NASCAR SimRacing Review

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While NASCAR may appear to the casual outsider to be the evil half-sister of Formula One, it is one of the most competitive and hard to win championships in the world, one where the driver matters more than the car and winning is not dependant on your car being red and your team having a budget reaching into the hundreds of millions. Once you get used to the amusing American accents and the fact that most people involved with the sport carry a cloned moustache you really can start to enjoy it, even if you’re European like me.

In terms of modern racing, NASCAR uses very basic vehicles under very strict rules. These rules mean teams have to work a hundred times harder just to make a little difference in their performance; the driver and the car setup make a big difference in NASCAR.

I must admit before I started this software up I had already pretty much written it off. Like most simulations I’ve tried in the past, I expected I would end up running back screaming to Papyrus’ NASCAR 2003 in the long run, it still “feels right” to me and I didn’t see how any attempt by EA was going to beat it no matter how many real drivers names they could quote or how many times people said the demo felt good to them.

I got my copy of NASCAR SimRacing (NSR) via a friend in Florida, it arrived from FedEx on Monday 21st February 2005, the day after I’d watched and been extremely excited while watching the Daytona 500. The first major failure of this branded NASCAR simulation? They assumed only American’s will buy it, releasing it in North America only (at the moment). Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad…

Installation was typical EA, a straight forward ‘next, next, next, register later’ install. Reading the back of the case I did scoff a few times when reading some of the lines the advertising executives came up with, they confuse hearing with smell a lot… Why do they believe we’re all sucked in by those things? Show me a few screenshots and give me a decent simulation at the end of the day and I’m happy – I don’t need to be able to tell if the leader of the race broke wind… But thanks anyway.

On the first run of the software I was prompted to setup my graphics options, I chose to run at 1024x768x16 on my Intel Pentium 4 3GHz, 1GB RAM, ATI X800 Pro 256MB machine. The CUBE 3D Setup utility selected “High” on both Object and Texture Detail.

The game boots up and you’re presented with a screen asking you to input your name and choose your difficulty. Considering I had not plugged in my wheel I selected “Veteran” expecting to be told I need to go buy a wheel… No, they let me continue to car selection. Does the word “Veteran” go with keyboard control in a simulation? It appears so, so far…

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Now in the main menu, I realise I’ve become extremely annoyed at the music playing in the background already, why does every NASCAR game since N2003 have a type of gothic rock that I perhaps liked ten years ago? It took me a few moments to realise it, but then I remembered the same type of music being played on Tiger Woods Golf, so I’ll blame EA on this one.

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The options are pretty extensive, but I still found myself being told I was on the hardest level while setup to use the keyboard – I began to make up my mind early: ‘If I get out on track with keys and don’t spin straight away I’m not going to respect this one.’

Once I got to the ‘Advanced Difficulty’ menu though, my thoughts started to change. All the aids were turned off on this menu, so I began to think I might spin when I hit the track as you would when driving a powerful car, with analogue keys! My eyes lit up when I got to the ‘Advanced Display’ menu, which has a display on the right showing you exactly what you’re modifying – this is an excellent idea and one that I hope catches on. If I don’t notice the difference when I get out on track I’m not likely to ever know what the settings do, so this menu feature is great stuff and allows the user to better adjust the game to their liking. The last menu was for audio and chat, which I quickly used to mute the menu music.

Back at the main menu again, I noticed the ‘Replay Studio’ link, so I clicked and saw the rather disappointing replay menu that had been just tinkered with a little since I last saw the exact same menu in F1 Challenge. I decided to watch the entire race and although it was a 6 lap race I was very, very upset that I’d spent so much money getting NSR shipped to the UK afterwards. I’m a mostly offline racer, AI is very important to me, from that 6 lap segment I saw so many flaws that all I could hope is that the replay was recorded in a much earlier build of the game or the AI was suffering with the distance being too short. The replay shows a human player (Ryan Newman, the real NASCAR driver) racing his car in a Nextel Cup 2005 pack at Daytona. He was great, but the AI could be seen taking some strange lines such as staying in a line of 20 cars in the high groove when the low groove was empty, it just didn’t look right to me, although I am aware Dale Earnhardt Jr used that line during 2004.

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I held my breath and clicked ‘Testing’ where I was able to select Las Vegas (a track I always struggled with in N2003) and when it loaded was quite surprised once again to see a very well designed menu system – a menu system that was definitely impressing me so far. The garage section is designed and works in the same way as F1C once again, although this time that’s not a bad thing. The settings available were those I hear all the time while watching NASCAR on television, the garage is everything you want from a simulation of NASCAR and I can safely say that NSR has the best array of setup options in any NASCAR simulation to date.

