NASCAR 08 Review (Xbox 360)

There’s a new phenomenon that has cropped up in the past few years in the world of gaming that I like to call the “Next Gen Placeholder.” These NGP’s, as I like to call them, are not a creature that is unique to one system, genre or developer, but seems to have really spread like wildfire since the jump from the days of PS2 and Xbox to the PS3 and 360. While not unique to sports gaming, it really seems to be festering there these days. Now before you head over the Wikipedia to figure out what my newly created terms mean, I’ll define it for those who haven’t solved the riddle on their own. The NGP, in a nutshell, is the first iteration of a long time series when it makes the jump to Next Gen. While not true in all cases, these versions are usually stripped down; bare bones version of what we were just playing 12 months earlier, with graphics often times the only real improvement. They usually come with great pomp and circumstance and promise of “just wait till next year” written all over them. And while EA Sports is not the only developer to use the NGP, they have certainly mastered it.

The NASCAR series from EA Sports has been, all in all, pretty well-received by Operation Sports. While never taking home any “Racing Game of the Year” crowns, NASCAR 07, NASCAR 06: Total Team Control and NASCAR 05: Chase for the Cup all were given mostly positive feedback from both the novice racer that I am, as well as our resident Crew Chief and Racing Guru – Terry Crouch. That why I thought it was only fair to ask Terry to join me for a “Double Team” as we check NASCAR 08 – the series’ maiden voyage on the Xbox 360.

So, do you want the good news or do you want the bad news first?

Well, the bad news is that NASCAR 08 is definitely, to me, an NGP. They’ve stripped out so many of the things that they’ve introduced over the last three years that I can’t help but confidently slap it with that label. They’ve effectively removed Total Team Control, intimidation, rivalries and almost every other aspect of the series that really added depth and realism to this series. To the NASCAR novice, it took this franchise to really show me that NASCAR was a team sport, that rivalries were real and important and that there was more to strategy than “go fast, turn left.” Unfortunately, with all of those aspects removed, or, more accurately, not there yet, I’m left feeling that we are back to “go fast, turn left” with pretty visuals.

Terry: I agree. With absolutely no true career mode, just the series of challenges to complete to unlock cars that you can use, it has almost no extra features that are pretty much required in today’s day and age of sixty dollar games. However, I thought the total team control was somewhat of a joke to begin with. I didn’t like being able to magically switch from one car to another. The rivalries feature was great in theory, but even the slightest tap of a competing AI racer led him to hunt you down like Jason Voorhees, slamming into you until it made him even more angry, and made it practically impossible to finish a race. So, while I agree that it’s stripping down features, how many of those features were actually something that was worth keeping? To the casual fan, I think it really helped, as you alluded to. But to somebody who’s a bit more into the sport, I couldn’t care less than the garbage features were missing this year. What did upset me was the complete and total lack of the excellent career mode from years past – starting out in a modified ride, moving up to Craftsman Trucks and Grand National rides, until you get to the Cup circuit. That gave the game legs in the past, and having it replaced with something that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute from an already-existing feature is pretty ridiculous to most people.

I did say there was good news, however, and this is the thing that does separate NASCAR 08 from a lot of the other titles that fall into the NGP category. The team at EA Sports actually did seem to make a conscious effort to improve the core gameplay this year. With a racing game, we are, of course, referring to the actual driving model. Even with the controller, you could really feel a more realistic and steady system at play in this year’s release. The cars felt like they had a true weight to them that I don’t remember feeling on previous games. More so than in year’s past, your skill level is going to dictate how well your race is going to be run, at least in terms of your vehicle.

Terry: I left the controller racing to you, as I have yet to actually try the game with a gamepad. I used the 360 wireless wheel exclusively, and with all assists off, the handling model is by far the best that they’ve ever done in the series. You can break the car loose as desired, really feeling the back end dance a bit at tracks like New Hampshire and Richmond. When you’re running a testing session by yourself and simply pulling around the track in the very well-done cockpit camera, it feels great. It is, without question, the best handling NASCAR driving model on a console.

Unfortunately, that may not be enough to save your race. For some reason, and it will jump out at you immediately, the AI in NASCAR 08 seems to have been programmed to run at 100% aggression at all times. I don’t know if it was a conscious choice. Maybe they thought they’d parlay off of coverboy Tony Stewart’s reputation as a NASCAR badboy, but the AI’s gameplan just doesn’t make any sense and really hurts the fun factor of this game. If I’m trying to hold my line and run a clean race, I shouldn’t be being run down by the AI. I can see an online race going this way, but single player is supposed to be where strategy takes precedence.

