NASCAR Thunder 2004 Review (PS2)
EA’s yearly stock car release, Nascar Thunder 2004 (NT04), is the best console Nascar experience you can get this season. Of course, with Electronic Arts’ exclusive licensing deal signed with the stock car racing megacircuit, it’s also the only one. To the average fan, that’s not a very big deal. EA racing “sims” are usually a little loose on the sim, and heavy on the presentation. The Nascar Thunder series sells a ton of copies every year, despite having a sloppy driving model, and I have no doubt that it will continue that tradition this year. NT04 is certainly not a bad game; far from it. However, it carries over a lot of the previous titles’ problems, and tries to cover it up with new features and presentation tidbits.
The visual presentation in NT04 is typical of a PS2 game: aliased a bit, but fine overall. The framerate is pretty consistent, even if you have a lot of cars in front of you (which, at the beginning of a career, you will have more often than not). Cars take visible damage as they bang around, and your pit crew is fully animated. If you switch to an external camera while heading down pit road, you get a nice cinematic of your pit stop…even crewman mistakes. When actually on the track, you’ll have “passing indicators” that will notify you of a car’s position behind/beside you. It’s fairly helpful, but I would still prefer to have a look left/look right button, especially when using the cockpit camera. The tracks are well done, and the car models themselves look detailed enough. You have a lot of options in the create-a-car mode, so you’ll never have to take the same car to the track twice unless you want to. Bottom line: it conveys a Sunday race of Nascar. It works, but it won’t knock your socks off.
Unlike the graphics, the sound in NT04 is very good. The motor sounds a bit artificial, but there hasn’t been a console racing game yet to capture the true sound of these machines. This is a step in the right direction, but no matter how they try to record the sounds, it always ends up sounding “tinny”. The spotter is useful, but a tad behind sometimes (“You’re clear!”…no kidding? I was on external camera, and saw me clear Jarrett 3 seconds ago). Combine that with the fact that you have no look left or right in the cockpit cam, and you have a sometimes frustrating experience. The rest of the sound package is still really good, however. The end of the National Anthem during pre-race ceremonies (complete with jet flyover) is a great experience for a race fan, despite its inclusion for years now. It just never gets old. The car introductions are the same as past years as well, with notes on how the driver performed the year before, and sometimes that season. If you’re a sound aficionado, there is very little in this package that you won’t like.
The sound is great, the graphics are ok, and how about what REALLY matters? This is the area that annoys me the most, unfortunately. It’s getting closer every year, but if I had to sum up this year’s game in a word, it would be “almost”. It almost handles right, it almost feels right, it almost gets the on-track physics right. When you add up that many almosts, the result is a lot of frustration.
The biggest problem I’ve had with EA’s oval track games in the past (and certainly this one as well) is that the handling model seems to have some arbitrary speed setting that makes the ass end of the car swing out. I’m not talking a gradual, drifting slide. That would be perfect. Something to prewarn you that you’re about to lose control is what makes a physics engine great. In video games, unlike in real life, we have no “seat of the pants” control feeling. No centrifugal force to tell us that the car is nearing the threshold to loss of traction. Consequently, you need to have something in the game that gives you a cue as to what is about to happen. Not here, this is just an abrupt “SCREEEECH!!!”, followed by your car swinging out like you’re on a dirt track. You could try and drop speed and drive around the track like Shawna Robertson, but you’ll be getting in the way of a lot of cars. Considering that this is always coupled with a severe loss of speed, and you’re in a pack of 42 other cars, that can be a very, very bad thing. You will make more enemies than you can count on the harder difficulty levels (more on that in a minute), since you have to push yourself every lap just to compete at that point. On the rookie mode, you can turn on some assists and keep the car stable while trying to better your lap times. Go up against some decent competition, however, and the “autobrake” feature will make you want to pull your hair out. Even if you’re hard on the gas, you’ll hear the engine bog, because the game is telling you that you’re not ready for it yet. You’ll want to turn off the assists just to get a decent lap, but then you’ll fall prey to the sloppy handling model and the “Rivals” feature.
Rivals is the much-anticipated feature that lets you make allies and rivals out on the track (that carry over from race to race, and season to season). Draft with Ryan Newman for a few laps, and he might help you out 4 races later. However, even if you spend 10 laps drafting him, then go into a corner a bit too hot and tap him, he’ll turn right back around and want to see you in the wall. We’re not talking “man I hope he has a hard time next lap” desire…we’re talking “If he tries to pass me, I will completely swerve out of my line and intentionally wreck him”. That is over the top, and absurd. You’ll have drivers that will bump each other around, but if I saw half of what I see in this game on the real track, there would be drivers getting suspended by Mike Helton at a dizzying rate. It’s all well and good for a game, but when you are penalized as much as you are in this game for tapping somebody, it’s an exercise in frustration. To get back to what I mentioned earlier on the handling, if you are competing really hard for a good finish, and go into a corner at Texas too hot…you might slide up a bit into another car, or lose speed in a slide, and 3 cars behind you pile into you. Now, those 3 cars hate you, so as they pass, they’ll give you a nice push in your quarterpanel. You’ve been fighting door to door in the top 10 for 20 laps, but one screw up, and half the field wants to take you out. Guaranteed that within 5 laps you’ll be 30th place (or worse). Even more annoying is that you have to hit the “X” button to draft! Come on…please don’t tell me that the laws of physics (ie 2 cars dividing the air resistance among them) requires my concentration. Or better yet, that they cease to exist if I don’t use that button. This is an extra annoyance, and an unnecessary one. EA should have just had the “friend meter” affected if you tuck up behind somebody, not if you choose to hit the button that says “hey I’m drafting you now!”.
Get past all the on-track annoyances, and the title really has a lot of modes to keep you busy, though. You have the typical exhibition races and such, but the Speed Zone really helps the game address some of its (previous) competition’s strengths. Nascar Heat had a great Beat The Heat mode, and Speed Zone is a carbon copy of that. You are given a set of challenges, complete with video introductions from Nascar stars (and Michael Waltrip), and you try to complete them all. It’s a mode that can be extremely addicting, especially if you try to pass 10 cars without touching them at Bristol…even at the start, they give you some pretty tough tasks to accomplish.
Season mode will let you get on the track as any Nascar driver and race through a full season of competition. No dollar figures to worry about, and certainly no sponsorship or car upgrades. It’s a straight-forward season mode, found in countless racing games up to this point.
Online play is the last area that needs to be addressed, and it’s…functional. Coming from PC and games like Nascar Racing 2003 Season as my chosen area, a 1-on-1 Nascar race is not exactly what I’m looking for. Console gamers who have never experienced an online title with more than 2 players in it will probably never know what they’re missing, and I’m guessing that’s the market that EA designed NT04’s online functionality around. You can join a lobby (or create one), challenge another player, and race. It was relatively lag free, but I wouldn’t get the game with the sole intention of racing online. It just didn’t get my blood pumping nearly as much as any PC racing sim with multiplayer capability.
Nascar Thunder 2004 has so much potential, but I’ve said that about the games in this series for years now. It is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook the handling problems, or any of the other strange choices the design team made. I liked the previous titles, but at this point, it just keeps feeling like “more of the same”. New features wrapped around the same game, and it’s beginning to annoy me. I’ll probably pass on NT05 unless there’s something really fresh and new in it, simply because EA has never had a good track record when it has lack of competition in any given sport (examples being NBA Live, NHL, etc). An exclusive contract just makes me nervous beyond words, so we’ll see. For now, NT04 is clearly placed in the “almost” category. Good, but an underlying feeling of rehashed material.