NASCAR Thunder 2003 Review (Xbox)
When it comes to Nascar action, the console crowd has really come up on the short end of the stick. Sure, it started out ok with Bill Elliott’s Nascar Challenge in the early days of console gaming, but ever since Papyrus released Nascar Racing in 1994 on the PC, nothing else has compared. With each new iteration of the series, Papy raises the bar on what a Nascar simulation should be. Every attempt to match it really doesn’t compare, and the only ones that succeed at all are the ones that attack something different in the sport (Nascar Heat had a more forgiving driving model, but had the Heat mode, etc.).
Nothing changed last year when Nascar Heat and Nascar Thunder 2002 were both released on the Xbox to mixed results. I really enjoyed Nascar Heat, and thought it had the best driving model of any Nascar console game to date. Thunder 2002, however, really didn’t suit my palette. It had a career mode, yes…but one where you were limited to 12 races per season and 5% race length. The driving model itself was horrid, and didn’t keep me interested longer than a few races. When I received Thunder 2003 in the mail, I was skeptical to put it kindly. Here’s what I found…
The graphics in Thunder are really mediocre in my opinion. During a race, they’re not too bad. Most of the time, when you’re flying around a track at 200mph, you’re not going to notice a lot of things around you. However, when you DO look, you’ll see extensive “jaggies”, and a general lack of crisp textures throughout. During pre-race sequences, for instance, you’ll swear you’re looking at a PSOne title, when you can count the steps in a jagged line showing the cars themselves. The lighting is decent, and the shadows of a fence line passing over the player’s car (if in external mode) is nice, although it doesn’t carry over to the internal cockpit view like last year’s Heat had. Cars overall are pretty well done, and certainly nothing to scoff at. There are also some nice touches in the “sloppy” areas of each track. When you get out of the groove, and find yourself up near the wall, you’ll see clouds of dust and debris kicked up by your tires…at least that’s new to Nascar games. Overall, I think the graphical presentation can be summed up by one experience. A buddy of mine stopped by the house when I had Nascar fired up, and he asked to see some of it. At first glance, his comment was “wow this looks like crap”. I chuckled, naturally. After a few laps, and showing him finer points, it changed to “well, it has some good things about it too”. By the time a few races had been run, and he was driving it himself, it became “A lot of the crap I hated it about it originally I don’t seem to notice now”. Take it for what it’s worth. If you’re going into the game ready to look for graphical problems, you’re going to have a long day. If you can actually get into the racing, you probably won’t notice, however.
The audio is one portion of the game that I really like. It’s tough to make a racing game sound different, but EA seems to have at least attempted to make some improvements this year. Almost every view sounds different, engine-wise. Bumper cam sounds different than cockpit, which sounds different than hood cam, external, etc. That alone shows me somebody put some effort out. Even Papyrus’ Nascar 2002 had 2 basic sounds: inside and outside. The sound overhaul doesn’t stop there, however. During pre-race intros, you’ll hear different versions of the National Anthem (I’ve heard 4 or 5 different renditions so far), F15 formation fly-bys, and commentary that seems pretty extensive and driver-specific. Steve Park’s horrible injury-riddled year last year is one that sticks out. Other things you might like are commentary on how you have qualified, or placed, during the course of the season. The guys in the booth almost seem like they actually paid attention to what you’ve been doing all year, and not spouting out some prefab lines like they did in 2002. This was one portion of the game I really enjoyed. More than three menu songs would have been a plus, though. Moving on from “Sweet Home Alabama” by Skynyrd, they’ve decided to run Steppenwolf’s famous “Magic Carpet Ride” as the main theme. At least they’re showing some consistency in choosing the classic rock anthems.
This is the part where EA’s Nascar series has always fallen flat. This year, at least they include enough in extra features to make the less well-done parts easier to overlook. The first thing I’ll touch on is the driving model, which is improved from last year, but certainly isn’t up to the lofty standards set by PC racing games (Thunder 2003 isn’t out on PC yet, but if EA sends us a copy, I’ll be able to compare it directly as well). That being said, it is better than last year’s version. The cars still seem to throw themselves into a slide arbitrarily, however. If you break 100mph in a corner rated as a 90mph curve by the game’s design gurus, for instance, the game seems to decide to toss the car sideways and kill about 50% of your tire life. That isn’t a huge problem, though, since you can recover from slides very, very easily. That part of the game isn’t camouflaged at all. This is an arcade racer through and through, and anybody who tries to tell you differently is lying. That’s not necessarily a bad or a good thing, it just depends on what you’re looking for. Let me explain…
I’m flying down the back stretch at Daytona, closing in on 200mph. I hear the spotter tell me that Tony Stewart has a run on me to the outside (which I can’t see, thanks to the omission of a “look left/right” feature in cockpit view, and the lack of a convex mirror which would allow me to see my blind spots…NEXT YEAR, EA!! Give me the ability to see my blind spots!!!), so I try to nudge over to see where the heck he is. Well, turns out he had a heck of a run on me, and I feel the collision with #20 to my right. Here is where it’s almost ludicrous to a hardcore Nascar sim buff. You hit a guy at 200mph, yet it feels like you just backed into a shopping cart in a parking lot. No real danger to taking yourself out of contention involved…you just straighten the car out and head on your merry way. To make things better, EA decided to make every driver back off the throttle when contact, or the threat thereof, is made. I have found a lot of success in feigning contact with an AI driver, only to see him back out of the throttle and give up the position. This could be construed two ways: poor AI, or brilliant AI. It’s a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full scenario. For me, I think it’s great that they finally put in some sort of intelligence in an AI driver (if you want to call it that). If I see a car heading up toward me, I’m going to brake or get out of the way. Many PC racers exhibit the complete lack of apparent intelligence, as if the drivers are obliviously flying around the track on the best line, and hoping you don’t end up in the same place at the same time somehow. However, after a few “fakes”, real drivers would pick up on this, whereas our fake drivers don’t. Maybe next year. Through and through, EA has crafted this title to be a ‘sit down and play’ game. You won’t need to learn how to set up a car (except maybe on Legend difficulty), you won’t need to do a lot of strategic maneuvering to win a race. What you will have to do is keep your car in one piece, and be smooth on the stick.
