NASCAR Racing 2003 Season Review (PC)
The old adage "all good things must come to an end" goes very well with the latest and final release in the NASCAR series from Sierra and developer Papyrus. NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (NR2003) is trying to end the series with a bang and leave fans still addicted for years down the road. Sierra says that its time to end the series and concentrate on other endeavors. It has been hinted that Sierra is going to try and concentrate on releasing titles for the mainstream consoles. Sierra and Papyrus have said that they don't plan on completely abandoning their PC roots. More than likely this just means we will possibly see some racing from them in the future, it just probably will not have NASCAR associated with it. Does NR2003 have what it takes to keep the legacy going? Only time will tell on that one. For now lets concentrate on the now, and see if NR2003 even has what it takes to make it through the end of the year.
For those of you that are not familiar with the history of Sierra's involvement with NASCAR, it dates back to 1994 when the very first NASCAR Racing was released. From there up until now there were numerous titles released in the series. The series though in 1995 started going to another level when online testing began. For a history of the birth of online racing check out the write up from Onlineracin.com.
I have been racing since the NASCAR Racing 1 days, but my seriousness with the series began with NASCAR Racing 4. That was also my entry into the broadband era and it changed my outlook on gaming as well. Not only has broadband become a must have for me, so has having a racing game that I can race online with. To this point the Sierra series has been the one I turn to the most. When NASCAR 2002 Racing Season (NR2002) was released I finally removed my NASCAR 4 CD from my computer, and NR2002 stayed there until a couple weeks ago when I received my copy of NR2003. Both of the previous versions had a CD drive solely dedicated for its purpose until the successor was released. On to finding out if this is just another typical sequel released by the pencil pushers, or if NR2003 has the capabilities to not only keep the user entertained but also justify to the same user whether or not they should be shelling out their hard earned dough.
The graphics in NR2003 have become a lot crisper, more detailing, and of course more taxing on the system. The changes in NR2003 reflect the new changes in the cars in real life. NASCAR trying to be more like the NFL made a common template for all the cars for 2003 to allow for more competitive racing and this was carried over into the game as well. In addition to the more detailed cars, the tracks and the surroundings also have received upgrades. Overhead you will see a moving helicopter (also can be used as a replay view via the selectable cameras), flashing billboards, and a variety of other trackside objects generally that are also seen on any NASCAR broadcast. Unfortunately, the scoreboards around the tracks, that show the current top drivers are still static objects that don't change. Even at a 640x480 resolution the game looks good enough to race in, but it is a little rough around the edges looks wise. Those with a weaker computer can get some decent on the track racing when set at this resolution, but this comes at a price of dull looking and very bland graphics. Starting with 800x600 and higher you start to see the noticeable improvements in crispness and amount of details that stand out. I personally set mine to 1280x1024x32 in the OpenGL setting and will normally run at a very decent 45-80 FPS (frames per second), depending on the track and how many cars are on the screen. Papyrus says that the ideal FPS should be no less than 30. Anything less than that can affect controller response time as well as the drivers' ability to race in an adequate and competitive manner. Turning out some of the backgrounds and un-needed 'eye candy' will allow you to race at a higher resolution as well with a noticeably higher FPS. Shadows can also be a major killer to your FPS, but something about turning off the shadows on the bottom of the cars makes the game feel really weird to me.
In the audio department you get what you have the capabilities for. Let me explain. The sounds of the cars have improved from NR2002. The cars have a deeper more thorough sound to them, especially with a decent set of speakers, a mid to top line sound card, and 3D sound enabled. As always though this comes at a price, reduced FPS. With my system without the 3D sound enabled, (I do however play using 3D sound) I can still hear the roar of the cars next to me. I can hear them coming from behind and along side. I can also hear all the screeches, banging, and even the cars spinning out behind me. It is just with the 3D sound enabled you can hear so much more and it increases the racing experience ten-fold. Now depending on the view you use this will affect the sounds you hear. If you race from the cockpit view you will hear a different sound than if you were racing from an outside of the car view. The cockpit sounds are more robust and authentic sounding, whereas with the outside the car view everything sounds more like what you would hear while sitting in the stands. It is all a matter of preference and either way they still sound good to the ears if a racing engine for the duration of a race is your thing. I ended out really liking the sound of the engine, as I would run up close to the wall on certain tracks. The roar of the engine echoing off the wall at Daytona while racing at 190mph could be at times a very invigorating experience. There are other subtle racing sounds you will hear while racing. All typical of what you should expect to hear from a racecar.
