NASCAR: Dirt to DAYTONA Review (NGC)

Nascar games seem to pop up every few months nowadays. I remember back when your only choice at home was “Bill Elliott’s Nascar Challenge” on the NES…a niche title back then, as the sport of good ol’ boys across the country hadn’t reached the mass appeal that it has now. Flash forward about 10 or 15 years, and now you’ll see a completely different sport. The average Nascar primary sponsor pays in the neighborhood of $15 to $30 Million dollars a year, just to get their product logo on the hood of a car turning left for 500 miles every Sunday. If that doesn’t tell you how serious Nascar racing has become, then stop reading. There’s no point in continuing any further, because no matter what I’m going to say, you’ll still believe that games based on “go fast, turn left” can’t be fun. If you enter in with the mindset that Dirt to Daytona (DtD) really strives to be a pretty good simulation with arcade elements, then you’ll have a blast. Just don’t bash it for being what it is.

The graphics in Dirt to Daytona really surprised me. I haven’t been impressed with much on the Gamecube, but DtD repeatedly had me going “wow that was a nice effect”, or “impressive car model”, etc. The dirt effects aren’t bad, as you’ll be trailing clouds of dust quite often early on in your career. As you progress, and move up to the modifieds, Craftsman Trucks, and finally the Winston Cup cars, you’ll really begin to appreciate the look of each vehicle. You’ll see them plenty of times, as it will take you a good season or two on each of the pavement series before you can become competitive. The cockpit view really gives you an appreciation for what a race car driver feels, as it feels very confined most of the time. The replays are especially pretty, albeit with some noticeable slowdown with all cars on screen. They give you three TV camera views, and a plethora of onboard or “chase” cameras from various angles as well. As you play through the game, you’ll find yourself saying on more than a few occasions “that’s nice looking”, but you won’t ever just flip your melon over what your peepers are seeing.

The sound, however, is spot on. The Nascar Heat team has always been good at delivering on the sound aspect of their games, and they continue the trend with DtD. Each motor sounds a bit different for each car. The hobby stocks really have that “beatermobile” sound to them, whereas the modifieds sound like screaming bees flying around the track. By the time you move up to the Cup cars, you’ll enjoy their throaty sound more than anything else in the game. Your spotter offers pretty consistent advice (his car high information is vital, considering that if you’re in cockpit view, there’s no look left/right function), and doesn’t seem to be blatantly off much. The crash sounds round out a nice audio package, as you can practically hear the metal bending and tearing if you really rip your car up in a wreck. All in all, it’s a very nice aural presentation.

This is where DtD earns its playtime…by the truckload. If you actually sit through and play every mode of this game (Beat the Heat, Pro Trainer, Season, and Career mode), you will have probably spent 6 months of your life on a single game. Beat the Heat has become a pretty well known idea, and replicated in other titles since its appearance on the PC version a few years ago. Race the Pro will throw you on the track against your selected Cup driver, and Season mode will let you race through a full season from your selected series (without the worries of money or advancing as in career mode). All of these modes have been done in Nascar games for years now, so nothing revolutionary in DtD, right? Wrong.

As many of you know, the Career Mode is where DtD really shines. Given a small lump of cash and a crapwagon of a car, your mission is to make it to the Winston Cup and chase down Jeff Gordon (or should I start to say Tony Stewart, now?) on tracks across the country. During the early stages of your career, you won’t exactly be tearing up the asphalt. You won’t be on the asphalt at all, actually. You will begin your racing life in the Nascar Weekly Racing Series, which is where aspiring oval track stars start out. Almost all of the current crop of Nascar studs began their racing careers on the dirt (including Stewart and Gordon, among many others), as very few drivers are just handed the keys to a ride in a high profile series like Nascar. No different here. Your car will be lucky to hit 70mph the first couple races, and you’ll watch as cars zip around you with ease. Give it a few weeks, however, and you begin to earn enough money to upgrade your ride. Throw a new motor in it, maybe get a better racing suspension installed, and all of a sudden that car that was crawling around the track is now competing.
Once you win the championship, you’ll get invitation letters to progress to the Pavement Modified series, which are quite possibly the oddest looking race vehicles ever created by man (with the possible exception of my beloved World of Outlaws sprint cars). The modifieds are light, fast, and pretty fragile. The only series in the game that doesn’t have fenders, you have to really learn to be a bit more careful with the mods, as a couple good slams into turns 2 or 4 (due to stepping on the gas a bit too heavily in the corner) will really wreck your chances. Your right front wheel can get thrown out of alignment, and all of a sudden you can’t even get a sniff of a competitive race speed. You’ll have to race a couple seasons to get fast enough to win the championship in most cases, however. Your other option is to race both the dirt series and the mod series in the same season. This will make each year take twice as long, but you’ll earn more money to upgrade your modified and turn it into a championship contender. But when you do, and you win a championship, it’s off to the Craftsman Trucks.
The Craftsman Trucks are a definite change after racing the mods for a season or two. Considerably heavier, and a lot less “twitchy”, the trucks start to prepare you for the Cup rides. Other than that, they don’t serve a heck of a lot of purpose unless you’re a die hard CT series fan. I drove them for two seasons and couldn’t wait to get to the Cup cars. While they’re more durable than the modifieds, they always gave me the “almost there…” feeling, since I was one step away from reaching the Winston Cup series. The same process applies (to all four series, actually). Win races, earn money, go fast, move up.
Once you get to the Winston Cup series, prepare to get smoked unless you saved some money for upgrades. It took me a good 10 or 12 races before I could even get a whiff of the front pack, and even then, it took some dirty driving to keep them behind me. Oddly enough, your first Winston Cup win in this game is something that you’ll remember for a while. With all the work you’ve invested, and all the things you’ve “been through” in your career, that first win is quite a moment in your little pretend life. I think Infogrames is pretty mad at me taking almost a month to come up with a review for their game, but man…when you make a game this deep, that takes this long to progress, just deal with it.
The biggest thing for most players, however, will be the driving model. How does it stack up to EA’s Nascar? Favorably, for most. If I was looking for a realistic Nascar game, DtD takes the crown. If I was looking for pick up and play, Thunder is easier overall. When it comes down to brass tacks, DtD has the most realistic driving model of any of the console Nascar games, although it still has some arcade elements. For instance, if you head into a corner too hard, you tend to just push a bit too much, rather than spinning out easily. You can obviously change the setup options in your garage to give you a looser car, but for most gamers, they’ll just notice the car being extremely tight. Overall, though, I’d much rather have that approach than EA’s overly-loose version of a “realistic” driving model.

The last things I’ll have to detail are the paintshop and setup options. Both are very good for a console game, with the ability to pick from a myriad of templates and almost any color in the spectrum (for the paintshop), and everything from gearing to rebound and compression and tire pressure (in the garage). If you spend a lot of time in their setup area, you will progressively get faster, and begin to see that the changes actually make a difference. However, with a fully upgraded ride, you can win at any level, even without setup tweaks.

If you’re looking for an incredibly deep Nascar game, look no further. The sheer number of ways to play will keep any racing fan busy for months. EA’s Nascar Thunder 2003 has a different type of career mode, and you can’t go wrong with either one. However, the driving model in DtD easily beats out Thunder in my humble opinion, and I enjoyed Dirt to Daytona much more than any Nascar game I’ve played on a console recently. Of course, with the beta copy of Nascar Racing 2003 Season on its way to me shortly for PC, all of them will probably take a backseat.

As for Gamecube racers, Dirt to Daytona is as good as it gets.

out of 10