Full disclosure: I am not a fan of NASCAR, but like most other males on this planet, I have a deep desire to drive 200 mph as thousands of spectators cheer in anticipation of my ultimate crash. With that in mind, it’s hard for me to say NASCAR The Game 2011 does a good job of representing the motorsport. But, from a basic perspective, it’s essentially a solid game with flaws that are only surface deep.
For those of us not overly familiar with NASCAR, it seems like all the racers do is drive really fast and turn left for hours. But, even if you believe that premise, developer Eutechnyx did a great job of making all those left turns exciting. As I progressed through the game, I quickly learned that my original perception of the motorsport was incorrect. Racecar driving requires attention to details, cat-like reflexes, and adrenaline-induced decision making. It’s hard to claim that this game offers a true NASCAR replication — after all, your HUD has radar and damage meters — but as a non-NASCAR fan, I’m actually glad Eutechnyx didn’t pursue a pure simulation experience.
The career mode allows players to race their way through the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, hitting every major track through the country. In addition, you can take part in more casual invitational events. The career mode for NASCAR 2011 is a bit odd, as it focuses on 2010. In fact, you’ll have to pick up a free update for the 2011 car models, race schedule, and points system. I can understand holding off on new schedules and points, but the career mode simply feels narrow. Yes, there is a full race schedule, but the longevity of your career seems quite limited. Most sport games, even motorsports, feature a full life career, but this game seems to take a much more arcade approach, for better or worse.
Perhaps calling NASCAR The Game 2011 an arcade experience comes off as negative, but in reality it makes the experience more welcoming to non-NASCAR fans. One feature that seemed a bit off, even if it is more of an arcade game than a racing sim, is the crash system. Activision touts the game’s realistic crash mechanics, but I found it odd that no matter how awful the pileup, everyone kept racing and the cars stayed in relatively decent shape. Wrecks are pretty exciting, especially if you can slip through runaway cars, but if you get tapped during a major accident, don’t expect to have a hard time regaining control. The few times I have watched NASCAR, I don’t remember seeing cars casually driving away after a major pileup — but then again, I could be wrong. Still, wrecks are massive and a joy to watch.
The presentation is quite good considering you are racing with so many other drivers on the screen at the same time. The game’s engine never really had problems (offline) with all the commotion of the racetrack. I would have liked to have seen and heard more reaction from the crowd, but I can’t say I spent much time focusing on what my fans in the bleachers were doing.
The controls work well for both casual and hardcore players. The game offers plenty of support for the novice driver, but you can turn up the difficulty and put your skills to the test. Your spotter — the guy who gives you advice as you race — also helps the newbie driver learn his position, but I found this additional voice pretty much useless. It seems he only had about five or six things to say regardless of my position or how well I was actually racing. The assistance continues with the on-screen prompts for drafting, blocking, and performing a slingshot. Again, this may take something away from the hardcore NASCAR fan, but they can just turn these HUD features off in the options menu. You can even see the airwaves when you draft so you know just where to ride behind the car in front of you.
It seems the A.I. took the memo about casual gameplay too much to heart. There were some pretty irritating parts of racing with 42 other cars, including a “rival,” but your opponents feel like drones as opposed to individualized racers. It would be nice to see some opponents who are more aggressive than others, or a few who love to create major wrecks. Just like the career mode, the A.I. feels a bit too unauthentic, and started to draw me back into the mentality that I’m just driving fast in big circles.
Online isn’t much better. You can compete with 16 players (good luck finding that many) and you’ll find both beginners and pros have already emerged. I found some glitches that could still use a nice hot iron to fix, but just like the single-player mode, there isn’t all that much to do.
NASCAR The Game 2011 took me by surprise, mostly because I had low expectations. It’s a solid game with only some surface issues. My biggest gripe is that there isn’t much to do. Sure, you can paint your car, but even that is pretty lame. If you are looking to add another racing game to your collection, or if you are a fan of the motorsport, you should check it out for yourself. NASCAR The Game 2011 is a fast experience on so many levels — just be careful it doesn’t speed to the bottom of you play list before you at least take a few laps at Daytona.