In racing, with the lack of mobility of the driver, especially in NASCAR, a good spotter is a must. The spotter in NR2003 however can drive you flat up a wall at times. Usually the spotter tells you what you need to hear (can also be displayed as text, but can also be just as frustrating), however, when you get cars around you, especially if you are in the middle, your spotter can get late with the messages. There are times that the spotter will be telling you that cars are next to you when you have already cleared the potential problem. Depending on your view you use this can make things disastrous in a race. You can though learn the tendencies of the spotter as well as keep a more watchful eye on your surroundings to make up for these problems. Off the track, such as in replays, you will hear sounds of the cars, and the helicopter that flies around the track overhead. If you analyze replays a lot to find ways to improve your driving the sound may get slightly annoying after just a few times, especially if being viewed from the helicopter view.
The garage menu at first listen has the sounds of what you might expect to hear in an actual NASCAR garage. While nice a couple times, this is frustrating and very annoying after you have heard this a few times. This will get downright nerve-racking if you plan on spending a lot of time in the garage, mastering the art of setups. Thankfully there are some resources that will allow you to remove these sounds if you so desire. As with any modifications you make, please do so with care, and always back up the original files before doing so. See my personal links at the end of the review for some sites to check out to start your mod search.
The audio in NR2003 does what it is suppose to do. It gives you the sounds of NASCAR and everything you should expect to hear on the track, it is just that some of the sounds come at a price of being a system hog, as well as being a little bit overdone. If you are a stock car junkie you will love every bit of the sound, if not things can be easily adjusted to tailor to your tolerance levels and still keep the rest of the game very enjoyable.
The heart and soul of the NASCAR series as well as the long success for both Papyrus and Sierra has been the gameplay. From day one the gameplay has been difficult for anyone else to match, and has become increasingly difficult as the years have passed. From the 42 AI cars offline to the possible 42 human drivers online (which has not been duplicated as of yet), the racing has had the opportunities to be, and can get, extremely intense and exciting.
In NR2003 Papyrus has tried to improve this. The gameplay modes have seen little change. You still have your basic options of Testing Session, Single Race, Championship, and Multiplayer modes. Testing is just that, you and the track, tweak a setup, fine tune your calibration controls, and so on. Single Race allows you to go to any track and run a race with up to 42 AI cars. Championship mode allows you two options. One to race for the NASCAR Championship using the actual 36 race, NASCAR 2003 schedule, or by racing once on each track in the game (the tracks that have day and night races are considered two separate tracks in this option) for a total of 27 races. There is still not any type of career mode option in NR2003. Multiplayer gives you the ability to race against other humans either by having them connect directly to you, you to them, or everyone connecting through the Sierra servers and racing there. All of these have the ability for you to have a total of 42 human racers including yourself on the track for a race. If you want others to connect to you for a race be prepared to host a lot fewer than the 42 max you may see on the Sierra servers, unless you have a very fast connection. Those that really want to get serious with NR2003 can search and look for the numerous leagues that currently use NR2003. I have been affiliated with ”NTR Plus” for almost a year now. The knowledge I have received from them not only has made me a better overall racer, but it also allowed me to meet and talk to other drivers from a vast variety of age groups from young to young at heart. In addition to these modes there is a new one called Driving School. Driving School’s purpose is to give the new racer the chance to see how the game works and how to do everything from controlling the car, to setting up your graphics, to working with setups. Sadly there are not any track tours this year. The only option in learning your way around the track is to just take slow solo laps so you can find braking points, or better routes around each track. Once you determine what mode you are going to race in, you will need to decide if you are going to race in Simulation or Arcade mode. The difference being Simulation is as close to realistic as possible, and Arcade is extremely forgiving and more like a console racer, where just moving fast is your only worry. Than you will need to decide how long the race will be (5-100%), how long the pre-qualify practice session will be, and than if there will be a Happy Hour (NASCAR name for warm-ups) and how long it will be. New this year is the Pit Stop Frequency setting. With it you can set how fast the fuel consumption and tire wear will be. This will allow even a short 10% race setting to have a pit stop figure into the race strategy. Damage can be set to None, Moderate, and Realistic. Weather has some new changes in that when set to a realistic setting the wind speed will constantly change throughout each session. Temperature does not change during a session, but it may change when going from one session to another session. Lastly, you can set how many AI drivers you will be racing against and how well they may be able to perform, also know as their overall strength. With a Manual setting you decide ahead of time how fast the AI will be on a scale of 70-110% strength. With the Auto setting you run a race and at the end of the race the game decides how strong a racer you were. Than the next time you race on the same track (again day and night tracks are considered different) the AI will automatically be adjusted to be at your current skill level. This is an excellent option for learning each track. This can give you an opportunity to race towards the front since the default Auto setting is 70% while allowing you to make mistakes and still have a chance to finish towards the front.
