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NASCAR Thunder 2002 (Xbox) Review

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Screens (28)

You always have to question the wisdom of releasing sports titles out of season. EA's NASCAR Thunder arrived at the end of the NASCAR season, but fortunately stock car racing isn't plagued with substantial driver moves. Leave it to the big four sports to beckon gamers with constant roster updates. Of course, diehards may be a bit miffed about outdated paint schemes, but casual fans won't even notice.

Besides, EA's NASCAR series has always been a good seller. This year, NASCAR Thunder 2002 for the Xbox mirrors the PlayStation 2 version. Aside from some graphical difference, the two titles play the same. This means a full 43-car field for each race, every track on the NASCAR calendar, damage, and the full assortment of game modes.

Presentation/Graphics : 90
Race fans who have seen Thunder for the PS2 in action know that never before has Winston Cup racing been so good-looking on a console. The Xbox version of the game ups the ante just a little bit more. The full 43-car field is presented without slowdown or frame rate issues, though there is some jagginess displayed for track structures. The cars proudly display colorful decals bearing the sponsors' names. Each logo is clear and really looks good against the metallic textured skins of the cars.

Where the Xbox version flexes its muscle is with reflections and glare effects. Press boxes often show reflected clouds against the glass, and the glare off the rears of cars from the sun is particularly good. As cars make their way around the track, the sun eventually hits the backside of the car. As it does, the amount of glare off the back increases and then dies away through another corner. While it's the ultimate eye candy, it makes the game a tad more realistic graphically.

Other nice features include backfire flames from the exhaust system, smoking tires, permanent tire marks on the track surface, pop-up speed brakes on the top of the car, and a perfect view of another car's interior through the rear window. Damage is updated in real time. The most obvious damage is bodywork crunches. But the game also keeps track of wall scrapes.

Jus like the PS2 version, the racing is viewed from multiple angles. There are two third-person views and three first-person views. A bumper camera is available as well as a roof camera which gives you a sliver of the hood. An in-car view shows the dash of the car including functioning instruments. The screen is managed well. The upper left can be toggled to show the track map, vehicle damage, or nothing. The upper middle is for the pop-up rear view mirror, and the upper right shows your place and the lap number. The bottom left displays stats such as lap times and times to your nearest competitors. Finally, the bottom right is reserved for your speedometer, fuel gauge, draft meter, and a tire wear indicator. With all the extra meters and stat areas, the middle of the screen is more than adequate to view the racing.

Presentation/Audio : 75
You can cut and paste the section on audio from the PS2 version here. I honestly have not heard any differences between the two versions. And that's unfortunate as some work was warranted with respect to the spotter. At times the spotter fails to keep you abreast of all the cars around you. I've been clipped on a rear quarter panel many times because I can't see an AI car. The spotter needs to keep me updated, and often he fails to do so. The rest of the audio is what you'd expect. Engines rev with a throaty roar and tire squeal is an annoying high pitch sound. The crunching of metal is done quite well as is scraping against the wall or another car.

Interface : 90
As mentioned earlier, the Xbox version of Thunder is a carbon copy of the PS2 version in terms of options. From the main menu you can select a quick race, where you select a track and driver and head to the track. Then you can practice, change the car's setup, qualify, and race. Additional race modes are available from the main menu as well. These modes include a season mode (where you can race a full schedule, a subset, or a custom one) and the great career mode. The career mode allows you to race across multiple seasons and pick up sponsorship money and buy upgrades for your car and pit crew. At any time you can change the paint scheme or color of your car, and as you pick up sponsors, their logos are plastered on the skin. And in both the career and season mode, the NASCAR points system keeps track of the season leaders.

