NASCAR 09 Review (Xbox360)

For anyone doubting the phenomenal appeal associated with the thundering roar of stock cars, the sport of NASCAR racing boasts an estimated fan base of 75 million, races are shown in over 150 countries worldwide, its followers are considering to be the most brand-loyal of any major sport, and it ranks second only to the National Football League (NFL) in terms of U.S. television ratings.

However, despite its undeniable popularity -- particularly in North America -- NASCAR has yet to receive a licensed videogame that truly represents the sport and delivers a definitive driving experience for its legions of fans. Third-party publishing behemoth Electronic Arts is hoping to fill that persistent void with the release of NASCAR 09, a racer packed with all of EA’s prerequisite features, modes, stats and stars, and fronted by none other than four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

While NASCAR, as an actual competitive sport, might be superbly supported, it’s perhaps fair to say that most gamers are not overly keen on spending the majority of their race time hurtling around authentically dull, self-contained oval speedways when certain other racing titles offer so much more in terms of track variety and performance horse power. That was certainly true for this reviewer, at least until sliding NASCAR 09 into the 360’s ever-willing disc tray.

Customise to your heart's content in the NASCAR 09 garage.
Cars or trucks, tyre-shredding action is a given.

Yes, most of the official track environments showcased in NASCAR 09 are either Speedways or SuperSpeedway ovals -- with the occasional short street-style track thrown in for good measure -- yet the monotonous repetition you’d expect to rear its head after only a few laps strangely never makes an appearance. Because, although ovals generally only vary in terms of physical size and the banking angles of their corners, the tight and claustrophobic nature of the tracks, coupled with the sport’s near-constant ‘foot to the floor’ ethos and the somewhat daunting prospect of racing against 42 other drivers, makes NASCAR 09’s gameplay surprisingly thrilling.

While other racers -- arcade or simulation -- allow for a modest margin of error on the part of the player, NASCAR 09 demands a degree of rhythmic, full-throttle racing line accuracy that is mercilessly punished by rivals if not maintained from start to finish. The player’s heart rate is also likely to be surging during races based on the fact that comparative team strength means chasing cars are always (and we mean always) waiting to pounce on line deviations, wall contacts, and throttle lifts in order to slingshot or draft past on the straightaways. As with the real sport, lead changes are frequent and the player will also have ample opportunity to punish similarly costly A.I. mistakes as multiple opponents push for victory.

When faced with 42 other professional racers eager to challenge for glory, players will soon forget the repetitive nature of NASCAR’s tracks and instead focus on staying out of the walls while keeping the accelerator firmly pressed down, drafting through traffic, avoiding bowel-loosening crashes, and dodging sudden onrushing wreaks and multi-car pile-ups, while all the while struggling not to receive a race-destroying black flag penalty for roughhousing or leaving the track. All in all, grandiose Formula 1 track design just wouldn’t be appropriate for this level of tyre-shredding action, while devilishly quick ovals are absolutely perfect.

Chasing drivers are almost always this close.
Longer races require strategic pit-stops for fuel and tyres.

Of course, with EA at the helm, NASCAR 09 is so much more than just a white-knuckle racer, and offers up a little something for everyone. For example, the game delivers Normal and Pro driving experiences, the former leveraging a level of assisted, arcade-like performance that’s perfect for budding rookie racers, while the latter focuses more on handing drivers a tougher, but considerably more satisfying, sense of total simulation and hands-on control.

In terms of game modes (another typical EA strength), NASCAR 09 offers the simple immediacy of a Race Now weekend across any licensed track and any NASCAR event. Not just a hollow pick-up-and-play addition to the game in its entirety, Race Now allows players the option of running through a practice session before heading to qualification and honing their car’s setup prior to the actual race. NASCAR 09 also provides an complete racing season (full, partial or custom), during which the player can test their driving mettle against the best the sport has to offer. And, when factoring in 14-player multiplayer races via Xbox Live, which deliver the same kind of frantic excitement as SEGA’s multiplayer NASCAR arcade racer of the early ‘90s, the engine throbbing under NASCAR 09’s hood suddenly looks very beefy indeed.

However, the real horsepower kick produced by NASCAR 09’s variety emerges through its new immersive Career mode, which sees the player assume the role of a hot new rookie looking to make his mark on the sport. Built on a progressive Reputation system, players are tasked with nurturing their rep score by performing well in races and meeting preset team expectations, the completion of which then opens the career up to bigger and better contracts and sponsorship deals -- eventually leading to a contract offer from Jeff Gordon himself. Vehicle personalisation and customisation are also available during the Career mode, as is the opportunity to perform vital performance upgrades too.

Hugging the wall is advised. Smashing into it at 180mph is not.
Tight tracks and 40+ cars means races are never lacking in tension.

While completing certain contractual obligations will deliver a steady supply of redeemable Performance Points for upgrades, NASCAR 09 extends its gameplay appeal through the inclusion of Sprint Driver Challenges, which present the player with a multitude of against-the-clock track challenges that result in enhanced Reputation and Performance Points when completed successfully. The Sprint Driver Challenges also include the added fan-attraction of specific driver face-offs against a succession of real-world NASCAR competitors, which lead to the capture of some substantial Reputation and Performance Points. Handily, even when immersed in a career, players can freely dip in and out of Sprint Driver Challenges to further evolve both their created ride and their climb toward racing greatness.

Sadly, while NASCAR 09 provides impressive mode selection and secondary interactive appeal beyond its always satisfying and challenging in-game racing, the same cannot be said of its aesthetics. Indeed, presentation falls some way short of achieving the same standard of gloss and polish currently on offer through the likes of GRiD or Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, both of which deliver differing driving experiences wrapped in standout visual and aural packages.

Granted, the enclosed and rather simplistic nature of NASCAR’s track designs do enforce the production of authentically bland environments, but car models, which seem to visually excel when in the garage, are not quite so oomph-worthy when viewed up-close during races. The game’s crash physics and resulting damage effects are also surprisingly subdued, especially considering the absolute carnage so often caused by the sport’s high-speed collisions. This is never more evident than during an automatic replay of a high-speed pile up, which invariably reveals several ‘Matchbox’ stock car representations being inexplicably flipped into the air without sustaining any notable after effects.

The same can be also be said with regard to elements of NASCAR’s audio, which -- ear-splitting country and pseudo-rock soundtrack apar -- fails to deliver any form of in-race atmosphere beyond the incessant roar of engines, wall grinding, bumper rubbing and tyre screeching. Again, although all those sound effects are perfectly solid in execution, it is disheartening to be surrounded by 160,000 (supposedly fanatic) spectators at the Daytona International Speedway and not hear even the slightest pulse of ambient crowd appreciation while performing death-defying overtaking moves and rushing blindly through clouds of crash smoke.

Yet, despite its disappointing presentation, NASCAR 09 delivers a thoroughly addictive driving experience thanks to enthralling Career and Sprint Driver Challenge modes and the faithful reproduction of an extremely claustrophobic racing discipline that provides rewardingly difficult gameplay and unforgiving A.I. while shattering the notion that stock car racing is little more than oval-bound monotony.

Top gaming moment:
Carefully picking through the racing pack and successfully performing a slingshot overtaking move past the leader on the final corner. Racing gold.

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By sibastiNo (SI Newbie) on Oct 12, 2008
Im a big Tony Stewart fan, this game looks like ill probably rent it though.