NASCAR Racing 4
Papyrus has produced a series of racing simulations that are arguably the most realistic in gaming. The latest Sierra/Papyrus collaboration, NASCAR Racing 4, defends that argument admirably. It is a highly detailed and factually accurate representation of NASCAR racing. Twenty-one true-to-life tracks are available for practice and racing. All of the car manufacturers are represented including debutant Dodge. It allows for up to 43 participants to race in real time online, with realistic race distances offered for those with the time to drive 500 simulated miles.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
After a ninety minute commute home, I was more than ready to swap paint and reshape body panels. I had some issues to resolve and this was the perfect outlet for my van pool frustrations, quick and effective. As a veteran of simulation racing and a fan of real racing this should be a cakewalk. I mean really, its just oval track racing, stomp on the loud pedal and turn left, right? Ummm... well not entirely.
As the owner of many racing games, notably Sierra’s own Grand Prix Legends, I should have expected that the level of adjustability and detail would be remarkable. The fact of the matter is, NASCAR Racing 4 may have set a new standard in that regard. Players have control over how much tape is used to cover the grill (affecting cooling and aerodynamics), how much air pressure tires should have, a broad array of suspension adjustments, the amount of "wedge" (the term used to define adjusting the amount of weight on a stock car's chassis), how much (if any) fuel is to be added during a pit stop, and much more. Also, the driver can watch tire temperatures (inside, outside, and centerline of all four tires), tire pressures, ranking and race-related timing, all and all, more than most care about.
If that just isn’t enough, you can create your own car and team wear. While painting a racing car isn’t unprecedented in a game, NASCAR Racing 4 allows you to create a whole team. Here you can use some of the tools commonly used in graphic programs to customize (though somewhat clumsily) your race car. In fact, you can export your car to a third-party painting application to really make it something special, then import it and race it. Pretty clever. Once you’ve painted, decorated, and numbered your car, you can rotate it in 3D to be sure it’s to your liking. Since no self-respecting NASCAR team would have a pit crew in team wear that didn’t match the car, customize that too. Want your pit crew in your Dad’s baby blue tux? Fine, do it. Well no, don’t do it, but you could.
As with most racing games, the player is offered both arcade and simulation. In simulation mode, you can do testing, single races, or an entire season.
Remember all those obscure and seemingly inconsequential adjustments I spoke of a moment ago? Testing is where you fuss with them to produce the fastest, most efficient car you can. Higher tire pressure, less camber, more grill tape, stiffer springs, all of this makes a difference... supposedly. Undeniably, a player can tell if the toe-in is at one extreme or the other. The fact of the matter is that I question whether many people can reproduce racing lines consistent enough to differentiate a lap with 600lb springs versus 650lb spring. It’s cool to think it matters but I doubt that it really does.
Race weekend is when you test your mettle. Qualify with one good flying lap and your race is so much easier. Leave too much sponsor paint on the wall and you might as well start the race the next day. Admittedly, it can be hugely satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable to earn a good result after starting from the rear of the pack. Tough way to win a championship though.
The BIG RACE! You’ve paid your dues in Mario Kart 64, suffered through grueling sessions of Muppet Race Mania, and earned yourself a nice starting position in the season opener in NASCAR. The pace car starts rolling. You’re accelerating, looking for the green flag, listening to your race engineer (though he sounds like the New York subway announcer) and the race starts. The roar of engines surrounds you, everyone jockeying for position, green flag is out and like Milli Vanilli from the top 40, you are gone! The scenery is a blur, 30,000 HP worth of cars are trying to take your spot. You’re driving aggressively but smart, everything is copasetic. Just like my van pool, easy... Then you look in your rearview mirror just in time to see Billy Joe Bob Willis Johnson, your NASCAR hero, bump into you, triggering an agonizingly slow slide. "I can save this, just tap the gas and a little counter-steering will catch it" but alas, smoke billows from your tires, you are facing decidedly the wrong way, you nose it into the wall, your opponent, the grass, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or wherever given obstacles lie in your path. The culprit gracefully glides by you and suddenly you and your fancy homemade tie-dye race car (honoring the 1992 Lithuanian basketball team) are a pile of mangled metal and ego. That, in summary, is the single issue I have with this great game. The AI drivers lack some I. They nudge (just like real life) and bump (just like real life) and spin out in front of you (just like real life). But it sure gets old after adjusting your track bar, raising tire pressure, lowering spring rates and changing fabric softener for it to end so abruptly. And just to add to the realism, your engine may fail mechanically. Frustrating yes, but then so is the real thing. Next weekend I guess.
For whatever it’s worth, this game creates some spectacular wrecks. Body panels crumple, cars become airborne (including yours), debris peppers the track though without any mass (you often drive right through it), and smoke lingers from earlier spins.
The driving perspective I thought easiest to use was from the top of the car. It allowed a view of your hood in relation to other cars but didn’t take up too much screen space or restrict your view. Another view, which includes the front interior of your car, was not unlike driving a bus from a fifth row seat, a strong sense of disconnect.
One way to study your race craft is to use the replay feature. It offers several camera perspectives, fast forward and reverse, slow motion and still photograph taking. You can watch "the incident" to your heart’s content.
Though the graphics of NASCAR Racing 4 are very impressive, they seem just a rung lower than some other top line games. The delivery is reasonably smooth, the paint jobs detailed, the trackside scenery accurate but it simply doesn’t come together as well as some other games available. It’s hard to say with a straight face that these imperfections matter, but I’ve seen better.
Some of the best and worst elements of the game are its sounds. Being passed by a slew of cars (not that I ever was) does generate an envelope of sound that is seemingly going around you. It is both entertaining and helpful. The noise of sliding and skid marks are just not as pronounced as one would like. A surprising amount of information is passed from your race engineer via the headset, but often it’s nearly inaudible. This may be have been done for the sake of realism but can leave a driver frustrated. One game sound does stand out: the singularly worst recreation of Winston Cup car noise rendered by this game is the starter motor. It sounds not unlike your Aunt Thelma’s Ford Fairmont after its carburetor has been flooded. Unconvincing and unimpressive and for me, heard way too often.
Minimum Requirements: Pentium II 266, 64MB RAM, 12MB Direct 3D compatible video card, and a 8X CD-ROM.
Preferred Requirements: Pentium III 600, 128MB RAM, 32MB Direct 3D compatible video card, Direct Sound compatible sound card, and a DirectInput compatible game controller
Is it fun Larry Joe? Is it worth my time, my hard-earned dollars, my emotional commitment? Yes, yes, yes and go meet more people. This is a simulator in the truest sense. As I’ve mentioned innumerable times, this game is detailed and realistic. It does allow you to create races that are suited to your ability. Simply put, the better you get, the harder you make the racing. Navigating the menu items is reasonably intuitive though it could be better. Overall, it can be difficult and time consuming but is ultimately, very enjoyable and gratifying.
One of the drivers portrayed in this game is Dale Earnhardt. Tragically, he was killed two weeks ago today while contesting the 2001 Daytona 500. Also, today at the Australian Grand Prix, a corner worker was fatally injured from a crash involving Jacques Villenueve and Ralf Schumacher. While racing is an inherently dangerous sport this should be a sobering reminder that behind multi-million dollar sponsorships and the adoration of fans, people are taking great risk to bring us this entertainment.