Ah, Spring is in the air, which means two things: folks are going to have to refill their allergy medication, and the NASCAR season is in full-effect. After quite a bit of time away from the gaming scene, the NASCAR series is back, with a new developer in Eutechnyx and a new publisher in Activision. Many folks are excited for the return of the stock car racing series, but one question still lingers… is it any good? Let’s find out.
After starting up NASCAR 2011, it’s clear that Eutechnyx was aiming to not only immerse gamers in the world that is NASCAR racing, but to really deliver on the feel of a Sunday race, and the style that comes along with it. So let’s take a moment to look at the soundtrack portion of the sound design before we jump into the gameplay. If one could imagine the ideal music to compliment a NASCAR title, it’s found the second you head into the game and ZZ Top’s ‘Le Grange’ starts playing. The music choices for this title are quite good and, while somewhat limited, did a great job of delivering that Southern style most have come to know and love. Additionally, Eutechnyx decided to actually keep up with the times and include full-on custom soundtrack support, which is more than we can say for many other developers these days.
From the get-go, this game is wide open, in that you can race nearly every track, with any driver right from the start, so those just looking for a quick arcade-style experience will have no problem jumping into the action. NASCAR 2011 does feature a career mode which is very straightforward; compete in races to earn points in order to qualify for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and ultimately win it all. It was a tad bit disappointing that the entire spectrum of NASCAR (Nationwide Series, World Truck Series, etc.) weren’t covered, but since this is the developer’s first outing with the brand, it’s probably OK to let that one slide… for now.
Throughout each race, players earn NXP (NASCAR Experience Points) in order to unlock new car paint schemes, track variations and sponsorships. The primary function of these sponsorships is to deck out your car with ads, while adding multipliers and enhancements to the NXP system when various goals are met throughout each race, such as passing your rival, or holding a lead for several consecutive laps. This is about as far the career mode goes, as it’s not particularly deep, and only supports one NASCAR season, thus the presence of a restart option. This is a major drawback as it means the game is shallow and rather short. The ability to tune your vehicle to your liking, as well as create one-of-a-kind paint schemes and logos, add a decent amount of customization options, especially while online, but do little to lengthen the overall gameplay experience.
From the second you hop into your first stock car, you’ll notice that Eutechnyx did a lot of things right with this game. Car models are spot on and damage incurred throughout gameplay is fantastic. Everything from scratches and dents, to missing hoods and bumpers, nearly every aspect of each car is completely destructible and deformable. The ability for car damage to remain cosmetic, or for it to immediately affect the car’s performance is completely up to the player. Also, crashes and mass pile-ups can get crazy, and are actually fun to not only be a part of from time to time, but to just barely make it out of with your car still intact. That’s about the only time that the game will encounter even the slightest bit of slowdown, as the developers did a good job of getting over 40 cars to run at quite a smooth framerate.
The sound design when racing is absolutely phenomenal, as engines absolutely scream, and help to truly deliver the feeling of a live NASCAR race. The cockpit views are equally impressive, and not only accurately represent the first-person NASCAR cams often seen on TV, but are ridiculously detailed, showing off everything from the driver’s feet to the Velcro window guards which begin to flap violently as speed increases. Visually, the tracks look great. Day races are nice, and night races, which typically start with the sun setting, is an absolute treat for the eyes. The only time when the visuals suffer are immediately before and after races, where the cutscenes look rather basic and bare; even the United States Air-Force flybys are weak.
Drafting indicators, as well as braking indicators, are present to help newcomers, and can easily be turned off in the game’s menu. There’s even the option to rewind the game by 5 seconds if you scraped a corner, spun out, or just made a mistake in a 200 lap race that ends up costing you. Pit-stops are decent, but the overall presentation when pitting is somewhat weak, as the game has to actually bring up a cutscene to perform the pit, then exit said cutscene once it’s done. This can sometimes take you out of the experience, and is definitely something to be improved upon in the next game. Another cool little bonus is that the game actually sets aside a 30-second window to spin-out and please the crowd if you win a race. Spinning out, doing doughnuts on the grass, etc., all gain you extra NXP.
Heading to the multiplayer portion of the game, the online mode for NASCAR 2011 isn’t all that impressive. The basics are there, but there’s no real lobby system, and aside from creating a private match or inviting friends in, the only two choices are either jumping straight into a particular race lobby that’s about to start, or creating a custom race of your own, where players, still, join randomly. It’s good to see that the game supports local multiplayer, as that mode seems to be all but lost in many of today’s popular racers.
It’s worth noting that NASCAR 2011 is easy, and we mean really easy. When initially starting the game, it’s quite effortless to not only gain a 1st overall qualifying position, but to pull off a win as well. If players want a real challenge, it’s best to set the computer’s difficulty to high, and turn off most of the racing assist features. While this is nice for newcomers, those who are familiar with racing games nowadays would more than likely opt to amp up the difficulty from the start, otherwise there’s little to no challenge present.
While you can easily cover the entire racing spectrum, including NASCAR, in titles like Gran Turismo 5, NASCAR 2011 really brings every aspect of the sport home, not just the ultra-simulation feel you get with Polyphony Digital’s racer, though there’s some aspects of that title that Eutechnyx could certainly learn from. NASCAR 2011: The Game has its highs and its lows, and while the overall career mode is pretty shallow and the presentation can sometimes be quite inconsistent, the core gameplay, specifically the sense of immersion, is what will be bringing players back. If you’re a racing fan in general, consider giving this one a try, but if you’re a true NASCAR fan, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up, as it replicates the adrenaline rush and “Southern style” that comes with the sport quite beautifully.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
+ Gameplay is easy to jump into, and driving is a blast.
+ Terrific sound design and damage modeling.
– Shallow career mode, awful cutscenes, and lackluster online play may sour the experience for some.