Terry: This is the single biggest problem with the game. I think you sell yourself short as a racing game fan, because you’re pretty spot on. The best handling model in the world means that you will take it easy on the tires and conserve the rubber (as Michael Scott would say…”that’s what she said!”). NASCAR 08 makes that impossible, because I finally found an explanation as to why the AI drives like it does. It takes this great handling model and treats it like an arcade model, where you have to drive it into the corner ridiculously hard, keeping your foot planted to the floor long past the point that a real driver would let up and use some trail braking to navigate a corner. The AI dive the nose into each corner much too deep, and if you take a “realistic” line, you’ll end up getting clipped in the quarter-panel or punched in the rear far too much. If you run the same line, however (learning to do so will take some practice), then you can race with the AI just fine. Unfortunately your tires will tear up early, just like theirs, and you’ll be stuck with an ill-handling race car after a few laps. It’s just such a strange contradiction with what they did with the handling model itself. They give you this great-driving car and then stick you with 42 idiots who only know how to hotlap…not race. That’s what you get online, but not with the AI, as you pointed out. The funny part was, if I got off-sequence on a pit stop (more on those later, ouch), and was able to take “my” line cleanly, I’d chew up the AI and catch up to the pack again in a hurry. So the “realistic” line with proper entry and acceleration points works; you just can’t take it around the AI cars, because if you give up a part of a lane or brake a tiny bit earlier than the AI, you’re absolute dogmeat. It’s a sad thing, honestly.

In terms of single player action, you can basically choose between a basic race and a couple different season modes. The straight Season mode will allow you to run through the NASCAR calendar with very few bells and whistles. The Chase, which is probably safe to call the main game mode, has a little more depth to it where you’re actually earning licenses and sponsorships as you move through your career. Sadly though, with the rivalries and Total Team Control mostly absent, this mode actually has taken a significant step back. Not a shocking turn of events in an NGP, but this is the mode that I feel may have as much, or more, promise than anything else on EA’s plate. A NASCAR Career Mode has limitless potential if properly executed. The developers should start by picking up a copy of the Forza series and start building some of the customization engine into their franchise. Who doesn’t want to design their own sponsored vehicle for their driver’s career? I can practically close my eyes and picture my virtual driver taking the checkered flag in the #37 Valtrex Ford.

Terry: Again, this is insane. They took a feature that should have been a side-game (the challenges from years past, which started with the fantastic NASCAR Heat, the first game I ever reviewed for this site if I remember correctly) and somehow built a “career” around it. Sure, you complete a challenge here or there that actually gives you some seat time on each track type in each type of vehicle, but there’s no real payoff. Your achievement is to be able to take these cars into a different race mode? That’s not a career, that’s like Madden 08 making a franchise based around your ring progress. Once you unlock the full level 1 ring, then maybe you can choose an actual NFL team and play a single season. It just makes no sense. With regards to the Forza comparison…EA has to deal with NASCAR, which would never allow open customization. They are so rigid with primary sponsors and licensing issues, they’d never allow EA to let some joker show up with a Trojan Condoms #69 Charger or something. Don’t bet on that happening, ever. Look at what they’re doing currently to Jeff Burton in reality…forcing him to strip the AT&T off of the hood of the car, AFTER HALF THE SEASON, because Nextel has a beef with it. Oh, how I long for the good ol’ days of NASCAR.

Multiplayer mode in NASCAR 08 includes practice, qualifying and the actual race itself. While you should consistently find a somewhat lag-free online racing experience, your actual mileage on the fun gauge will vary greatly based on the competition. But, with the single player AI playing more like the overly aggressive 12 year olds that we are use to running into (literally) online, finding a solid group of sim racers is really your only shot at getting a clean race out of the game this year.

Terry: This cracks me up. You continually point out the right things, yet label yourself as a “novice”. I think you’re a closet simracing fan, whether you know it or not. You’re on point. The AI actually behave like online racers, which may have been their intention. You’ll have far more luck getting in with a good group of online buddies who know how to give and take out on the race track and running on XBox Live exclusively. My beef with the multiplayer is that there’s no way to set a fixed-setup race that I ever found. Some of the best racing I’ve ever had with Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing 2003 has been with fixed setups. I know a lot of drivers who, like me, would like to all have equal cars and see who can beat who with equal equipment. In NASCAR 08’s online mode, you’ll really have to spend a ton of time in the garage tuning the car in order to compete with the speed demons you’ll find. That’s not a bad thing, but for most people, a thousand laps around Bristol doesn’t sound like fun trying to find that last half a second. Speaking of the garage, however, they’ve added a fully-featured tuning area where you can adjust everything the wrench monkey would expect; shock bump and rebound, camber, caster, sway bars, gear ratios, springs, tire pressures, and even the splitter on the Car of Tomorrow. If adjusting setups is your thing, you’ll be happy with it. They included the EA locker to upload and download setups from your friends, so if you have a setup guru friend who likes to upload the files to his locker and make them public, then you should be set…providing you can learn to drive exactly like him. Setups are such a personal thing, it’s tough to wrap your driving style around someone else’s setup, but the option is there nonetheless. You can fix a car that's loose in by making the proper spring and tire pressure adjustments, and the setting changes actually work. So, if that's your thing, you can have some fun there. The time investment will definitely wear on some, however.

