Review: NASCAR 09 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Genre: Racing
Developer: Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: June 10, 2008

Let me start out by possibly destroying all credibility I have in writing this review: I am NOT a fan of NASCAR. I am a huge sports fan, and an avid watcher of SportsCenter, so my knowledge of the sport is limited to what I happen to catch when I’m feeling too lazy to change the channel when the NASCAR segments pop up during the show. I know the big names, I know of some of the major races like the Daytona 500 but I would never consider myself a source for knowing exactly what the passionate fans of the sport would want in a video game.

But here’s the thing, many – if not most – of the diehard NASCAR fans are going to pay the money for this game no matter how good or bad the game actually is, they’re not going to listen to what I have to say anyway. There’s no denying the popularity of the sport – from the hundreds of thousands of fans that pack the raceways, to the great television ratings and big time endorsement deals, NASCAR is arguably rivaling – if not overtaking other major professional sports like the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Fans of those sports, will buy Madden, will buy Live, and in this case, will buy NASCAR 09.

I’m here for the rest of us, the casual NASCAR fan, or the fan of racing games in general – how does it stack up? Well, its….complicated, in more ways than one.

EA tries to appeal to both sides of the NASCAR fence by immediately offering two racing styles, basic and pro. Basic mode aims for the more casual crowd who are simply fans of racing video games. You get more leeway on corners, and bumping into other drivers, and at times it almost seems too easy, which can be the right mix for the casual gamer.

The more advanced style for NASCAR series enthusiasts and those looking for a “sim” experience can drive as a pro. This mode is VERY sensitive, you need to judge corners, use the brake, and NOT hit other drivers practically under any circumstance. Racing game fans used to a Mario Kart or even Project Gotham style of experience will be in for a rude awakening using the same type of driving style, it won’t work. You’ll be disqualified. I had to learn this the hard way, and if you want to play NASCAR 09 online, get used to it as it’s the only way allowed to play on Xbox Live.

While basic driving style is much easier than pro, you still have to play “fair” on the track, too many undercuts of other drivers or smashes into the wall will still earn you a DQ – and also interrupts the game with warning flags, which will prompt a replay and delay the action. It has a learning curve, but if you want to be a NASCAR driver you’ll have to play by their rules!

The heart of the game is the career mode, narrated by an impressively rendered version of NASCAR Icon Jeff Gordon. He guides you from the instant you turn on the game, through every screen, and he’s your new best friend in career mode. I know Gordon is a love him or hate him kind of figure in NASCAR, and could see how his appeal could both attract – and detract – fans from buying the game. I actually found his inclusion impressive, his narration is better than a detached head, voiceover, or cheesy animation – its beautiful (in HD resolution) rendering, and really helps the presentation value.

What seems to be turning into a trend for a lot of games in the genre, instead of taking one of your favorites and racing them to the top, NASCAR’s career mode wants you to create your own legacy. You create your own car from scratch, work with the little to no-named sponsors, and race your way to the top as yourself – or whomever you choose to create (Ricky Bobby, anyone?). Even at the very beginning the options to customize your car are pretty impressive, with lots of paint options and colors, and even cool looking sponsor graphics.

I haven’t been a fan of going this route in other genres, I prefer playing as a “name” team/driver/golfer/player, but the customizable options and ability to take your car online and really build it up does have its perks and really can help the “addictiveness” factor, building your car and your “Rep” up all the way to the top, both in career mode, and on the “Live” track – more on that later.
The consolation prize for those of us whose first inclination is to race as Dale Jr. or Jeff Gordon is a “season mode” that is fully customizable, but just that – a season. It won’t keep you busy “Ëœtil NASCAR 10 like the career mode might, but it will crave your appetite or get you ready to take your game online.

I had high hopes for races on Xbox Live, but in my experience I was surprised to be mostly disappointed. You can take your car, and a nearly full roster of real life NASCAR stars in a Quick or Customized match, but in most cases be ready to wait. Depending on the race, some ask that you qualify first, which doesn’t necessarily take a long time, usually one minute or less, but to get a full race of human drivers be prepared to wait for EVERYONE to show up, and qualify, which can take a very long time depending on the patience of both you and the session host.

I realize that qualifying is part of the true NASCAR experience, but in my case – and I’m sure others will feel the same way – is to just be a couple of clicks away from getting on the track and racing against real-life competition. Sure , you can pick your options and if you’ve got a bunch of friends ready to play on life it is possible to play pretty quickly, but good luck if you’re by yourself. Once you do get on, the online play is pretty smooth, you can help your “Rep” cause, and play on a pretty full track of competition.

NASCAR 09 looks great in high definition, and one of the more impressive visuals are replay animations of crashes – which, when you’re learning to play the game their likely will be plenty of these to watch! They interrupt the gameplay, but I fully realize that part of the NASCAR appeal is people wanting to see big wrecks – and they’re displayed in full glory. All the famous tracks and cars are there and do have their each, individual styles that are rendered beautifully. That being said, the heart of the gameplay is on a pavement track, driving at a simulated 125 and up mph, so most of the actual gameplay is spent looking at unexciting pavement. Its hard to lay blame to anything on this, because it is NASCAR, but if you’re looking for scenery while racing you’d be better off with a Gran Turismo-style of game, NASCAR’s all about the big name tracks – not roads.

It’s an EA Sports tradition to have a modern music soundtrack, and NASCAR 09 continues the trend with up and coming bands like Rev Theory. Some of you may remember their song “Light It Up” as the theme of WWE Wrestlemania 24, and can also hear it as one of the tracks in the game. This was the only song I actually recognized, but wouldn’t be surprised to start recognizing more of these tracks as the year moves on and the bands start getting radio airplay. It always happen to me with tracks in Madden, Tiger Woods, and NBA Live, and wouldn’t be surprised for it to be the case here either.

As for in-game action you’ll hear the engines revving and the faceless advice from your monotone crew chief. Nothing too exciting, and it really isn’t missing anything either. It just sort of exists and gets the job done.

The Scores:

Modes: Decent
Graphics: Good
Audio: Enjoyable
Gameplay: Decent
Replayablity: Above Average
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Mediocre (for Xbox Live experience)

Final Score: Decent Game

Short Attention Span Summary

In the end, NASCAR 09 will be purchased by hundreds of thousands of fans of the sport. I have a hard time recommending it to the non-NASCAR fans of the racing genre. It’s a different style of game, and there are tons of other options out there for you to hit the track, be able to hit walls and other cars without consequence, and play your friends on Xbox Live. That being said, NASCAR 09 doesn’t have to be anything more than it is – it has an appeal, it has modes, and it has the names the fans will love. Did it convert me to catch the next race? Nope, but maybe – just maybe, I’ll listen next time a NASCAR segment comes up on SportsCenter, and I’ll get back to you next year when NASCAR 10 inevitably hits the shelves.


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