Who says you have to grow up? Here at SI.com's Game Room, our staffers review the latest sports video game titles to hit the market and welcome your feedback.
6/23/2008 01:16:00 PM
Review: NASCAR 09 (Xbox 360, PS3, PS2)
Reviewed By Lou Dubois
Image Credit: EA Sports
Things We Like
Choose Your Driving Style: One of my biggest gripes with the '08 version of this game was how difficult the folks at EA had made the actual driving in their first foray into next-gen consoles. It seemed made for a wheel, and with a controller it was nearly impossible to win (or even finish) a race. This time around, they've cured those issues by creating two different driving modes to choose from, Normal and Pro. It's the first decision you'll have to make when you start the game up. Normal mode is more of an arcade-like experience, so you won't have to worry about traction, steering and tire setup for each different track. Pro Mode is for the more experienced driver, but both are fun. Starting on normal, you'll plow through the competition if you've ever played a NASCAR game after just a few races. But upping the ante to Pro Mode brings you back to earth, and it makes the game better throughout.
It's All About Reputation: EA carried over the team feature from the '08 version and added in sponsorship opportunities. You'll start with some no-name brands who don't expect much more than for you to finish races and work your way up to NASCAR staples. Like many games EA puts out, winning races and challenges in this franchise has always gotten you useless cash. Finally, they've figured it out here. Rather than cash, you earn reputation points that you can then use to open up new sponsorship opportunities and teams, which in turn will help you drive a better car.
Welcome to the Garage: It's tough to make a game with 43 cars driving around an oval aesthetically pleasing. But finally, one of the integral features of NASCAR racing has been added to the game, and it's fully customizable. Your car's garage will let you completely personalize your ride: everything from paint scheme to placement of decals to flames running up your hood. It's a long overdue feature in the NASCAR franchise, and it's done very well. They fully utilize the online integration feature, where you can check out what other users are designing, steal them for your car, or if you so please, design one yourself on your computer and upload it to the site.
Own the Track: Perhaps the best new feature for NASCAR 09, "Own the Track", has nothing to do with the Chase or Season modes. It is, however, a chance for you to post the best times, stats, etc. at each of NASCAR's sanctioned tracks around the country (not to mention it's good practice for the aforementioned modes). When you're introduced to this feature, a different driver owns each location, and you'll have to beat their stats to make it yours. It becomes even more fun when you take this feature online and start competing with friends, as you can see who owns more tracks in the end.
Virtual Reality: When you start the game up, some of the settings are on to make the races short and painless. But doing so removes one of NASCAR's biggest draws, the way you handle your car and when you decide to make pit stops. So to get the full effect you'll want to increase the race distances. From a car perspective tire wear and fuel usage are more realistic than ever before. They actually give you a gauge for fuel, though looking at it may cause you to crash. In addition to the pits and car condition being more realistic, the graphics at the track are superb. When you're racing at night and dusk is coming over the grandstands it's a truly superb visual.
Check out NASCAR 09 in action:
Things We'd Change
A Little Less Jeff Gordon: We totally get from a marketing angle that having Gordon on the cover and scattered through this game will help lure the casual fan. And in all honesty we love Gordon, and his wife Ingrid, but when it comes to gaming it just seems really odd to have Jeff standing in front of a green screen and instructing you on how to read the menu screens. It's not overwhelming by any means, but just weird. He does provide some good advice when sponsors drop you and after you've finished races, but when he starts telling you about how to keep a leg up on the competition, including himself, it's just awkward.
Enough With The Cautions: If you've ever spent your Sunday afternoon tuned into a NASCAR broadcast on TV, you know that cautions happen far too often in the sport. And unfortunately it's the same case here in video game world. In NASCAR 09 you're forced to endure too many yellow caution flags. And if you're really a bad driver like me, you'll even get the black. Another issue with the cautions is that you lose control of your car the moment the flag is thrown. The computer takes over and you're routed into the parade of vehicles driving around the track slowly. You're also asked if you want to pit, which you can choose to, but not until you've circled the track once. And be prepared, if you pit you're likely to rejoin the field from the back of the pack. But that's better than a black flag, which forces you to pit and throws you into the last spot.
Get Fully Licensed Already: It feels somewhat antiquated -- think Michael Jordan in NBA games or Barry Bonds in MLB) -- but not having some of NASCAR's top drivers in the official game is ridiculous. Some fans will be disappointed when they can't find their favorite racer. Officially there are 38 licensed Sprint Cup drivers, 15 from the Nationwide series, and only four from the Craftsman Truck Series. Some folks may not notice but the hardcore NASCAR folks certainly will. In addition to the limited driver pool, the game also fails to feature different car makes (Ford, Chevy, etc.) to choose from. It's a generic model you're given to customize, so be prepared.
What Race Is My Pit Captain Watching? I've had a gripe with it in past versions of the game, and it still hasn't been improved. While the premise of having your pit captain on the radio to tell you what's going on is a good idea, I'm still wondering what my guy is watching. He'll tell me to pit on a caution, even if I just came off pit road. And at one point he told me "all clear," as I watched a car pass me down low. Thanks a lot, pal.
More Crashes, Please: Save for the few light spinouts and taps when you're gathered in a big group, the computer drivers are just apparently too good to crash. So it goes, that just like last year's game, nearly every wreck is to the credit of the user. And while the new Normal driving mode makes it a little easier for the novice to navigate the track, you will inevitably cause a few crashes when you're racing in the pack.
Race fans won't be too disappointed (aside from some licensing issues), and fans of last year's game will enjoy the subtle improvements made in the newer version. The driving itself is a little better than last year, and it's more accessible to the non gear-heads of the world with the multiple modes to choose from. The paint shop and garage features give you plenty to do off the track, too. There aren't too many upgrades over last year's version, but for someone looking to enter virtual NASCAR, this is a good option. Rent it first to see what you think, but it provides solid hours of entertainment.