It's been two years since Papyrus brought NASCAR Racing onto the computer screen. Since then, Papyrus has been absorbed by Sierra, and they've definitely taken advantage of the merger. This hard charging sequel has successfully upgraded the original to today's technology, and added some nice new surprises as well.
I have to admit, my stock car racing experience is limited to the triple loop Tyco 'Crash and Burn' racing set. That and a road trip or two on the Atlanta, Georgia freeway during rush-hour. Other than that, I've never really paid much attention to the NASCAR circuit. But that's the magic of NASCAR 2. After playing this game, I've learned more than I ever thought I'd want to know about the tracks, the drivers, and the ins and outs of the cars themselves. NASCAR 2 truly takes you beyond just a driving simulation. It's a virtual representation of the entire NASCAR culture.
The challenge of a game like NASCAR 2 is that you have a limited audience. To overcome this, Sierra made EVERYTHING optional. You can do your warm-ups, tweaking and tuning your vehicle until its perfect, practicing alone on a deserted track until you're making the turns in your sleep. You can take try after try at the qualifiers, fighting the frustration of eating a wall or blowing a tire on the last turn. Then finally, throw your racing gloves in the ring in a 42 car contest of speed, cunning, and determination.
But let's say you only have an hour. Jump right in, lining up with Waltrip and Bodine in the big one, much to their dismay, I'm sure. Race too long? Drop the Daytona 500 to 5 laps. Who'll notice? Don't like caution flags and annoying pace cars telling you what to do? One click, and its a racing free-for-all as you dodge chunks of dead car through the outer turns. And that pace driver? He's back to his cabbie job at the airport.
NASCAR 2 also allows you to adjust the reality level. Opting for 'Arcade' mode makes your car more forgiving in its handling, and adds enough power to make any NASCAR judge suspicious. It also makes your opponents play to your ability, meaning that if you're smoking the field, they'll speed up and give you your race's worth. But if you're bouncing off walls and pit crews and other cars, they'll slow down and wait for you to catch up. If you want the real deal, though, play in 'Simulation' mode. The other drivers will be in it to win, and nobody's going to cry if you take a hard bump or two. No one but you, that is. You can adjust how powerful the other drivers are, in case you can't handle them at full strength.
Then there's the 'Damage' toggle. I found it frustrating early on how fragile my car could be sometimes; one little bump of the rail, or a friendly nudge to an opponent, and I'd be watching one of my tires head for the pits without me. Sierra must have seen drivers like me coming, though, because in NASCAR 2 -you can make yourself INVINCIBLE! This let me get away wwith a nudge or two, and when I was feeling particularly vindictive, I could even take a lap or two backwards! There's something you won't see very often on ESPN.
But what's the point of having 42 head-on collisions if you can't go back and look at them? As in, there's a terrific replay camera system. You can switch camera angles from driver's view to blimp view or any one of seven other different external cameras! Even better, you can watch any car in the race with this system! They include standings for the race at the left side of the replay, telling where you are, on what lap, best and last lap times, and speed. Unfortunately, they neglected to add a 'Cars Annihilated' stat; something I maliciously wondered about once or twice.
Improvements From The Original NASCAR
In addition to keeping the great aspects of NASCAR 1, NASCAR 2 offers up several new items for your perusal.
The talking spotter and crew chief are a great addition to this game. The crew chief drawls out advice on what needs to happen to your car when you hit the pits. The spotter chatters away, keeping you appraised of what's happening on the track and to your car, warning you away from accidents, and laying into you when you're doing something blatantly stupid, like bumping the pace car or going the wrong way around the track. He comes in real handy when you're threading your way through the lead pack with Dale Earnhardt on your draft and Ricky Rudd in your blind spot. Of course, nobody likes a know-it-all, so you can choose what you want him to tell you about.
NASCAR 2 also lets you fiddle around with the weather. You can adjust wind speed and direction, and ambient temperature. Or choose 'Random,' just as in real life, and take it as it comes.
The shining star of this game, however, is the car setup. You can change everything on your car, except maybe the upholstery. Gear ratio, steering lock, shock stiffness, cross weight, anything they worry about on the tracks at Talledega, you can control on your desktop. "But I have no idea what any of those things are!" I hear you cry. Which brings me to my next point.
The 216-page handbook provided with the game looks formidable, but if you want to get anywhere on the NASCAR circuit, you're going to have to read it. I am a firm believer in the 'Trial-By-Fire' gaming method. I usually consider it an affront to my deductive abilities when I am forced to crack the manual. But this one is an exception. It explains all the possible permutations of each of the adjustable options for your car, and, more importantly, when and why you should do them. It includes advice from NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte on how to run each of the 16 tracks on the circuit. And it's not only a technical guide; it's an interesting read as well. It's packed with little snippets of racing trivia and driver quotes, as well as 12 pages of NASCAR history, just in case you wanted to know. My roommate read the whole manual in one night, and never even played the game! And of course, it's got all the basics of control and customization in a well-laid-out format. Sierra has done an excellent job here.