If arcade style racing is your thing, then you’ll have a blast. If not, then the features alone might get you playing it long enough to accept its brand of gameplay. New to the game this year are “Thunder Plates”, which are unlocked by getting Thunder Licenses or winning Lightning Challenges, or by winning championships in Season/Career mode. These are the Nascar equivalent to Madden or NHL cards, and allow you to do a multitude of things, from racing on one of 9 road courses, to using unlocked paint schemes in create-a-car, to driving as Richard Petty, Benny Parsons, or any of a gaggle of signed Nascar historic stars. I really thought I’d hate the Thunder Plates, but they’ve been pretty entertaining so far.
Career mode, however, is where I’ve spent the majority of my time. In a short paragraph or two, I can’t possibly tell you how much of an improvement this area has undergone this year. Last year, you bought parts, and as soon as you did, your car improved. Not much to it. This year, EA has really upped the ante for what a career mode should be, and I can hardly wait for this type of thing to invade PC racing sims. Frankly, I’m surprised a console offering is the first one to do it (I know there are many, many PC racing games with a career mode in it, but nothing close to the detail level of what I’m about to explain here). You get money for wins, which isn’t anything new. You upgrade your car, which isn’t anything new. What is new is the way that you upgrade your car and team. You start out with the ability to hire midrange team members…everybody from pit crewmen to engine/chassis builders. These guys have ratings in the low 50’s, so you’re not going to win championships with 19 second pit stops. After you get some bucks in your bank account, you might find yourself wandering over to the garage, and that’s when you really see the beauty of this game. You have multiple cars. Each car will be a bit different. With your chassis and engine builders, you might R&D different things (which can be spread out from 1 to 3 races, which makes them either cost-effective, or “win next week” offerings), yet still have to build them. If I have level 5 engine horsepower, yet only have an engine builder with a rating of 50, the motor’s going to be a dog. However, if I fire my builder (you can hire and fire any week, unless they’re currently on an R&D or Development assignment) and hire a guy who’s rated much better, I could win the Daytona 500 in a runaway. As you start getting more and more parts, you can actually build more cars than you know what to do with. I started finding favorites for superspeedways, speedways, road courses, whatever. You can even name your cars, so I had a bunch of ladies in the garage like Betty, Lisa, Edna, and Linda to take to the track each week. It really gets you to know your equipment, as silly as it sounds. Each car is rated overall, as well as in horsepower, durability, efficiency, etc. Also, if you really bend your car up one weekend, it isn’t magically fixed the next. You have to spend time and money rebuilding the motor or chassis, or if it’s really hurting, you can sell it, overhaul it, or just dust it. You really have a lot of flexibility in how you go through a season. Early on, you don’t have a hope of winning against the AI, even on easy. You just don’t have the horsepower. After a few R&D upgrades (and team member replacements), however, you can start to make a run for it. I finally won my first race at the Brickyard 400, which was sort of cool since that track is ten minutes from my house. Since then, I’ve still qualified top 10 almost every race, yet I have yet to see victory lane again (I won’t ruin the victory lane celebration sequences for those of you who don’t want to know about them. At least they’re new as well). All in all, I think Nascar is really something I’ve had a lot of fun with, yet didn’t expect to. The gameplay is geared toward one thing: having fun. It’s not about tweaking every last adjustment on your car (you do have some things to tweak, but if you’ve played a PC Nascar sim, then you will laugh at the sparse offering of a garage they have here), and it’s not about ultimate realism. It’s all about fun, and whether you can have it at the expense of some realism.
All in all, I really have to recommend Nascar Thunder 2003 to certain groups of people. If you love Nascar, but don’t have the time to play a game for a week before you can even compete, then this is your cup of tea. If you are a Nascar purist who balks at the thought of a car flying into another, and both of them continuing on, then you might give it a rental first. Either way, I’ve had a ton of fun playing Thunder 2003, and I doubt it will stoap anytime soon. The career mode itself has me continuing on, just to see what happens when I win the next championship, or the next race, or what have you. I can see it now…this game will be sold out in every Wal Mart across the Midwest from now until next fall…when the next Nascar Thunder comes out. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to succeed in.