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First thing I noticed when I clicked ‘Drive’ is how good the cockpit looked in the truck, it covers the view almost perfectly, gives the right amount of vision and just looks ‘right’ to me. I noticed that the mirror looked a little empty, because I didn’t see an option to increase rear draw distance, I assume this is how the game needs to be to run properly, while this does not bother me, I feel a menu option to rectify this should have been made available for those who want it and can run it. Now for more talk and less screenshots!

On my way out of the pits, I was able to hold the accelerator key down without lifting and get up to racing speed without a problem, I was also able to hold the left key down without lifting off turning around the turn. The only time I felt I needed an analogue controller was when I braked as the front wheels locked into the turn, I expected to spin at some point in the few laps I did with keys on Monday night.

Tuesday now and before starting up NSR I plugged in my wheel, put my lucky socks on, put a cushion on the chair so my ass wouldn’t get numb and started NSR. I went into the option menu and setup my Ferrari FF wheel (worked perfect first time) and chose to run a few laps at Las Vegas once again.

I left the pits with my foot to the floor as before, but this time something felt different once I entered a turn for the first time. The car felt ‘loose’ as it had not done before; giving me the exact same sensation I get with Grand Prix Legends (GPL) and N2003 where the car feels ‘free’ of the world surrounding it. Using my braking points from N2003 along with the visible groove, I was quickly able to get on the pace. I did 7 laps in a row getting faster and faster until I spun on the 8th.

I normally drive N2003 in a way that I’m often turning right while going round the (left hand) oval turns, balancing the throttle and steering as I go. To my delight during those laps I was able to do the exact same thing with NSR, turning my previous views on this simulation around. I’m also pretty sure that for the first 2 or 3 laps the tyres were not warm enough for me to run as I wanted to, I kept drifting wide and getting closer to the wall coming off the turns than I anticipated. When I finally did spin it was down to me pushing too hard, that loss of the back end was nothing less than I would expect from a realistic simulation.

I went ahead into a race session using the Nextel Cup 2004 cars, qualifying 31st. I manually drove the pace lap (you can skip it if you choose to) and when the green flag fell I slammed the throttle down in 2nd gear – I very nearly lost control of the car! It was just a short 25 lap race, but it was enough to allow me to get rid of my fears about NSR, the car felt as it should all the way through the race, I don’t think there’s a lot more to say there. It was genuinely fun to race this car and I enjoyed it even if it did break away a few times, including a run through the grass in the tri-oval and a spin on around lap 20.

The AI is very good on this track, I was able to battle real hard with them and the AI in NSR appears to be more intelligent and ‘racy’ than that in N2003. You can bump the AI in the back and side and they take it in a realistic way, additionally I’ve been bumped in the back down a straight while boxed in on the outside – it feels very cool to be able to bump and rub the AI and not worry about some kind of freak consequences.

Some very, very cool things I noticed was that the AI slow as soon as the caution comes out, in accordance with NASCAR rules changed in late 2003 to stop the racing back to the yellow flag. When a caution period is nearly finished and the spotter tells you there’s 1 lap until the green flag, you also see the AI start to weave in a very realistic looking way in an effort to warm their tyres, I really was not expecting to see that and although it’s just a little gimmick really, it makes a huge difference to the immersion for offline racers like me.

My race at Las Vegas was difficult, I started near the back and managed to finish dead last! I lapped just as fast as those around me but was unable to spot any flaws in the AI that I could use to my advantage like I do in N2003. I spun another car on lap 23 of 25 and it was only when I realised it was lap 26 that I noticed the race distance had raised to 30 laps. NASCAR races no longer finish under a yellow flag if a green flag finish is possible, it seems NSR mirrors this new rule too. Being busy with RSC stuff I had no more time to run NSR on Tuesday and quit out.

Wednesday evening and I wanted to check if the AI problems I’d seen in the replay of Ryan Newman racing at Daytona were co-incidence, realistic or a real problem. I decided to run a longer race with the Nextel Cup cars so I could get a better idea.

About half an hour later I quit the race and was very pissed off with NSR again. During the race I’d noticed a few things which I liked, but a lot more I hated. For now, all the things I hated apply only at Daytona as far as I know, so let’s get them listed.

I’ll start with the good things I noticed first. When the race starts the cars have sticker tyres on, you can see the sticker on the tyre for a few laps, that’s a nice graphical addition. I also noticed the image in the mirror shaking through vibration, which is something else that’s good and also let’s the developer display a lower resolution in the mirror. The lucky dog rule is implemented, but unfortunately didn’t work when I tested it. I was the only car one lap down, my spotter told me to move forward, so I did – but I couldn’t pass the pace car, so I started when the green flag flew at the front of the pack still (almost) a lap down. The changes available in a pitstop are Tyres, Wedge, Track Bar and Grille Tape, which is great.

Now for the bad stuff which in my opinion is all really, really bad. I could only be bothered to race for 25 laps before I decided to test the lucky dog rule then quit. What’s the point in a NASCAR sim if it falls apart when you run it’s most famous race? If you are into restrictor plate racing I’d stick to N2003, because there’s more problems to come.

