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Nascar Racing 2003 Season (PC) Review

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Papyrus's Nascar Racing 2003 Season will be the final release of the racing series. It was preceded by Nascar Racing, Nascar Racing 2, Nascar Racing 3, Nascar Racing 4, and Nascar Racing 2002 Season-and I've had them all. This final release is not an upgrade to Nascar Racing 2002, but an entirely new game. For the benefit of those who already have Papy's last release, I may make comparisons so the reader can decide if this final title is worth buying. Since some indication of video performance will be given, it's appropriate to list some computer components I used while writing this review.

  • MSI nVidia Ti 4400 over clocked to Ti4600 specs
  • Intel P4 1.6a (Northwood) over clocked to 2.25 Ghz
  • Geil PC3500 memory running at 372 DDR and a 560Mhz Front Side Bus
  • ViewSonic 21" monitor with BNC connection
  • Windows 2000 Pro

For this review I used an older Logitech Wingman FF Wheel, Act Labs Performance Pedals and USB Shifter .

Presentation/Graphics : 90
The graphics are very well done and provide almost photo-realistic scenery. The car renderings are a nice improvement over NR2002 as is the scenery you see during replays. However, the big, orange "76" balls (gasoline advertisements) are still not round, but instead are made up of obvious polygons (yes they are (yes they are polygons, but they shouldn't look like it). The only reason why this bothers me is that there are so many of them. When I ran in 1600 X 1200 X 32 OpenGL mode there were more jagged edges than I liked to see, so I opted for 1280X1024 with Quincunx FSAA (3xFSAA) instead. This certainly cured the problem and still gave me respectable frame rates. The small details like grass textures and fine lines in the metal fences benefit the most from the improved graphics and are the best I've seen on any modern racing simulation. Smoke and other effects like car damage and flying debris are nicely modeled. New for NR2003 are the sun glare and dirty windshield effects. Dirt that builds up on the windshield can be cleaned when you pit and both options can be turned off. There are cockpit shadows and the effect of sunlight, then shade, on the dashboard at different points on the track adds to the realism. The rear view mirror has the option of being turned off, on with full scenery, or on with minimal scenery and the view of the roll cage can be turned on or off. For racing, I want the best view of the cars behind me so I turned off the roll cage and set the scenery to minimum.

Presentation/Audio : 95
As they were in NR2002, the sound effects are about the best you'll hear in a game. The audio, when set properly, is spectacular. Wind, road and tire noise are all there as well as the sound of the engine's exhaust and intake. Opponents' car sounds give a very good approximation of their location. Spotter's comments are still not perfect but they're better than they were in NR2002 and they keep you well informed about the traffic around you.

Interface/Options : 90
Once again, there are not enough options for adjusting force feedback steering wheels. Strength, damping and latency are there, as is a linear to non-linear adjustment. There are partial adjustments for pedal slopes (how slow they come on but not how fast they get to full). This is a small improvement over NR2002, but I still wish all game developers would take a look at the adjustments in Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed and copy them.

That notwithstanding, the rest of the user interface is laid out very well and is quite complete. The setup screens have an entirely new and modern background, but the format is familiar to anyone who has owned a previous Nascar Racing title. There are four tabs in the Options menu - Controls, Graphics, Sound and Other. The Controls tab has the settings for Force Feedback, Driving Aids, Control Assignments and Gear Selector for choosing sequential or H pattern shifting. Under Advanced Controller Options there is an adjustment for Steering Assistance. This really smoothes out the steering wheel input and allows you to drive a smoother line. Turning this option on to about 50% actually took about 2/10ths of a second off my lap times at Daytona without interfering much with my driving.

