NASCAR Thunder 2002
EA Sports' first foray into the world of PS2 NASCAR racing hit retail shelves not long after the machine's launch. NASCAR 2001 left many racing fans in a state of disillusionment. A few months later, Infogrames released NASCAR Heat 2002, which improved upon EA's effort in almost every respect. With a stellar combination of clean graphics, a steady frame rate, and white-knuckle-racing action, NASCAR Heat 2002 came a little closer to what most oval-track racing fans were hoping for.videogame fans were extremely excited, that is, until they played it. Plagued by horrible graphics, compounded by dithering resolutions, and an erratic frame rate,
But as we all know, EA plays second fiddle to no one. So back to the drawing board they went. Almost a year later, with additional development time and experience with the PS2, EA Sports hits the track and waves the green flag once again, in the form of NASCAR Thunder 2002, and this time, they mean business. Featuring 43 cars on the grid, over 50 NASCAR drivers, 23 Winston Cup series tracks, a complete career mode, and intense multiplayer racing, EA Sports opens the throttle, looking to blow the competition off the track.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
From the main menu, you can start a quick race, select a game mode, or adjust your settings. In Quick Race, you'll be able to jump into a race as one of your favorite drivers on your favorite track. Unless you choose to qualify, you'll take on the competition, starting somewhere in the middle of the pack. Before choosing a game mode, you can adjust various settings to your liking. Choose advanced or standard mode (assists) and modify or load gameplay, display, controller, and sound settings. Game modes include a Season mode, where you can choose the car of your favorite driver and compete in multiple seasons. In this mode you'll be competing against a full field of 42 other drivers, for a span of twenty years. The goal in Season mode is to win eight championships before you're forced to retire. Your car and the other drivers' cars operate at the same level, so you won't have any unfair advantages or disadvantages going into each race. In this year's game, EA Sports has given us an all-new Career mode where you can create your own car and driver from scratch. As you progress through each race, you'll be able to afford better improvements for your car and eventually make a bid for the championship. Like the Season mode, your goal is to win eight championships before you retire and you'll have the same twenty years in which to do so. In year one, you'll start off with a basic car in which to enter each race. As you progress from race to race, you'll be awarded points based on certain criteria, such as the number of laps you led in the race and, of course, your final position on the grid. Depending on your level of success, you'll earn sponsorship money, which you can then use to upgrade your car in several areas. Perform well enough, and you'll even be given the opportunity to take over another ride.
NASCAR Thunder 2002 offers three different levels of difficulty: Rookie, Veteran, and Legend. On Rookie, the AI controlled cars tend to be more forgiving; letting you pass without much difficulty. If you can keep from hitting the wall or one of your opponents, you'll win the race with ease. Once you move up to the higher difficulty settings, it's a whole different ball game... uh, race. Suddenly, everything from qualifying for the pole, to passing cars and ultimately winning the race becomes a much more serious endeavor. Multiple settings, which determine the level of realism for each race, can be changed to your liking. You can race with full damage, limited damage, or no damage at all. You can also change the length of each race, from a short sprint to the full number of laps of a real NASCAR circuit. Additionally, you can race with yellow flags on or off, as well as with unlimited fuel and tires. Finally, for multiplayer competition, there's an optional speed comp, which gives the trailing car a boost in order to catch up more easily.
Control of your car takes on a delicate balance between sim-like and arcade-like qualities. Hardcore NASCAR enthusiasts will no doubt complain about the forgiving nature in which the game addresses over-steer and under-steer issues. On the other hand, it's obvious that the developers wanted the game to be immediately accessible to the masses. When all is said and done, in terms of car handling, you won't find the same level of realism found in PC simulators, but let's not forget: this is a console racer. That being said, on the whole, the control is tight and responsive. The game allows you to steer your car using the analog stick or directional buttons. I found the analog stick to be better suited for making those incremental adjustments in tight turns, as well as for holding the line on super speedways. I also find it a bit puzzling and disappointing that the game manual doesn't mention any support for alternate driving peripherals.
I find it disappointing that once again this year's version lacks a full-fledged instant replay feature. Instead, the developers have opted for a highlight reel, which displays the race using five reels in succession. If that crucial pass or photo finish doesn't make the highlight reel, you're outta luck!
Last year's NASCAR 2001 featured graphics that can best be described as tragic. If you played that game (or at least tried), then you'll recall its sluggish frame rate and inconsistent screen resolutions which rendered the game virtually unplayable. The first time I went around the track, it felt more like I was playin' a PSX game, rather than the almighty PS2. Then I displayed the rearview mirror... and believe it or not, things got worse.
Fortunately, the improvements in this year's graphics engine are tenfold. NASCAR Thunder 2002 features a full field of 43 cars on the track at once. Even so, the frame rate is rock solid with nary a slow-down, and a constant screen resolution is maintained throughout. The car models themselves are extremely well detailed with accurate paintjobs and decals that look amazingly like their real-life counterparts. A quick look inside the car reveals a realistic dashboard and cockpit, which includes the driver's hands, steering and shifting gears in an appropriate manner. Unlike other games I know (Ridge Racer anyone?), there is a damage model and it's fully functional. A quick smack upside the wall, or another car, will yield an assortment of dented fenders and side panels, tire blowouts, and smokin' engines. Severe pileups will send body parts flyin', with the added possibility of your car bursting into flames. Hey, I'm no sicko or anything, but if there's one thing I hate, it's the damage-less bumper car effect ya get in those other silly racing games i ? not very realistic, now is it?
Environmental graphics are equally well done with nicely detailed tracks and trackside trimmings. All 23 tracks included in the game look spectacular. The lighting effects exhibited during nighttime racing are especially impressive.
While racing, you'll be able to choose among several different first-person and third-person camera views. However, no matter which view you choose, the action is always fast and furious. After each race, you'll be treated to an instant replay, which comes in the form of a highlight reel. While it's not exactly a full functioning instant replay mode, there's no question, it does look purty.
The catchphrase, 'If you've heard one, you've heard them all'?, pretty much sums up the in-game sound effects. Like its two predecessors, NASCAR Thunder 2002 gives us the standard engine noises, tire screeches, and of course, the violent booms and bangs of collisions. They're all well done and quite convincing, but at this point they represent nothing new either. Once again, there's an announcer who calls the action and your spotter who alerts you to the whereabouts of your competition. Giving the game an appropriate southern twang is Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'weet Home Alabama,'? which greets you during the introduction and remains throughout the entire affair -- that is, unless you decide to turn it off. (Hey, I like Skynyrd as much as the next guy, but not while I'm racing, thank you!) All in all, the audio gets a big thumbs-up, in terms of setting the proper mood for the task at hand, but considering the power of the PS2, I wouldn't expect anything less.
When all is said and done, NASCAR Thunder 2002 represents a huge improvement over last year's effort. With graphics and frame rate no longer an issue, this time around, gamers will no doubt appreciate the depth of gameplay that the game has to offer. The career mode certainly gives the game a high level of replay value. While I may not necessarily recommend it to everyone (hardcore NASCAR racers will probably pick it apart), I'm willing to bet that most console-oval-track racers will find a lot to like about it. If you already own NASCAR Heat 2002, then it's a tough call -- the extra modes of play may give that game a slight advantage. Other than that, the way I see it, the differences are negligible. My advice is to rent one or both (depending on your situation) and I'll let you make the call.