NASCAR The Game 2011 Review (Xbox 360)

Game Review: NASCAR The Game 2011
Release: 3/29/2011
Genre: Sports (Racing)
Developer: Eutechnyx
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii
Players: 1-2 (2-16 Online)
MSRP: $59.99 ($49.99 for Wii)
ESRB Rating: E (Mild Language)

For a sport that primarily focuses on driving in a circle (no truth to the rumor of a right-turns only cheat code), there must be something to it for it to be the largest spectator sport in the United States.  Fortunately, in NASCAR The Game 2011, you’ll be exposed to all the crashes, flag, pit stops, fuel and tire management, drafting and breakneck speed you can handle, and in the process, get an appreciation for the rigors of running through the high banks of Daytona, or trying to move up in position through the half-mile track at Bristol Motor Speedway.  The tracks, which start off as simple ovals, grow on you as you begin to analyze the best path to take through the turns, the lengths of track best suited to slingshot, and the spots where you can conserve gas to squeeze a few more laps out of your tank.

The game puts you into the role of one of 43 drivers (or if you prefer, you can create your own), and your career will through the full 2010 race season.  You can customize your car’s appearance if you so choose, and can also change your car settings on a track-by-track basis (though there are initial settings that worked fine for me).  The options for the various game modes are here: Career, Single Race, Multiplayer (both split screen and online multiplayer), International Events (which are mini-game races that involve things like drafting other racers to unlock collectible pins), and in depth driver stats.  The presentation is very well done, with menus hovering inside a garage that’s customized to the racer you selected.  This quality of presentation in the menus and setup is carried throughout the game, and is one of the areas that really keeps the player immersed in the experience.

You don’t win races in menus, however, and fortunately the race experience is also very good.  The tracks are nicely detailed in such a way as to all feel unique.  Each track requires different strategies to succeed, and you will  find that how quickly you can adjust will be the difference between a first and 43rd place finish.  You can race qualifying laps or skip and go right to the race, and even the settings of the race can be adjusted (number of laps, anywhere from 2% of the total all the way up to 100% [5 to 500 laps], vehicle damage, tire and gas wear, and more).  You can also adjust the automatic controls on your vehicle, from traction control to automatic braking.  While beginners may want to keep everything on, you’ll see that as you start stepping up your level and turning these controls off, you still have a good handle on the car.  I won’t go so far as to call it an arcade racer, but I didn’t have trouble keeping the car on the track even with all settings off.

The actual race experience varies from track to track.  One track you can get a lead and hold it, while others the computer cars seems to fly by you in a long train if you’re not holding position or drafting correctly. Learning how to take turns on courses with high banks will be tough at first, and you’ll likely have difficulty keeping the car in the pocket, so expect the long train of rivals to zoom on by as you try to hold your line early on.  Over time this gets easier, but without feedback from the controller, it’s tough to tell when your tires are slipping before it’s too late to react.  And while you can rewind and replay a section if you mess it up (a great feature that will save you the agonizing frustration of wrecking on the last lap to ruin an otherwise perfect run), you will likely make the same mistake on the next lap until you learn just how to make the turn.  If you’re racing the shorter lap amounts (the lowest or second lowest settings), you really won’t be able to experience everything the game has to offer.  What turns these races into exciting duels is when the race is long enough to warrant pit stops, which is where the strategy of how many tires to change and how much fuel you want come into play.  While your car will attempt to guess after a couple of laps how many more laps your gas will give you, you can burn through it faster, or make it last longer depending on how you drive on the track (drift along with cars, or take turns better and you burn less fuel).  Doing a 33 lap race with 3 pits, I utilized the strategy of skipping a pit while everyone else went, and was rewarded with a crash a few laps later causing a yellow flag to come up, which allowed me to pit and not lose too much position to my opponents.  While I enjoyed the game playing the short races, I really saw the value and depth of the game when I started running longer races.

