Another year, another season. With updated paint schemes and loads of tracks, events, and game modes, NASCAR Thunder 2004 comes roaring onto the Xbox. Some steps forward and backward mark the latest version of this annual title, which contains a half dozen game modes, multiple dozens of tracks, and a fascinating new grudge and alliance system. There's plenty new here compared the 2003 edition, so let's drop the green flag and get going.
Presentation/Graphics : 85
The graphics in NASCAR Thunder 2004 range from ho-hum to wonderful. The track details, and in particular the track surfaces and stands, have a grainy appearance. This is in stark contrast to the detail shown on the cars. Each car has appropriate advertising, and the strength of the Xbox shows through. The cars look realistic as possible in the digital domain. Visible damage is featured in the game, and the damage model goes to new levels. Hoods will crumple and vibrate on their hinges. Panels will rip off and hit the track. Tires will blow and a spare rim can be seen turning on its axle. In the pits, the crew maneuvers realistically around the car, jacks it up, fumbles with wheel changes, and fills up the gas tank.
All this action can be seen from a variety of camera views. A couple of third-person views compliment some nice first-person views. The views that put you in the action include a bumper and hood camera and a more immersive in-car view. All the views allow for a rear view mirror. The mirror can, if selected, vibrate. This is a ploy to put you further into the action, and it works well.
Presentation/Audio : 80
A key component to NASCAR racing is the participation of the spotter. With a limited field of view for the driver, spotters provide crucial information such as opponents coming up on either side. As a racing gamer, I depend on calls like "Still there, still there, still there" to race effectively. While Thunder 2004 does use the spotter, it isn't implemented as well as in the past because of incorrect information. An excellent track announcer makes up for problems with the spotter. The track announcer calls the action in a manner expected if you were sitting in the stands. In the car, the sounds of the engine and car scraping up against the wall or another car is done well.
Interface/Options : 90
Game modes in Thunder 2004 include the single race, an expansive career, the Speedzone, season, Lightning Challenge, and Thunder License. The single race and season modes are self-explanatory. The season mode has you go through up to 20 seasons. Along the way you have to earn sponsorship money to purchase upgrades for your shop (which help performance), repair your ride, and retain your team members. The mode is done well, and the strategy is enhanced by utilizing a two-car garage. While one is getting repaired (which can take multiple weeks), the other is free to race. You can even separate chassis repairs from body or engine work.
The Speedzone, Lightning Challenge, and Thunder License modes can all be lumped together. They are simply different types of challenges. For example, you may have to achieve certain goals in passing, blocking, drafting, or setting time trial records. Or you may have to maintain a certain position on the track to the checkered flag. While the challenges are repetitive, they do mix things up from just the usual racing. The payoff for completing challenges is that you unlock car, tracks, and sponsors in the game. While most of the tracks are the real deal, EA throws in quite a few fantasy tracks. If you're a road track fan, you'll appreciate the dozen road courses in the game compared to the usual two on the NASCAR circuit.
Game options are decent but nowhere near what you'd want for a NASCAR simulation. You won't find detailed setup options like you would in a game like NASCAR Heat or Dirt to Daytona. In Thunder, setups are more simplistic and consist of little more than slide bars and a visual guide to let you know how modifications affect acceleration, top speed, handling, and such.
Gameplay : 80
Having spent time with the NASCAR series for nearly a decade now, I've come to know what to expect from the series. This time around, at least for the console versions, I have been somewhat surprised. Things have been polished a bit to the point where now some of the racing is more realistic. However, there are still instances that show the strides EA still has to make for this series to truly reach simulation status.
The biggest improvement has been the drafting model, particularly heading down long straights. In the past if the field was in a side-by-side pace line it was easy to grab a sniff of clean air and dart down the inside or outside of the track, passing four or more cars easily. The racing was uninspired. Now it's more difficult to overtake a train of cars and teamwork is a bigger factor in effective passing. On the super speedways, teaming up with one or more cars allows you to close the gap between your group and the breakaway ahead. This works well whether you're the lead car in the pace line or sitting on the tail end. With the addition of the alliances system, sharing the draft will enhance your position with other drivers. You can also help mend relationships with your enemies to make your driving easier.
If you bump, block, or cause another driver to crash, inevitably you lose some respect from the driver. As rival points drop to the negative region, your rivals get downright nasty. They'll bump, block, or try to drive you into the wall. This addition to the game is fantastic. It rewards good driving style and cooperative play within the field. If you're too aggressive and drive carelessly, it will catch up with you. Getting bumped from behind can cause you to lose control briefly and easily drop a few positions in the field.
Handling in the game feels sluggishly realistic. I'd expect the cars to handle like pigs, and they certainly do. Without the cornering ability, lower mass, and lower center of gravity of an open wheeled car, you'd expect to feel the fight of inertia around the track. It's exactly what you get. On road courses cars are slow to respond and body roll is evident. To minimize negative handling attributes, you have to modify the car settings. While the settings aren't as detailed as I'd prefer, they do provide tangible change to the handling characteristics.
The intelligence breaks down in the game when pit strategy and cautions come into play. Playing in the career mode, you can expect most of your starts to be at the back of the field. Further, the pack will quickly speed off into the distance leaving you driving solo for much of the race. No fear, however, as idiotic AI will easily allow you to gain 20 or more positions for consistent driving. The problem is with cautions. Depending on the point in the race, tire condition, and remaining fuel, sometimes it's most optimum to pit under yellow. While common sense tells you to pit, the AI cars apparently have lousy crew chiefs. Cars often wait until after the caution period to pit, allowing you to move through the field for free. Further, you can actually abuse the system or trick the game into moving up. Let a majority of the field pit under green. Then, just spin out to bring the yellow flag out. You can then pit under caution without penalty. While I certainly understand lady luck has a role in pitting, I expect a game to penalize me more for initiating a caution period. Thunder basically rewards you.
Replay Value : 80
The career mode in Thunder 2004 will keep you in the game for multiple seasons. The challenge of building a team from scratch, earning money to repair your engine, chassis, and frame, and buying upgrades for your garage maintains interest. Multiple seasons are required to even compete for the top spot. Once you reach the top, the game still offers plenty of play with the other modes in the game.
Overall : 82
While it's not my gold standard for NASCAR games on a console (Heat 2002 on the PS2 with a force feedback wheel is my standard for stock car console bliss), NASCAR Thunder 2004 is a solid title. While there are some audio and AI issues, overall the game has progressed since last year. The grudge and alliance system adds a whole new element to gameplay. The deep career mode is deeper than versions past, and the additional game modes are the icing on the cake.