The Sound tab has options for 3D sound, maximum number of sounds played and volume controls for individual sounds like spotter's voice, engine sound, track noise, etc. The Other tab has things like AutoChat messages, automatic menu help and lap reporting format (time or mph). The Graphics tab has a plethora of adjustments. I doubt it's necessary to list them all here, but needless to say there are enough to allow just about anyone to turn down a few details and still get a nice picture with good frame rates. In the Detail Levels section, I found that turning the Texture Filtering Quality down from Extreme to High gave me a great boost in frame rates with an almost unnoticeable degradation in quality. I set the Maximum Opponents Drawn to 20 ahead and 10 in the mirror. Even when racing with 43 cars, I didn't find that showing only 20 ahead hurt my racing. The Drawing Ahead distance was set to 100% and the Field of View, which is adjustable in NR2003 from 65 to 78, was set to 78. I don't like racing with the steering wheel showing in the cockpit so I turned that off along with Windshield Buildup and Windshield Glare. The shadows on the ground from cars and structures were turned on, but the shadows on the cars were turned off to increase frame rates. In my nVidia control panel I set the display to the best graphics quality and used Riva Tuner to give me a better Level of Detail bias and increase the degree of anisotropy to level 2. FSAA was set to Quincunx (3xFSAA) and texture sharpening was turned on. At the end of a full field of cars at the Daytona starting line I was getting 36 frames per second. At other points on the track it went as high as 65. These are excellent frame rates considering the high quality settings I had for the video card and game.

The Race menu has options for yellow flags, type of race, race length, damage realism, weather and number of opponents. The Garage menu has everything you need to tune your car. There are tool tips if you leave the cursor over an item (or right click the item) that explain what each adjustment does. This is something the beginner might want to stay away from. It's always better to practice with one of the default setups until you get proficient at driving the cars. The Replay Studio has a replay editor that allows you to save just parts of a race and much more, and the Paint Shop lets you customize a car to your personal taste. You don't have to rely on the tool tips for information in any section. The manual, while small in size, is excellent, informative and very complete.

Gameplay : 93
The new driving school is different than the one in Nascar Racing 2002. Rather than a track by track run down on how to take each corner, it covers basic driving skills including rules, flags, drafting, pit strategy and much more. It's a nice review for experienced drivers and a great tool for beginners. Papyrus has retained the "ideal racing line" that you can superimpose on the track. Even if you don't run the line exactly, it's a good reference on most of the tracks and perfect on others. Novice drivers will benefit from all the driving aids. Besides the 'arcade' mode, you can turn on traction control, anti-lock brakes, stability control and steering assistance to make driving easier. In fact, if you turn on all the driver aids, you can almost make the car drive it. For the experienced driver, the full simulation settings make the car handle in a manner that is convincingly realistic. Perhaps the biggest difference in car handling between NR2002 and NR2003 is the way the tire characteristics are modeled. Driving NR2003 feels more realistic and is much more enjoyable.

Steering is smooth and precise. I had no trouble driving a line that was only inches from the wall for the entire back stretch. You do feel the turbulence from other cars but, thankfully, it's not as strong as it was in NR2002. Driving in a crowd isn't quite as hazardous. The force feedback is still tied into the wheel camber and has to be adjusted properly for each track, but once it's done it's a very useful tool.

There are other new features in NR2003. The ability to force pit stops means you can have a short race and make it a requirement that each car has to make at least one (or more) pit stops. This helps to add to the total race strategy. Another is the Adaptive AI (Artificial Intelligence or computer drivers). You have three choices now. You can set the AI drivers manually to a certain percent of full strength. You can let the game set it for you based on your skill, and it will change the setting with each race based on your previous performance. And finally, you can set it to 'catch-up' mode, where the AI drivers will slow down to let you catch up if you fall too far behind. This game truly has something for every skill level.

The AI drivers are also well behaved during a race. I had no problems with them running into me on a regular basis or continuously under a specific set of circumstances. Even when getting back in line during a yellow flag, they behaved as expected. This doesn't mean that they avoided me at all costs. If I gave them a brake job, they would run into me. Also, if I took away their driving line by squeezing by on the high side of the track, they often had no choice but to slide into me. I can't think of another racing sim that has better AI drivers. They are believable, good drivers that can make mistakes. Occasionally they even crash into each other which means that you can actually face a yellow flag situation without being the cause of an accident.

