NASCAR 06: Total Team Control REVIEW

NASCAR 06: Total Team Control Review (Xbox)

There's a strange dynamic in the world of sports gaming as it pertains to the four "major sports" in the United States. It’s been widely accepted by most that, for decades, the "Four Majors" are football, baseball, basketball and hockey. Put them in whichever order you see fit, but, generally speaking, those have been the biggies in the real and virtual world. Well, about 10 years ago, something strange happened. NASCAR started slowly edging its way into the conversation in America and pushing hockey back to the Great White North. Many would argue today that track legends like #3 completely overshadow puck legends like #99. They’d tell you that rivalries like Tony Stewart vs. Jeff Gordon are even more riveting than the Red Wings vs. the Avalanche. NASCAR has passed the NHL in almost every facet of the game except for one; video games.

Even people who hate the NHL, love hockey video games. The same cannot be said for NASCAR games. The market for these games has always been NASCAR fans and racing fans exclusively. Joe Sports Gamer rarely crossed that line. Why? What does hockey have that NASCAR doesn’t? The fast pace? No. NASCAR certainly has that. The collisions? Nope. The fights? Not lately. The passing? Ok, technically they both have that, but that’s a stretch. EA Sports appears to be banking on the team aspect of sports gaming. Individual sports simply do not sell as well as team sports in the gaming industry. So with the release of NASCAR 06: Total Team Control, the developers are attempting to show the NASCAR laymen what the left-turn junkies have known all along. Winning in NASCAR requires strategy, skills, and, believe it or not, teamwork.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts, so to speak, I think it’s only fair to give you my NASCAR resume going into this review. I decided to play a little word association with my brother-In-law, a NASCAR fanatic, to check the knowledge base going in. We decided to start with drivers, he’d say a name, and I’d give him the first thing I thought of.

Him: "Jimmie Johnson"
Me: "Umm…Cowboys coach…talks funny…weird hair…"

Him: "Geoff Bodine"
Me: "Ahhh…loved him on the Beverly Hillbillies…"

Him: "Little E"
Me:"…ummm…equals little mc squared?"

So I wasn't real up-to-date on drivers - in fact - I spent fifteen minutes sulking on the couch after I learned that Dick Trickle retired after 2002.

By this time, we figured it was pointless to test my knowledge of gear ratios and friction resistance things or other gearhead stuff. I think I was perhaps the perfect candidate to handle this review. A NASCAR idiot, but sports gaming freak.

From the time you boot up the game, you are thrust immediately into racing action. You need to hang with the big boys right out of the box to even get to the opening menu. Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to be successful. I think I am about 0-for-110 in my attempts at completing the opening prologue. While there’s multiple races to suit your wants and skill level, the meat and potatoes is really in their new team-based career mode.

Taking a page out of their other great sports franchises, EA Sports has further evolved the way we looked at the sport in NASCAR 06: Total Team Control, by introducing the NASCAR-challenged to great degree of depth and strategy behind racing in today’s circuit. After creating my driver, I received a contract offer to drive the #19 car in the Whelan Modified Tour. Those of you hoping to step right into the Nextel standings, guess again. You have to earn your way to the "big dance" in this one, a path that could take you through the NASCAR National Series or the Craftsman Truck Series as well. You’ve got to pay your dues to be at Daytona in February.

So, I joined a team with three Tour pros. Unlike previous versions, it's important to cultivate and use these relationships for success. In NASCAR 06, you can use thumbstick or voice commands to utilize new team based racing controls. Flick the stick or bark out things like "work with me" or "hold position" to your teammates. And the beauty is, the AI is smart enough to only make the moves that make sense. If your teammate is leading the race and you ask him to "drop back", he'll throw out an appropriate response to let you know that it's not going to happen. These commands work great for longer races, but on shorter races (8-12 laps), you really don’t have time to really utilize them properly.

However, one of the commands, which, like NASCAR itself, I think you’ll either love or hate, is the ability to swap cars with a teammate. You’ll actually take over his car, while the AI will take over yours. I personally didn’t find the need for this very often, but I could certainly see how some gamers would enjoy it. Especially if you climb up to the NEXTEL series and can swap cars with your NASCAR heroes.