In addition to manual and automatic there is a new option called Adaptive Speed Control. With this the AI will adjust to your performance, always leaving you with direct competition. If you get a large lead the game will give the AI a massive speed boost to catch up to you. If you fall behind, the AI will than slow down to allow you to get back into the race. Once you and the AI drivers are back together the settings will default back to the strength percentage that was set prior to the race start. The downside to the Adaptive Speed Control is that the AI will get speeds and lap times that are totally impossible for the human driver to achieve.
Once out on the track you start to realize really what you have gotten yourself into. If you go immediately on the track and press the gas pedal to the floor with no aids turned on (or button depending on what you are racing with) you will notice that this isn’t an EA game. For the veteran they have come to expect this. The new user at this point may not be sure what to expect next. The power of the car is well replicated on the track. Slam the gas expect to squeal the tires as well as possibly spinning out. First thing that needs to be realized is finesse is key to NR2003. Every action has a reaction. Once you determine the reactions, the actions become much more rewarding.
If you have played NR2002 you will be very familiar with the actual driving. The driving model is about the same except a little more refined. Setups have changed just a tad in that the cars are generally faster this year. The sense of speed also has improved. When drafting at 200mph at Talladega you definitely feel like you are moving just that fast (granted most of us have never even physically witnessed 200mph, but if you have ever driven over 120mph you will understand what I am saying). Those that are not familiar with the driving model will have a steep learning curve if you decide to go that route. For the most satisfaction out of NR2003, hands on with the simulation setting is the best way to go.
One of the biggest changes with driving is that now the cockpit view is adjustable. One of the largest complaints in NR2002 was that some thought it was difficult to judge the car from the cockpit view; I was one of those that complained. The complaints were heard and now the cockpit view is adjustable. There is a large range of adjustability, but only forward and backwards. There is not any up or down adjustment. Now before you complain, the cockpit view this year is the best I’ve used so far. The trade off to the adjustable seat is the view out the side is reduced as you move closer to the dash. Problems with the spotter delay still create unneeded situations, but as I said before, once you learn the spotter tendencies, you than only need to learn about those who drive around you.
This leads me to the offline racing. The AI in the past has always been very robotic like with its performance. The AI would stick to a very close line and there was little variation in the line that they ran. It was at times so bad that an AI driver that could have had an easy pass for a win, but they just stayed in line and finished the race. Not so this year. Yes there are still some robotic like qualities to the AI, but now they will jump out of line, take more risks, and most off all will on occasion try to give you push past other cars if there looks to be a benefit in doing so. I still do not see many cautions caused by the AI however. As in the past the AI can be completely customizable down to the individual drivers. There you can adjust their aggressiveness, speed, and overall performance. I did not make and adjustments with any of the AI so some of this could be changed with minor edits.