While some titles that make the leap to Next Gen show up as nothing more than a shiner version of their last release, the graphics in NASCAR 08 actually feel like they’ve made the full step onto the 360 and the power of the box is being used. The cars themselves look deep and detailed and really pop on the screen with the blur of colors that NASCAR has forged into its signature look. The tracks, which most NASCAR fans will tell are the real personalities of the sport, are very nicely rendered with full detail and a sense of scale that hasn’t always come across in prior releases.

The whole concept and application of the NGP is a sort of double-edged sort. Part of me wishes that they would simply take a year off of the franchise and take an extra long development cycle before dropping the first release. That gives them the opportunity to come out of the gate with both guns blazing and putting forth a best effort that is, most importantly, a complete one. However, in the modern world of sports gaming where you can practically set your watch by the release schedule of the major franchises, taking a year off has become unacceptable, forcing teams to release stripped down versions that only vaguely resemble what the series was and is supposed to be.

Terry: The problem is, they DID take a year off. There was no NASCAR 07 on 360, instead focusing on this version. And with this version, there’s so much missing that it’s hard to believe that they spent a full two years developing it. Papyrus used to make bigger leaps and bounds with its driving model from year to year than EA has done in five years now. Granted, it’s better, but there are many other issues that are worth mentioning. Yellow flags are atrocious. You can’t control your car during a yellow, and if you use them online, be prepared for some serious issues. I’ve had instances where I was near the end of a fuel run and a yellow came out. I chose to pit…but the car didn’t pit. Instead it drove around, and when the green flag was ready to drop, it hit the apron all by itself, plowed into the infield wall and ran out of gas as soon as the green came out. I know I hit the “Yes” button, because I’ve focused on it since and it’s happened multiple times after that first one. Other times the game “loses calibration” of the wheel, and when first starting the race your car acts as if it’s on ice. If you imagine the full turning range of a wheel being from lock to lock, and then make that entire range fit into about 10 degrees of actual turning, making it 1000% more sensitive, you’ll know what I mean. The only fix is to quickly turn the wheel lock to lock, but since it’s not going to work as soon as the green flag flies (and you’re supposed to be racing at speed and that’s the first time you’ll control the car), you’ll end up fishtailing down the straightaway and spinning out before you hit the first turn.

Furthermore, you’ll have bizarre sequences where you’ll go a lap or two down at a yellow without even pitting. Strange scoring mishaps occur occasionally, and the entire experience just screams “unfinished” at times. The worst part is, the driving model alone makes it fun to just buckle up and drive, but there are so many other things missing or flat out wrong that it’s tough to continually do that. Early on I was a pretty big supporter of the series, claiming that the driving model alone made it worthwhile, but after 150 races or so, a lot of the AI issues would turn me off if I were a single player racer, and the multiplayer yellow flag implementation can rear its ugly head at the worst possible times. You may go 25 or 30 races without ever seeing a bug, but when it hits you during a league race and your car suddenly runs out of gas despite leading and having the race in the bag, it’s a disc-breaking moment of frustration. There are just too many oddities in this year’s title to recommend it to many people for me. And if you have a PC that’s capable of running games (and an old copy of NASCAR Racing 2003 Season lying around, or even some of the user-created mods for rFactor), there’s no reason to jump to NASCAR 08 whatsoever.

With NASCAR 08, there is no doubt that they improved some aspects of the game in their jump to the 360. However, with bare bones modes, questionable AI and some obvious gameplay issues, it’s hard to justify the $60 price tag at this point. I still hold high hopes from the series and really hope that the developers use this next year to blow our doors off next summer.

Terry: “Wait until next year” has never been more appropriate. Maybe they’ll plug some features in and fix some bugs to wrap around the very fun driving model, plug in some decently behaving AI and give us our career mode back. Oh, wait…I thought that’s what the two-year wait was for.

NASCAR 08 Score
out of 10