Ricky Bobby and Tom Cruise couldn’t save NASCAR 08 from the disaster that was EA Sports’ first attempt at next generation stock car racing. That disappointing entry hasn't exactly paved the way for NASCAR 09. With a year of development under its belt, the question still remains: Is it significantly better than last year's installment? While I have to say that it is, it's not hard to improve an almost entirely broken game.
One of the first big draws to fans of the sport is going to be the photo-realistic implementation of Jeff Gordon throughout the game. You’ll be invited into the world of NASCAR the moment you get into the game’s menu system as Gordon is there to greet you and walk you through the basics of the title. At this point you’ll choose between two different racing modes; Normal mode (recommended for the casual driver) and Pro mode (recommended for the hardcore racing simulation fans).
Another difference between the two driving modes is that the Pro mode offers you the option to tune your vehicle in every aspect such as traction and steering. On the flip side, Normal will initially set these options into a fixed position. For those car enthusiasts who enjoy an arcade-style of racing yet also enjoy tuning cars however, you’ll still be able to do that if you so choose.
Once you’ve decided which racing style you’ll feel most comfortable in, it’s time to jump into one of the limited gaming modes that NASCAR has to offer. You’ll be given the chance to primarily take part in a career, single season or a variety of Sprint Driver Challenges that are designed to increase your reputation. For those veterans of NASCAR, you’ll probably be excited to find out what’s new in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup career mode.
Upon selecting the career mode, Gordon will pop back up onto the screen in order to walk you through the process of signing certain sponsors and choosing a racing circuit that’s best for your current level of ability. Most likely you’ll be pitted into either the Craftsmen Truck series or the Nationwide Series as your reputation level will not be high enough to garner attention from the Sprint Cup sponsors. As you progress through your career, you’ll either become respected by fellow drivers or they’ll dislike you for your dirty tactics (if you follow such a route). Regardless of how they feel, as long as you’re stacking up the wins it won’t matter so it's a bit of a moot point.
Outside of the career mode, you’ll probably find yourself focusing a lot of time on the Sprint Driver Challenges. Not only do these challenges help you hone your driving and pitting skills, but they also help raise your reputation amongst sponsors. This was a nice addition to the game and definitely adds a tad of replay value to an otherwise very repetitive game.
This brings us to the core concept of NASCAR - the driving mechanics and gameplay. Anybody who played last year’s title knows that the driving was an absolute atrocity and that handling a car was like trying to balance a fat kid on a fishing line. If you tapped the analog a bit too much, your car would go flying into a spinout or off the track into a wall. EA Sports has done a great job improving this aspect of the game and the controls not only give you a tighter feel of what you’re doing, but they also give you the sense of actually controlling the stock car you’re driving. This will come as a relief to fans of the series who were plagued with last year’s title and were on the verge of giving up. Unfortunately, the good rarely comes without the bad in NASCAR and this year is no exception.
While the driving may feel much more stabilized, the computer AI seems much more predictable and a lot less skilled. You’ll have no trouble being able to attain the checkered flag race after race on your way to winning many championships for whoever you’ve let sponsor your automobile. Obviously this is a huge concern for anyone who is looking to get months (or even weeks) of playing time out of their purchase, because I’m sure we can all agree that if a game is ridiculously easy, it’ll only be worth playing for an extremely limited amount of time.
EA Sports seems to make up for this debauchery of simple AI by instilling a great online racer -- though the game lacks offline splitscreen -- for its users. You’ll be able to take your car online and compete with up to 14 other drivers nationwide. The game operates mainly lag free to an extent with a bit of jumpiness here or there, but nothing increasingly bothersome. Even though they decided to leave out online team creation, you’ll still be able to bring your custom painted vehicle to race day against the world’s best. The only problem with this is if the other users are not on your friend’s list, your car just appears as clunky plain gray piece of metal.
This brings me to arguably the best part of the entire NASCAR 09 experience - the custom paintjobs you can create. As an example of this, we’ve included our very own PlayStation Universe Metal Gear Solid 4 inspired themed car below. EA Sports has allowed users to download a template to open up in various image editing software in order for you to create the dream stock car that you desire. The new feature is not without error, as it sometimes becomes quite troublesome and time consuming to get your car all the way into your EA Locker for use in the game. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great idea and they should definitely improve on it, however there are far too many steps in the process for the feature to truly shine. For those of you familiar with Forza, NASCAR is not as proficient in this area.
When it comes down to the look of the speedway, you’re going to be merely mildly impressed. The graphics seem to be as decent as they’re going to get. There just isn’t as much refined detail as in Gran Turismo Prologue or GRID, but the game does offer a somewhat aesthetically pleasing experience. The soundtrack provided revolves around a lot of country music, which if it’s your thing, is halfway decent, though custom soundtracks would benefit this game a lot.
Overall, NASCAR 09 feels as though EA Sports is on the right track and going the left direction -- repeatedly. With improved handling, in-depth tuning, and enough options to keep you playing for a month or so, this may be best suited for a rental. It will appeal to both the hardcore fan and somewhat to the casual racer, but there are better racing options out there.
-The Final Word-
NASCAR 09 is a step in the right direction, but itâ€™ll still be another year or so until the NASCAR franchise becomes a must-own to those other than diehard fans.