The biggest draw for me over the past two plus years has been the online play. Online play is still here and is still as big as always. There is a unique thrill to running with other humans and this has not changed. Don’t believe that this is just a guy thing either. There are many women racing online. Granted the percentage isn’t very big, but I think its great. There are a few women that can flat out race you into the ground and make you look very inferior. Races during prime hours are usually easy to find through the Sierra servers. Papyrus has numerous servers with their namesake on them as well. Normally you can find at least ten Papyrus servers for racing. If you don’t want to race those check out some of the other public servers hosted by private individuals. All of the users, as they race, get ratings for how they perform. Most servers have a rating or an LPI (laps per incident) requirement to race on their server. When you start online racing you are a 0 rating in the four categories. The categories are Road Course (RC), Short Track (ST), Speedway (SW), and Super Speedway (SS). LPI is a factor that shows just what kind of racer you may be. Those with a low LPI tend to have numerous accidents, wrecks, or just plain problems during races. Those that are higher are usually more cautious, and respectful of the other racers around them. The average is about 20 LPI for the majority of users. You will still be able to find a lot of races if you are brand new to online play, so do not let not have any ratings deter your efforts.
There are options to run fixed setups where everyone is equal; with the only thing that can be changed is the controller response. Running open setups (user created) can have a steep learning curve. Though there is almost always someone of your equal online. On the track if your racing connection is good you should have little problems, but if others around have a slower connection, or even yours, you may see some jerky racing (called warp) on the track. The cars do still have this invisible force field around them to account for lag, latency, and warp issues. Where offline you can bump and grind with the AI, online this can get tricky. A slight tap in the corners may cause you or the other race to careen in the other direction. Papyrus said this was their only option in being able to account for these types of issues during online racing.
While the racing online can be very fun, it also can get very frustrating. There are still numerous users out there who try to enjoy making your fun, miserable. They are termed “wreckers”. Flipside to this is the first time a new person makes an honest mistake they too sometimes get termed as a wrecker. This can be from something as simple as tapping a person in a corner or not realizing they were there. My advice is, ignore the chat, ignore the whiners, and just go out there and race and learn. Offline racing can teach you a lot but racing online is another game altogether and if you really enjoy online racing search for one of the many leagues online to join. There are a lot of them out there who are looking for the new, but dedicated user to run with. All previously ratings were reset with NR2003. So everyone has to start at the bottom of the rankings before having an opportunity to race some of the better races. Be patient and you could be surprised at how much and quick you can learn just by racing with these so-called wreckers as well as the veteran racers.
I left a lot of items untouched in this review of NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. Not because its not worthy to talk about, but because the only person that can really make judgment on the overall worth of this title needs to be from you, the user. The worth of NR2003 is going to be determined by what you want out of the title. My recommendations are merely just that, recommendations. This title is aimed directly at a certain segment of the gaming industry. It is not an exclusive club by any means though. Gamers young and old, male and female have appreciated what Sierra and Papyrus have brought to the racing community. If you really have had a passion for the series don’t leave this title out of your library. Whether you get it now or later, you seriously need to look at adding this to your circulation of games. Some of this is the same old; been there, done that type feeling, but the changes in not only the graphics but also some of the handling and the racing on the track make the upgrade very worthy.
NR2003 is an excellent send off to one of the best series on the PC. Even without any type of career mode, you are getting one of the most thorough and in-depth sports titles for the PC. The hardcore NASCAR fan that has the computer power to get the most out of this title will be in seventh heaven. The racing fan should be able to find more than enough to keep them satisfied as well. Even the user that isn’t even interested in racing can be drawn into NR2003 and become addicted. If you are looking for a console type arcade racer for the PC, forget it. This is as close to real as you are going to get for at least another year, and possibly even longer. The series may have ended, but the legacy of Sierra and Papyrus will live on for quite a long while.
I wanted to make sure the new user and even the veteran user has some resources available to them to make their racing experience better. I also wanted to thank a couple of people for their help in the testing of, and developing my skills over the past couple of years. These are not endorsed or supported by Operation Sports. These are my personal suggestions.
- Phoenix Development Racing, a great group of people who taught me the ins and outs of set ups. I am also a member of this excellent group. Special thanks to Runn2Win for his great work in painting not only the Operation Sports car, but a couple of the others you see in the screenshots.
- OnlineSims, my racing sponsor which has numerous racing servers available for use.
- NTR Plus, Excellent league I have been involved with for almost a year.
- Zuul Networks.Com, hosting solutions for those looking for a host for their NR2003 Leagues.
- Team-Lightspeed, one of the best resources for NASCAR Racing series.
- Sierra Game Forums, another good source for news and helpful hints if your having problems.