the wall with the right side of the car, and having the damage show up on the left. That last issue is pretty rare, and doesn't seem to effect the racing at all. The only other drawback is that it takes quite a system to see N4 in all its glory, but that's something we should expect at this stage of the game. As it stands, NASCAR 4 is the best reason yet to invest in that shiny new 64 MB graphics card you've been secretly lusting after.

Presentation/Audio : 95
First things first--as is Papyrus' tendency, there is no music in NASCAR 4 (and there shouldn't be). So don't e-mail me asking how to turn it on (just a little jab at some mail I've received in the past). The only music in this racing sim is produced by 358 cubic inches of simulated V-8, and to me it sounds pretty fine. From hearing the in-car audio of NASCAR cars over the years, I judge the sound in N4 to be as close as anyone has gotten to right, and the positional effects using EAX are spectacular. The crash sounds have been toned down from previous releases, which is a good thing--I always though they sounded artificial, and at times the new effects are enough to make your stomach do flips. Nothing is quite like spinning in the middle of the pack at Talladega, closing your eyes, and waiting for the sickening crunch of another car smacking you in the right side door--it's all very immersive and believable. The number of sounds played simultaneously can be adjusted in the options menu, where you also select the type of sound driver to use (EAX, DS3D, etc). Beware: using a high number of sounds does seem to affect the overall performance of N4, so be cautious.

The good news is this: The NASCAR Racing series finally has what it deserves--the best sound in a racing title, bar none.

Interface/Options : 88
Those familiar with the user interface in other Papyrus titles won't find anything too unusual about that used in N4. The menus are laid out in a logical pattern, as before, with a few changes--the biggest being the way the driver lists are handled. There is now an Opponent Manager in place of Driver Info, and it's a vast improvement--just check the box next to any driver you want in the current list, and he's in there. Very quick and easy. The paintshop is also accessed through this screen, and is another big improvement on previous NASCAR titles. The cars can now be painted with the full color palette instead of the hundred-odd colors we had before, and it's possible to make some very sharp personal cars--a welcome change that was long overdue. The paintshop is pretty straightforward, and flexible enough to do some nice work, but the best results are obtained by using a 3rd party graphics program--just be sure to use an uncompressed TGA format.

This series has always been full of options, and N4 is no exception. The physics can be set to sim or arcade mode, the opponent strength is very flexible, and you can control every aspect of the race weekend, including practice length, number of cars, race length, weather, you name it. The graphics setup is also easy to use and makes N4 a fairly scalable title: you can adjust car and world detail, number of cars drawn, draw distance, and special effect to get your desired framerate (Hint: Set things up to stay above 30 at all times--it's very difficult to achieve fast, consistent laps with numbers below that). You're also given a choice of sound drivers, and the number of simultaneous sounds--this setting is noticeable when driving, both in the sound quality and in framerate, so experiment with this.

The controller setup is typical of Papyrus, and works great. Multiple axes and force feedback are supported, and there are two driver choices--DirectInput and Optimized. My Force RS requires the DirectInput driver, but those of you with non-FF controllers may get better results using the optimized driver. I didn't notice any calibration or control anomalies in N4, and everything was simple to use and intuitive.

Typical Papyrus in this department, with a plethora of options and great scalability. Let's move on to the real test of a sim....

Gameplay : 60
Many of you who know me are going to look at this score and wonder if I've lost my mind, since you know I've spent countless hours enjoying NASCAR 4 and have said a lot of very favorable things about it. Well, I haven't lost my mind--as it stands right now, N4 deserves nothing better than the 60 I give it, and that score may be a little generous. When awarding this score, a lot of things have to be taken into account- and while one aspect of N4 is sometimes good, the other is so bad as to be almost useless.

The somewhat good part is the multiplayer racing--while not nearly approaching the quality of Hawaii or even a good day on TEN, it's a slight improvement over what we had with NASCAR 3, and is very similar to the online racing in GPL. With a decent dialup connection to one of the Papyrus servers, there is some very good racing to be had through the site (which you connect to via the multiplayer menu inside N4). These servers seem to have no trouble with a field of 30 or so cars, and are available 24/7. The quality of the racing, good connections or not, isn't very impressive at this stage, however, with an awful lot of drivers intentionally wrecking others, drivers who haven't practiced at all (or so it appears) causing mayhem everywhere, and the verbal flames burning brightly. But with the use of driver ratings and muzzle lists, these problems will sort themselves out in time--just like they did during the NROS and TEN. That's the good part. The bad part is that, at least from my experience, any server other than the Papyrus servers have a really hard time with full fields, and I've yet to see a race that wasn't marred by warp and disconnects. I'll get flamed to high heaven for daring to take the Papyrus name in vain, but the multiplayer in N4 is nowhere near ready for primetime, and makes anything other than unorganized pickup racing a crap shoot at best. Added to this is the fact that there is a very nasty bug that many "drivers" take advantage of--it seems that, at certain tracks, you can simply run full-bore along the wall without sustaining any damage, and that the resulting lap times are faster than those attained by driving honestly. If this isn't addressed in a patch, much of the fun and credibility of racing online will be gone. Hopefully that patch is in the works. It seems very odd to me that there has been no progress whatsoever in the multiplayer department in the past 2 years, but if there has, I just don't see it.

