When I reviewed NASCAR The Game last year, I found there was the seed of a great game there. True it was hampered by some serious issues, but there was hope. Now with NASCAR The Game: Inside Line we get to see if that seed bore fruit or if I’m never going to get my Days of Thunder on.
NASCAR The Game: Inside Line is officially licensed so every single one of your favorite drivers, teams and tracks can be found in game. You can choose to play through a season as your favorite driver or you can create an entirely new team/driver and play through multiple seasons. Earn your own sponsors, fight your way into the chase and win the NASCAR Sprint Trophy at the end of 36 grueling races.
There are a few game modes included in Inside Line. Career mode is what gives you control of a team and has you fighting to earn sponsors over multiple seasons. It’s in Career mode where you will find many of last year’s game modes. For example you may have finished a race and been invited to take part in a Head to Head race or an Eliminator event in the next city. Well it’s not really an invite any more, its now a part of the schedule as a Sponsor event. Then you have Single player mode and Challenge mode. Challenge mode is interesting as it takes events that have happened in the past two seasons and makes you complete them. Things like overtaking a driver in the last turn before the finish line to win the race, which is pretty easy, but the difficulty ramps up the further into it you get. I also liked the Head to Head portion of Challenge mode. Here you compete with each racing team’s drivers in their own car against the lap times they’ve set on various courses. It’s not a major thing, more of a mini game honestly, but it does flesh out the game play a little.
In the Single Player mode you get to choose from a single race to racing a season to just testing out a car on the track. Single Player is the mode where you can choose to be Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or whomever it is amongst the current NASCAR stars that floats your particular boat. Season mode allows you to do the entire 36 race season or to just do the 10 race NASCAR Sprint Chase. For some odd reason though once you complete a race in this mode the game kicks you back to the main menu rather than letting you start the next race in the series.
Just like last year the game looks fantastic. Actually exactly like last year. Just about everything from last year has returned, from the aircraft flying overhead at the start of the race to the menus to the loading screens. I understand why they didn’t change much, it looked amazing last year. It’s just unusual to see a yearly product change hardly anything at all.
Anyway, the game looks great. The cars look about as real as you’re going to get without heading down to the track. The tracks themselves look terrific, with all of the landmarks which make them recognizable right there. From the towers at the finish line in Indianapolis to the giant TV screen in Charlotte.
One last thing about the graphics. While the cars look amazing and the tracks look great, anytime you see people in the game its a let down. I know, its a racing game who cares about human models, but when you’re done smoking your tires and you’re celebrating in victory lane you don’t want a bunch of cheesy looking character models clapping for you. Thankfully you only see people when you win, basically, so it’s offset by the thrill of victory.
If the graphics are basically the same as last year then the audio is where they put the work in this year. Where the engine noise track level was flat and uninspiring a year ago it’s now much more visceral this time around the track. Heading out in your car for the first time you are immediately struck by how much more powerful it seems. When pressing the gas you can hear the engine screaming to obey. When you’re in a race it’s even better, as the surround sound kicks in and you can hear cars everywhere around you.
The music isn’t bad, and it’s certainly hitting it’s target market. You aren’t going to find a whole lot of Hip Hop or Techno on the sound track, lets leave it at that. If you find yourself buying a NASCAR game you know exactly the kind of music you’re looking for, and Inside Line will provide it.
Onwards to the controls. As I stated last year these cars steer like barges, so the trick is to get it to steer like a European barge. OK I only said part of that last year. I can’t help but think my enjoyment of the game is hampered by the fact that the developers tried to be as faithful to the racing series as possible. During the year there are a number of super speedways which you race on. And then there are a select few short track speedways and some actual road tracks, with right turns and stuff. The super-speedways are great, you get on the track and floor the accelerator and see how fast you can go while turning left. It’s awesome. The short tracks on the other hand are just no fun at all. Just as you get any speed at all you have to slam on the breaks, then make a turn the car refuses to make. And the road tracks are hopeless. And then you add in the joy of doing all of this with 42 other cars all jostling for position. You can modify your cars settings in the practice laps, changing how far the wheels will turn when steering, or changing how high the car sits in relation to the ground. All kinds of good stuff. Some of this effects how your car will handle on these annoying tracks, and some of it will just make you look like a moron, with a shower of sparks sailing out behind you every time you go into a corner.
Gone is last years XP related attempt to make NASCAR more like Modern Warfare. Or rather I should say it’s not gone it’s merely been modified into something a little more subtle. In order to earn sponsors you have to do things like pass 5 cars in a race, or complete a lap without crashing into anyone 3 times. It’s more organic and it fits much more nicely into the NASCAR universe. So what is the point of these sponsors you ask? Is it just another crass attempt on Activision’s behalf to rake in more money by plastering the game with every logo in American capitalism? No actually, though I’m sure there’s certainly an element of that going on. No, throughout the season you earn money to upgrade your car. The more sponsors you get the more money you will make to put towards those upgrades.
Upgrading your car can mean making the car lighter, or more fuel efficient, or making the engine stronger to withstand the rigors of NASCAR racing a little better. You can also give yourself a better transmission, which will help with the gear shifting. All of this upgrading sort of obliterates the notion that these are stock cars racing, but I don’t think anybody has felt these cars have been stock for the past 20 years or so. It’s like wrestling being fake, everyone knows it.
All of this upgrading can also be a little confusing at times, as I’m positive I was hitting 200 MPH around engine upgrade 3, and then barely hitting 180 MPH after the last upgrade, number 5. The game gives you a huge amount of time to mess around with the settings before each race, with up to three practice runs as well as qualifying, so it’s entirely possible I did something and then forgot what I did. Just be wary of taking the beast you won the series with online, as you may get slapped in the face with the cruel reality that your car sucks. It won’t take long to find out either. Probably the first lap. Maybe by the end of the first turn you’ll be hearing your crew chief telling you the leader is 10 seconds ahead. I feel shame.
Speaking of online, we come to the major issue I had with NASCAR the Game. Namely it didn’t work. Not even remotely. The online was a mess when I played it, and only after 5 days of trying to connect to an online game did I finally succeed. Sort of. Anyway, this time around there was much less gnashing of teeth. I hit quick connect, and magically I was transported into a race. Where I promptly watched my car get laughed at. Well, maybe I was imagining that bit. There was no laughing over the voice chat. Just from the voices in my head.
After the giddiness of that one successful attempt to play online I thought perhaps they had solved the issues. Then my 360 crashed at the end of that race, the achievement notice for playing an online game (truly an achievement when you consider last year) conflicting with something in the game and causing a hard lock. So last year the game crashed before the online race began, now it crashed at the end. Progress? Sadly after this initial attempt I have been once again unable to race online. I don’t get it. I started to think maybe it was me. After all there ARE people playing online…a few any way. So I went online thinking maybe there was a solution to my issues. One Google search later told me that sadly I was not the only person afflicted by this problem. So I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you’ll get lucky?
So after all this what can I tell you? Well if you’re looking for a good NASCAR game to play with your buddies I’d recommend you go elsewhere. If all you want is a good representation of what it feels like to be in the pack working your way forward until at last you find the finish line, well, I can’t say go with this one either. You see the one other thing I found while driving around was how completely useless it is to try and race if you don’t qualify in the Pole Position. The cars are just too bunched up. Most attempts at passing just result in a Yellow flag. Especially on the short tracks. Not so much on the Super Speedways. Maybe that’s why I like them?
Control and Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: Mediocre Game
Short Attention Span Summary
Still not ready for victory lane. Hopefully the fine people at Eutechnyx can get it together next year for their next attempt.