NASCAR Racing 2002 Season Review (PC)
Some time ago, an acquaintance of mine asked me “have you tried the new NASCAR 2002 demo yet?”, and I laughed at the thought. NASCAR 4 (N4) was the mainstay of my racing diet, and trying anything else would be absurd. I hadn’t heard of NASCAR 2002 (N02) at that point, but I hadn’t really looked since N4 was racing nirvana to me. To be honest, I thought N02 was another EA game trying to get a piece of Papyrus’ action in the NASCAR market.
That’s when I found out just how wrong I was.
When I installed the demo, and the Papyrus logo came up, I knew it would at least be an upgrade over N4. Many thoughts crossed my mind about the possibilities, and possible pitfalls, over tinkering with the N4 code. Would the cars handle the same? Would it look any different? Is it the “EA formula” of just taking their cash cow, changing the rosters for the current season, and re-releasing it? Would they make a huge mistake by changing the entire core of the game, making it too foreign to the N4 community to accept? It took me a couple weeks, but I think I’ve finally come to an accurate analysis and conclusion of my new favorite racing game.
This is a really tough area for me to give a score to. While it’s definitely the best looking NASCAR game ever, it also requires quite a bit of tweaking to get it to run properly. On my AthlonXP 2000+, 1GB of PC2100DDR RAM, and a GeForce3 Ti500, I had a framerate in the TEENS at 1600x1200x16. That didn’t make sense to me at all, since I can run almost anything else in the world at 1600x1200x32 at around 70fps. I finally got it to run decently (by changing Detonator drivers, turning down the resolution to 1024x768, and turning down a lot of details), but by then, it didn’t even compare to N4. About that time, I ran across a little gem of a page by ”IDoXLR8” that listed a plethora of tweaks and changes to be made, and after performing many of them, I was back up to 1600x1200x16 at 50fps with 42 cars visible through my windshield.
Once I had gotten my little framerate problems out of the way, the game really became beautiful. The biggest difference from N4 to N02 would have to be the detail to the track surfaces themselves. Asphalt actually looks like asphalt to me now, with all the imperfections and cracks that you’d expect to see there. Car models are more detailed, and I absolutely love their new tire texture. As you take your laps around the track, you’ll see everything you’d expect to see. The stands are detailed, the walls are equally impressive, and it can really suspend disbelief for the duration of your race quite often. I haven’t quite figured out why they list OpenGL as “unsupported”, but it’s still the faster rendering engine for me, and I personally think it looks a bit better anyway.
I think by themselves, I’d give the graphics a 97, but due to the amount of tweaking that’s required on most machines to get them to that point, I had to drop it down some. It’s definitely a beautiful game (requiring a lot of effort), but still warranting an excellent 90 score in the graphics department.
WOW. Impressive. Unbelievable. Immersive. Take your pick. Whatever you want to call the new sounds in N02 will probably fit the bill. Papyrus has taken the awesome 3D sound from N4 and retooled all of the effects to be more realistic than ever before. Using the cockpit view will make your engine sound muffled, and definitely gives the effect of being in the car. When switching to roof cam (or S. Dobie’s fantastic “dash cam”…all of the N4 camera files will work in N02), the engine sounds absolutely wonderful. I’ve never been thoroughly impressed by an engine sound until I fired up this game. While I prefer to run in the cockpit, sometimes I can’t help but move to the dash camera just to listen to the unbelievable sounds. Your spotter is back, and just as helpful as ever. Other than the new engine sounds (which is pretty much all there is to a racing game, I normally find out), the rest of the sounds are pretty much rehashes from N4. However, since the sound in N4 was still the benchmark for all racing sound as far as 3D and immersion goes, that means that using a “rehash” isn’t exactly a bad thing. Overall, the best sound I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to in a racing title.
I can’t give a perfect score for gameplay, simply because there will more than likely be a problem or two that crops up after months of play. As it stands now, though, N02 has the best racing gameplay of any title ever, both offline and on. Since most people stick to one “camp” or the other, I’ll cover them separately. First is the most noticeable change, however…the driving model.