The racing action is top notch. Bumps are now modeled on the tracks which add a lot to the driving experience and the accuracy of the tracks is better than ever. In one race I couldn't avoid an AI accident ahead of me and took on quite a bit of damage. My spotter yelled out "Yellow flag, yellow flag. Race back to the line!" I was too heavily damaged to do much more than limp back. As I was getting in line, the spotter was telling me which car numbers to get ahead of and which car to stay behind. "Pass the 115 car, pass the 24 car. Stay behind the 12 car." It was a great aid in getting back to the right spot. When he announced that the pit lane was open, I pulled in for repairs. My spotter announced the location of the pace car as it moved to different points on the track and then suddenly "Oh, oh. Trouble. The air wrench has jammed." That probably added another 5 seconds to my pit stop. The pit crew stopped pounding out my fenders in time to let me back on the track in front of the pace car, but because some damage remained I was about 15 mph shy of getting up to top speed and keeping up with the pack.

There's more to NR2003 than just racing with the AI drivers, though. There are several ways to race online with real drivers all over the world. The Multi-player mode is the best yet of any of the previous NR series and probably better than any other racing sim. You can actually race online with a full field of 43 cars. You're not limited to just 8 or 20 other drivers as you are in some racing simulators. It has full 'chat' features and one of the menu options lets you set keyboard numbers 1 though 0 as auto-chat messages. This way you can send often used messages like "pitting in", "pitting out", "pass high", etc. by just hitting one key. I'd suggest you program two of them to say "Thanks" and "Sorry".

The only disappointment I found is the continued inability to save a race that is not finished. It's disconcerting when you've planned a 200 lap race at Daytona, have worked your way up to 3rd place by lap 150 and lose everything because some unforeseen circumstance forces you to leave without being able to save the race. It may only affect hard core sim-racers, but I had really hoped that this last release of Papyrus's Nascar series would have finally included this feature. If it did, I would have given this Gameplay section a rating of 100 instead of 93.

Replay Value : 100
Unless you tire of Nascar altogether, I can't imagine getting bored with NR2003, and it's not likely that a better Nascar simulator will come out any time soon. There's a lot you can do. Visit the Paint Shop and customize your own car, learn the driving lines that give you the best lap times and the ones that work in different traffic situations. Do this for each track, and then work on a racing setup that'll knock a tenth of a second off your best time. Learn how to master the draft. Race your buddies online or join one of the many online racing leagues.

This is it, the last piece of a legacy that Sierra/Papyrus started with the original Nascar Racing title. It's going to be the game that all the third party, free add-ons are made for. In fact, there are already some high quality add-on car sets available that include the authentic advertising and logos (beer and some other advertising is missing from the original game cars). Nobody knows the future, but it's quite likely that it could be 4 or 5 years before some other developer and publisher come out with another Nascar sim that will match the quality of Nascar Racing 2003 Season. This could be the 'Grand Prix Legends' of Nascar. I fully expect that in a short period of time there will be other types of race cars (touring cars, sports cars and more) and new tracks for them to race on, all made to work with this sim. Talented members of the online racing community will, no doubt, keep us updated with current car sets for each new season.

Overall : 94
If you adjust the graphics on NR2003 to the same quality as NR2002, the frame rates are better in the new version. NR2003 is not just an upgrade to NR2002; it's an entirely new game. It has better and faster graphics, nicer graphics textures, better online playing, better track accuracy, better physics modeling, better tire modeling, better AI drivers, better menus and quite a few additional features. Although it was just released, I've seen it online for under $30. This is the best Nascar sim to date and is, at the very least, tied as the best racing simulation available. If it had a couple more adjustments for force feedback and pedals, and had the ability so save unfinished races, it would almost be as perfect as a racing game is capable of being today. I'd put Nascar Racing 2003 Season in the "must have" category.

By: Gary DeRoy (GTX_SlotCar) 3/6/03


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