NASCAR The Game 2011 gets a lot of little things right. The presentation is very good throughout the game initially, and on your first run through the tracks, you’ll be introduced to the tracks by announcers who will give you some history and break down your competition.  The gameplay is fast but forgiving; you can bump the cars around a little without causing massive wrecks, and the game is fairly generous with your steering, giving it a little more of an arcade feel rather than pure simulation.  Being able to select what kind of changes you want to make to your car during a pit stop is great, and the game is constantly rewarding you with NASCAR Experience Points (NXP) for performing well during the race.  The HUD is nicely laid out, with all the bells and whistles you’d expect (watching a NASCAR race on TV is one of the more technically advanced sports that is televised, so it’s good to see a lot of this translated into the game).  Playing the game from the first person perspective is also not a disorienting experience, and I found I preferred it on some of the tracks.  The post-race replay system is also cool; it automatically marks certain points of the race where excitement happened (good passes, crashes, etc), and allows you to save parts of the replay for later admiration.  The drafting system works well, and the crew chief will constantly chatter in your ear about which racers are good ones to use as a drafting partner, and which will try to take you out.  All-in-all, during the race and navigating through the menus up until the race, the game is nearly flawless, with great immersion and attention to detail that both NASCAR and general racer fans will appreciate.  It’s not too intimidating for new people to get into, and it has enough challenge that veterans can crank up the difficulty and be challenged.

There are a few areas of opportunity, and these spots really take you out of that immersive experience that the game tries so hard to capture.  The racer details are laughable, which wouldn’t be so bad if you never saw them, but unfortunately when you win a race, your driver will stand on their car waving their arms around like they’re trying to sell cars, and have compressed air flying through their body.  There isn’t much in the way of tutorials, a 2 minute video plays the first time you start the game, but it throws so much at you that it’s practically useless.  Otherwise, your first experience will likely be a qualifying lap, and it literally throws you in the cockpit and expects you to know what to do.  Granted, it’s a racer, but considering the instruction booklet is utterly useless, a little in-game guidance wouldn’t have hurt (especially with some pro-tips regarding pit-stops, drafting or just general race rules).  There are graphical glitches that happen mostly when going through pit-row (cars will run through each other, ignoring collision detection), and your crew chief, while helpful, will repeat a lot of phrases over the course of a single race (not to mention the commentary he makes is very male-centric: I drove as Danica Patrick, and was a little put-off with the comments that often ended in “man,” “buddy,” and even a “you’re the man!”). Continuing with the repeating theme, the celebration scene is about 10 seconds long, but it takes 30 seconds to get through all the information that the game gives you, which means you get this noticeable repeating sequence complete with the video and audio stopping for a few seconds and then restarting from the beginning.  My advice: finish second, you’ll skip the celebration videos.  Also, the introductory presentation to the tracks is great the first time, but never changes, so once you’ve seen it once, feel free to skip it.  Finally, while your car can take damage, I never felt like it was impairing my car’s handling.  Tire wear would make turns tougher, but my missing front panel seemed to have no impact on my ability to cruise at top speed.  The damage looked great, don’t get me wrong, but I had hoped it would impact your racing ability more.

vttym’s take: I feel as though this game was about 4 months away from being a perfect game.  There are so many elements that the game gets right, and frankly they are mostly the important ones (the racing itself, the accessibility in the menus, the customization).  Unfortunately, for a game that tries so hard to immerse you in the NASCAR experience, there is just no excusing the lack of polish in some of the featured elements of the game such as repetitive celebrations and presentations, ugly character models, and collision detection issues.  There are some very innovative features in the game: the rewind ability works great, and is very well implemented (even though I knew nothing about it until I realized I was getting NXP for not using it), the pit-stop management (with customized cut-scenes based on what you pick), and drafting mechanics all work very well.  Online play worked fine for the few races I ran, though there currently seems to be a bug in the scoring, as people have world record lap times of .02 seconds.  Even without online play, there’s enough here to warrant purchasing the game, and fortunately all of the eye-sores (introductions, celebrations, and pit-stop collision issues) are all parts of the game that can be skipped.  What shouldn’t be skipped, especially if you’re a racer fan, is this game.

+ Mostly excellent presentation, particularly in the menus

+ Excellent track detail gives each race it’s own feel

+ Innovative features

– Poor character models and non-race related track details (crowd, infield, backgrounds)

– Non-existent play-by-play, just repetitive (albeit helpful) crew chief

Final Score: 8/10

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