The bad part is this: single player, offline racing. With the artificial intelligence (AI) in the state it is right now, there is no point at all in doing anything offline but practice. That statement may be a little strong, but it's the result of repeated attempts to complete races, only to have one or more the following happen: a) At the drop of the green flag, at least 3/4 of the AI cars pile up in a huge wreck. The resulting yellow flag never ends, leaving the cars to circulate at a crawl for the remainder of the race. b) Slowing for a wreck or spin in front of you, only to have 10 AI cars fly past (or into you)at full speed, causing a huge pileup--and a yellow which may or may not end. c) Having the pace car consistently pick up the SECOND PLACE car, allowing the leader to put the better part of a lap on the entire field (Note: I tried running a championship season, and made it 4 races in--this had happened in every single race, pretty much ruining any hope of a decent and fair result). d) Having the AI once again ignore the position of the player's car, moving down or up into you and causing, once again, an accident. This is understandable within reason, but these guys are either blind or just plain stupid. I've been hit in the back, hit in the side, run over while slowing for a wreck, spun during caution periods, and slammed into on pit road--and I finally gave up on racing the AI until we get a patch to address this. That N4 is a poor single player title doesn't really bother me, since I race almost exclusively online--but for anyone wanting to race in Championship season mode, I though this warning was needed.

As for the physics, once again Papyrus has set a new standard- they did it with ICR2 way back when, they did it with GPL, and they've done it with N4's new 3D physics model. The handling, feel, and weight transfer appear to be spot on--a huge leap in realism over anything else in the Nx series. This is certainly no longer a world in which you can apply throttle and brakes with impunity, because that approach will result in some very bad things happening, usually involving an irresistible force (3400 pounds of stock car) and an immovable object (the wall). Smooth and precise is the order of the day, and paying strict attention to your line and braking points is vital. The 2 roadcourses (Sears Point and Watkins Glen) are an entirely different experience than they were in N3, and it's definitely a change for the better. Papyrus combined these physics with the great garage implementation, which allows you to change just about everything that the real teams can. In this release, the springs and shocks are separate, tire pressures and temperatures seem much more realistic, and all the changes to a car's setup have more measurable and authentic results. This is really an aspiring crew chief's dream.

All these changes in the way you set up and drive your car will result in becoming very familiar with the damage model, which can be set to none, moderate, or realistic. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem quite right at any setting--the damage sustained is far too minor in almost every circumstance. I have tried very hard to hurt my car bad enough so that I was unable to continue, and have thus far been unsuccessful. Head-in into the wall at 180+, wild flips down the backstretch at Talladega, head-on collisions at closing speeds of over 250 mph--nothing I tried resulted in not being able to rejoin, albeit after some delay, and to continue to race. I've also witnessed several instances of AI cars flipping, sustaining major visual damage, and continuing in the race without even pitting. Come on, Papyrus, that is simply ridiculous.

What we really have here is a superb driving model coupled with some very subpar elements. NASCAR 4 is a great sim when hotlapping or racing a very small field online, but beyond that it just doesn't fulfill the potential that exists within. For someone who races exclusively online, the flaws won't be as evident, but the majority of buyers aren't online racers--and for racing offline, the AI just makes N4 an exercise in frustration. I just hope that Papyrus is as timely and thorough with the fixes as they have been in the past.

Replay Value: 85
There is always a ton of replay value in a racing sim, since the results of a race or season will rarely be the same twice. Having built-in multiplayer only adds to this score, especially in light of the huge number of races available. Beginners can switch to realistic mode when the arcade mode becomes tiresome, and there will always be new challenges from your fellow online racers. The score isn't higher because of the lack of variety in tracks--several are very similar, and many people just don't have the passion for oval track racing that others do. This limits the life of the product somewhat, and hurts this score just a little.

Overall : 80
If I could give a score purely based on potential, this title would be well into the 90s--but potential doesn't count as much as actual, delivered quality, and there are some glaring faults with this release. At first, I was so taken in by the new physics, sound, and overall look that some of those faults didn't bother me, but after a month they really started to take a toll on my enjoyment of this sim. With some more work, especially on the AI and damage modeling, we could have a real winner here, but as it stands, a great driving model wrapped in a far less than satisfactory overall experience just doesn't quite make the grade. For multiplayer, Grand Prix Legends is still superior to NASCAR 4--and as a single player effort, N4 fits in around 4th or 5th on the list--until we get a patch, which I'm sure will address many of the big issues.

If you're a NASCAR fan who races mainly online, N4 is the best there is right now. If you don't race online, I'd say wait until the AI is fixed before laying out the cash for this one. You've waited this long, what's a few more months?

By: Scott Moore 3/13/01
Comments on the review?

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