While you’re on the track, the concept of allies and enemies is alive and well. Your teammates start out as allies, but don’t be fooled, run him into the wall or nudge him one too many times and you’re coming off his Christmas card list. The beauty in the implementation of this is that not only do the relationships carry on throughout the season, but also that the AI drivers are very revenge motivated. If you think you’re going to plow your way to the front without some payback, you’re mistaken. The AI-controlled racers have a long memory and will gladly spin you out at Daytona for something you did at Bristol.

As your career builds, your reputation for being a "Good Guy" or a "Bad Guy" can seriously impact your earning potential. But, don’t worry, NASCAR fans like "Bad Boys". So, if you bump too much, you'll still sell T-shirts. Ultimately, you can use that hard-earned dough to purchase your own racing team. Look out, Coach Gibbs!

The overall feel of the racing itself is very good. Now, that comes with a disclaimer. I don’t know enough about racing to tell too much of a difference in feel. I tried to tweak some of the car setups, but I couldn't tell a major difference in how my car ran. I'm sure more knowledgeable and experienced racers may be able to discern one from the other, but I was a default guy on 95% of my races.

If you're looking for a complaint from me, I did find one thing that bothered me. On the lower skill levels, on the half dozen or so times that I did win the pole position in qualifying, I always won the race. If I got out to a clean start, I'd be 3.5 seconds ahead by the sixth or seventh lap. I know you should be rewarded for mistake-free driving, but I wanted the AI to push me more, even on those lower skill levels. It's a small chink in the armor of an otherwise sterling experience.

What are you really looking for visually out of a NASCAR title? Naturally, you want the cars, drivers, and tracks to look as much like their real-life counterparts as possible. In NASCAR 06, it’s safe to say that they did a very solid job in all three of those departments. The cars themselves are quite detailed, and appear to have been painstakingly replicated down to the last sponsor sticker. Of course, certain sponsors could not be included for various reasons. But even the major sponsors that were left out did not drastically affect the overall look and feel of their car. The tracks, to me, seemed to give a nice sense of change from one week to the next. You could definitely tell you were on a different track in Bristol then when you were at the Michigan International Speedway. The drivers, featured mostly in cut-scenes, were pretty standard EA fare.

That said, it left me with a feeling of, "well, so what?" When I was in a race, I didn’t care at all what the car looked like, before or after I put it in the wall. I didn’t care what the grandstands looked like. This game truly made me concentrate as much or more than any other game I remember playing. I was basically watching the nose of my car and the track immediately in front. I wasn’t checking if the ads on the wall were in the right font, I was trying not to hit stuff. So, in terms of graphics, I think they did the perfect job in not doing too much. No distractions. No fluff. Just give me a nice clean frame-rate while I’m racing.

The sounds of the game work very well in their simplicity. Like I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, the best sound effects in a game are the ones that are so natural that you don’t even really notice them. That’s executed very well in NASCAR 06. The engines, the tires, the wind, bumps, even the crew chief in the headset all flow seamlessly throughout the game. No over-the-top arcade sounds. I want it real.

If we’ve learned anything about EA’s online system, it’s that they look consistent across their titles. There’s nothing ground-breaking here; just an overall easy-to-navigate lobby system that will allow you to find a race, on the level of your liking, in pretty short order.

The online play itself was surprisingly smooth for the early days of the release. We’ve all come to expect some first-day hiccups, but I found nothing but smooth connections, no boots, and very little lag. If I did have a complaint, besides the Malachi Brothers mentality of half of the gamers online, it’s that a four-player race is the limit on Xbox Live. I know we’re looking at technology, server, and bandwidth limitations, but I wish there was a full-field race option with all live players.

As NASCAR inches closer to lapping the NHL in the American sports landscape, is it truly ready to take that next step in the video game world? I say it is. I think it has a lot of work to do to break into the "Big Four" in video games, but games like NASCAR 06: Total Team Control are on the right track (pun only mildly intended). Sports gamers like personality. They like customizing. They like detailed career and/or story modes. They love statistics! It’s all here.

I can't tell a true die-hard racing fan if the car setups will provide the depth and accuracy that they are looking for. But I can tell gaming fans that NASCAR 06 is very good title. I think the depth and replay ability alone are worth a look. Sprinkle in a mostly solid online experience and most gamers will get a lot of hours of action out of this title.

NASCAR 06: Total Team Control Score
out of 10