You do get bump drafted by the AI, unfortunately this happens in the turns also and is really annoying and totally unrealistic. The cars slow way too quickly after the caution comes out on this track due to the speed involved, in order to slow at the same rate I locked my brakes and still only just managed it. When the AI pits the spotter calls out each and every car that goes into and/or leaves the pits, this is bloody annoying. The spotter does not accurately give you information on the cars to your sides, saying you’re “clear all around” when you are most definitely not – for example. You cannot spin the AI by hitting their rear quarter panel, I tried it about 20 times before I ended up spinning myself to bring out a caution when testing the lucky dog rule, this seems a little strange to me.

Most horrific of all is the AI panic and racing distance settings the developers decided on. The AI seem to have been set to bash the hell out of your rear bumper on every inch of this track, whereas if you get close to theirs, they turn to one side and slow down. One time I got down to 90mph just slowing when an AI did that I didn’t even touch but just got close to. This means that restrictor plate racing in NSR is a lost cause unless a patch or a community made mod fixes it. It’s pathetic at simulating the pack racing restrictor plates bring. If no human player is involved, the AI get along and do the job well, insert a human player doing human things and it all gets messy. This dire AI means I couldn’t test whether the aero flow is realistic or not. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.

With the AI able to do a good job alone, I thought it might be cool to watch the race finish after I quit the race, but there’s no option to do that. Something I enjoy with N2003 (especially when I make new AI for it) is to just start it up and watch a race. Unfortunately in NSR as far as I can see, this is an impossibility.

I decided to run another quick race, this time at Talladega. Again a few good and bad things were found, mixed views on these. It’s possible to side draft I believe, I was really surprised by this, but if you stay there too long the AI slows as it did at Daytona. I was hung out to dry during this race and once you’re out of that line you’re done for, which is pretty realistic. The AI string out in lines way too quickly, it doesn’t stay like pack racing here for long either, after a couple of laps it was nothing like restrictor plate racing at all, so the Talladega AI fails at simulating this type of racing too. Last thing, the AI bump draft you in the turns here too, this time causing the end of my race after just 18 laps due to an AI car staying physically on my rear bumper for an entire lap, and more.

I switched to do some other tracks. Dover, Watkins Glen, Charlotte among others. All of these had pretty good AI and proved that either it wasn’t possible to make good AI on the restrictor plate tracks or the time wasn’t taken to make it work properly.

Time I stop dwelling on the AI problems though and move onto what most other people are interested in, the career mode and multiplayer.

The career mode looks very cool, you start off in trucks and you can sign yourself up with sponsors and merchandising deals, paying your way into races and getting prize money etc. Being an offline racer I am hugely pleased to see something like this in a sim, because when you race offline there’s only so much you can do!

The multiplayer isn’t something that interests me too much, so I’ve only tried a few races, everything seems to work well but it’s difficult to find a race with a lot of drivers in so you can really test it. The few I’ve been in either ended up with someone stupid doing something foolish or me winning, so I don’t think there’s many serious racers out there using NSR right now.

To sum up is pretty easy, the physics seem fine, the tracks are realistic etc, but it just doesn’t seem to be a simulation that has the full package. Behind the physics it’s a run of the mill EA game with a few nifty features that haven’t been in a NASCAR game before that I’ve tried. If you’re a fan of NASCAR and don’t mind a few flaws you’ll be sure to like it, but if they don’t release a patch to fix the problems I’ve experienced in just three evenings then I wouldn’t suggest buying it, especially if you’re from Europe and having to import. I really do think that they tried, but I think without a patch I’ll go running back to N2003 eventually.

Good Points:
Menu’s, Cockpits, Graphics, Physics.

Bad Points:
USA Only, Replay System, Low rear-view mirror draw distance, Useless AI at Daytona and Talladega.

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I grew up in a household where waking up at 2am to watch races in Australia or Japan were the norm. We were huge fans of motor racing, so playing racing games seems like a natural extension of that.

My first racing game addiction was with Geoff Crammond's 'Formula 1 Grand Prix' released in 1992 on the Commodore Amiga. This game kept me going for a long time thanks to various editing tools which were available, and I continued to play it until I owned a PC. After that, I played through most of the Papyrus and Image Space Inc. titles, but have most fond memories of Grand Prix Legends.

I founded a major sim racing site that led to my employment at iRacing, Image Space Inc. and later on, Studio 397. The difficulty in working in the industry is how little time you often have to play your own games. Quite often I escape with space games instead!

Left: GP cars at Silverstone in rFactor 2.

 
 
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Tim is British and lives in the United States with his wife and kids.

He works for software developers Image Space Inc. and Studio 397 on their racing simulations, and is a fan of Gaming, Motorsports, and photography.