All right, so nobody's perfect. While there are a lot of great aspects to NASCAR 2, there were several things that I found extremely frustrating. Controls with the keyboard or the joystick were both very touchy. The accelerator is either on, or it's off, which means you have to keep tapping the gas. Turning is the same way. You can't apply the gradual pressure that you could with a steering wheel. In fact, in Sierra's monthly magazine "InterAction," they admit that the only satisfying way to play is with the $130 steering wheel module.
Ordering your pit crew during a race is incredibly distracting. Since one hand is continuously devoted to nurturing the fickle gas pedal, you actually have to stop steering for a moment to select the actions of your pit crew! It would have been better to have paused the race for a few moments when you pull in, rather than throwing off your whole run.
Another thing that shocked me was that with all of the items that Sierra focused on to make this a convincing simulation, they skimped in a few key places.
The invisible tow truck is really annoying. When you blow your engine (which happens a lot), or you mangle your car beyond recognition, your crew chief comes on in a worried voice and says 'Just sit tight, we're sending a tow,' and they make you wait around for a minute or two. Then suddenly, your supposedly dead car springs to life and drives itself back to the pits! All that effort on realism, and they can't give us one measly tow truck?!?
And what about those pits? One of the things that has always impressed me about stock car racing is the speed, teamwork, and professionalism of the pit crew. It takes me 4 hours to change my oil. These guys can rebuild a transmission in 54 seconds flat! They're the backbone of NASCAR, and what does Sierra give us? A group of guys wearing matching uniforms, standing in a two-dimensional group next to pit row, one of them holding a flag out for you. When you pull in, your car tilts up slightly in the rear and a timer starts counting. Your pit crew, meanwhile, remains frozen in place, as if performing repairs via telekinesis! They don't even lower their flag! C'mon, Sierra, even the original Nintendo system had a racing game with a moving pit crew in it!
Realism suffered occasionally on the track as well. I can't count the number of times my car was totally wiped out by a tiny rub of the wall, and more than once I discovered that I was racing around the track on only two wheels. Perhaps these bugs will be patched up in future versions.
NASCAR 1 was good, but 2 is better. Crisp, sharp detail on the cars, with smooth transition as you weave among them. The infield is full of Winnebagos and semis, the track laced with streaks of burnt rubber, the stands crowded with people under a cloud-streaked sky. You can almost taste the pork rinds and Budweiser.
Where the graphics come up short is in the wrecks. That's what most people watch car racing for anyway, isn't it? The damage to the cars is OK, with wheels and twisted metal flying off in all directions. But where are the hurtling fireballs; the cars flipping through the air at 100 miles an hour, disintegrating as they go? I guess that's what Psygnosis'is for, but it wouldn't have hurt for them to throw in a little more carnage. Everyone else is doing it these days.
The paint shop is back as well. You can customize your car's base paint and add decals from their library, or create and import your own. You can even set up the pit crew's uniforms to match. Be sure that you're customizing your own car, however. My friend's father spent three days perfecting his vehicle, only to discover he'd customized the Pace Car! It was a real beaut, though.
Most of the sounds in NASCAR 2 are terrific, with one glaring exception -- your own car! When yo u cruise along pit row, the muted roar of other cars warming up to take off rumbles in a muscular, adrenaline-charged chorus. Your teeth will hurt and your hackles raise at the crunch of metal on metal in the more-than-occasional fender bender. But your own car sounds distinctly like a Piper Cub in the original, sort of a tinny rattle that sputters lamely from your speakers. Perhaps they were concerned that it would compete with the spotter's voice, but wouldn't that be a problem in real life as well?
Also, your tires squeal at the tiniest turn. I eventually turned that noise off, because the fact that my tires were squealing didn't tell me that my turn was too sharp, but that my turn just was.
Computer AI / Difficulty
Here, NASCAR has it right. You can tailor your opponents to your own abilities with the 'Opponents Strength' percentile, or let the computer do it in 'Arcade' mode. Either way, you'll never be lacking for competition. The drivers are quick, aggressive, and almost always much better than you.
One thing I found a bit frustrating was, no matter how much I tweaked and cajoled my car, I could never follow the kind of lines the computer drivers did. Their driving seems just a little too perfect. They're so civil. Aren't these guys supposed to be cocky, headstrong risk-takers? 'Rubbin's Racin' and all that? I would like to see, perhaps, a menu with settings like 'Arrogant,' 'Obnoxious,' and 'Downright Suicidal' for opponent skill levels in. Other than that, the drivers in NASCAR would give even the big boys a run for their money.
Required: Pentium 75+, 16 MB RAM, SVGA, 4X CD-ROM drive
Reviewed on: Pentium 133, 16 MB RAM, SVGA, 8X CD-ROM drive, Diamond Stealth 2 MB video card
At first, I thought this would be a game strictly for real-life NASCAR fans. But if you spend enough time to read the excellent manual and learn to handle the cars, there's something in this game for everyone. I gave it an 88, because of the concerns I had with controls and realism, and because I thought more could have been put into some of the sound effects. But overall, I think Sierra's NASCAR 2 is the closest anyone has come yet to capturing what NASCAR is all about. You may be surprised by how much you like this game.