At the tracks, available car options include adjustments of the transmission (auto or manual), tire pressure, spoiler angle, suspension stiffness (a single number, not a detailed spring and damper system), wedge (again, a single number and not a true weight as in NASCAR Heat), and gear ratio (yet another simplified system - you can't adjust each ratio for the four gears). Sim fans will probably find the system unsatisfactory, but I imagine EA wanted to keep it simple to appeal to the masses. Game settings include AI difficulty (rookie, veteran, or legend), race length, fuel and tire wear, damage, yellow flags, stability settings (auto brake and helpful recovery from loose cars for rookies), sound, and graphics settings.

The PS2 version really improved when playing with the Logitech wheel. The Dual Shock 2 controller just didn't cut it for me. Unfortunately I don't have a wheel for the Xbox yet, but the Xbox controller works well with the game. While the steering may seem a bit loose at times, the Xbox takes in the best of the Dreamcast controller - the analog triggers. The left and right triggers work very well for the brakes and gas.

Gameplay : 80
In yet another category, Thunder's gameplay on the Xbox is a copy of the PS2 version. In all my time with the game I have yet to find anything different besides slightly better graphics. With that said, you can expect a game with the aforementioned limited car setup options. Sim fans will have to turn to NASCAR Heat for detailed tuning. The driving model is simplified to appeal to the casual gamer. You car suffers from a definite understeer problem so push is always an issue. Even if you get tapped from behind and don't have the stability control option toggled on, your car feels stable. Just lay off the gas and bring the car back in line. Just like GT3, car spins seem to be non-existent. AI cars have even better control and rarely get out of shape. While at speed, you can't simply lift the throttle in turns and expect to hit the right entry speed. Drag isn't modeled well in the game, so invariably you have to brake. In fact, it sometimes feels like tapping the brakes causes vehicle drag to act more realistically.

The AI drivers make the game challenging. AI cars dart in and out of the driving line looking for any possible advantage. On wider tracks this makes for racing that features racing three wide. When you enter the mix, AI cars hold their ground. In past versions of NASCAR, AI cars would jump out of the way if you were anywhere near them. Sometimes this also hurts you. AI cars tend to blindly hit you from behind on occasion. Part of the problem, though, is the spotter issue mentioned earlier. The most significant AI issue is that cars dart across the track to head for the apron when pitting. If you're caught low on the track you'll get swiped.

The damage model in Thunder is basic but effective. You won't find brake, radio, suspension, or transmission failures, but you will get tire, body, and engine damage. The tire damage is shown on the damage schematic of your car as well as the tire wear indicator in the lower right of the screen. As you incur more wear, turning is made more difficult.

The NASCAR series has always had a suspect drafting model, and Thunder is no exception. While the drafting has been reduced a bit, you still can overtake several cars on a straight with a good pull. However, those good pulls have to be selected wisely. I questioned the PS2 version of the game because I found it was often better to draft using the pull of a car ahead of the one immediately in front of you. This apparent breakdown of the drafting model perplexes me. I just don't understand how my speed is lower when drafting compared to when I'm out in open air. When running near the front, the cars are all traveling at near equal speeds. Yet as soon as you draft you may experience a speed drop. There's no feel of bump drafting to improve the speed of you and the car in front of you.

Replay Value : 80
On the Xbox you have the choice between NASCAR Heat and NASCAR Thunder. Heat is more sim oriented, and while Thunder has some sim elements, it's more of a balance between an arcade racer and a sim. That's not a bad thing, however. Heat's control may frustrate gamers that just want to pick up the controller and race. In this respect, Thunder excels. It is a fun game. Racing at a track like Bristol is fun due to the 43-car field and numerous passing opportunities. The value of the game is further enhanced with the great career mode.

Overall : 82
So even though the NASCAR season is over, you can still get your virtual Winston action with NASCAR Thunder 2002 for the Xbox. It's the best-looking NASCAR racer on any of the next generation consoles, and its gameplay is accessible to all levels of gamer. The AI is solid most of the time, but there are instances where you get clipped for no known reason. The career mode is the best feature of the game, and the exaggerated drafting model leads to many passing attempts.

By: James Smith 1/28/21

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