Papyrus chose to re-tool the driving model for the new release, a decision that I wasn’t sure I liked at first. The more I drove it, however, the more sense it made to me. Papy changed the tire model to be more realistic, yet at the same time, made the car easier to drive. This was a huge change from N4, because it always felt as if I was about to lose the car there. In N02, you’ll find you can really throw the car into the corner and recover from it much easier. While this is technically an “easier” driving model, it feels much more realistic to me. You can actually drive the car like a car, rather than a rendition of a car now. As confusing as that sounds, if you’ve played N4, once you play N02 it will make sense. If you haven’t tried N4 because of its frustratingly high difficulty level for newbies, N02 might scratch your itch.
Offline play is much more enjoyable than in N4. The AI in N4 was robotic, and didn’t really give me the feel that I was racing against NASCAR drivers. Not that they weren’t fun to race against, but they just didn’t perform like I would expect their real counterparts to. N02 changes that. I’ve raced almost a full season against them now, and each race they seem to impress me more. I’ve seen cars bobble and make mistakes, really fight for position, and create some pretty huge pileups in “last lap” scenarios. The biggest difference in AI from N4 to N02 pretty much comes in two areas: AI-induced wrecks, and the fact that they won’t give nearly as much as they did in N4. The first part comes along a lot throughout the course of a season. You might be building a strong lead, and see the yellow flag come out. Another time, you might be following the draft at Daytona, and just see the smoke cloud and cars going every which way. I had several races ended early during my season, simply because I couldn’t avoid a wrecked or slowed car in time. The other part, which is the AI cars not “giving” as much as they did in N4, is definitely an acquired taste. The more I’ve raced against them, the more I’ve grown to love it. In N4, you could pretty much stick your nose under an AI car heading into a corner, and you had the pass. The AI car would drift up, let out of the gas, and give up the position. You try that in N02 and you’ll create a couple of wrecks before you figure out that you have to ensure that you enter the corner slow enough to hold your exact line throughout the turn. The AI cars won’t drift up nearly as high, but they don’t in real life either. You will really need to pick and choose your passing opportunities now, which makes the game just that much more fun. Offline racing just got a whole lot better.
All in all, you have the same options available as in N4, with some additions. The new track tours are actually pretty well done, and not as gimmicky as I thought they’d be. With Darrell Waltrip narrating as a car makes a couple laps around each track, it really helps you out on some troublesome circuits. I actually learned a trick or two by watching these, so it would be worth your time to check it out if you’re having trouble at a track. Some tours even give away braking landmarks, gas/brake percentages, and more. It is almost on the level of Nascar Heat’s “Beat the Heat” mode, except there is no user intervention at all. It’s exactly what it says…a tour, definitely not a challenge. Other than this new option, the core gameplay modes from N4 return.
Well, most of the potential N02 purchasers will probably be looking to this area. Thankfully, Papyrus didn’t mess around with the online code from N4, and it’s just as stable as ever. Pickup races are still plentiful, although most will degenerate into a wreckfest quicker than you can blink. Your best bet, if you’re serious about simracing, is to join a league or a team. One of the best I’ve found on the net is the American Sim Racing League, or ASRL (http://www.asrlonline.org). They host quite a few series options, and offer a varied online racing experience. Everything from fixed default setup leagues to open setup leagues can be found here at varying start times each week. If you’ve played N4 online, though, you know what to expect. It behaves much the same connectivity-wise, but the new tire model and easier-to-drive car makes racing much more exciting. If you’re contemplating upgrading from N4 to N02 for online racing, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Most of the guys I raced with online took a bit to get used to ’02, but the more they played it, the more they loved it. I think the general consensus is that it’s a “new experience, but worth the upgrade”.
I think the question on every N4 player’s mind is “is it worth the $40 upgrade?”. In my mind, there’s no question that it is. The debate can be waged as to whether or not Sierra and Papyrus should have just charged the typical $20 upgrade fee for an expansion pack or not, but I really believe that the game is worth full price. It just drives too differently from N4 (being able to powerslide a lot more, at the expense of wearing out your tires, is a definite plus for online sprint races) to really say it’s just an expansion pack. They certainly did more here than any EA “annual update” has done in history. I know that I’ll be racing N02 online for quite some time, and it’s the new crown jewel of online racing sims.
At least until NASCAR 2003…