NASCAR 09 Review - 04/08/2008

There's a serious problem with all NASCAR games. While the sport is relatively enthralling to watch, there is little thrill to be had from racing round and round in an arena. There's far more to the discipline than that of course, but previous games in the series have felt as dull as dishwater. Can '09 change all that?

Well it's streets ahead of the confusing and frustrating NASCAR '08, which was marred by unforgiving driving physics and an unfinished feel. EA have pushed the boat, or car out with this instalment with what is probably the most fully-packed racing game on the market. A more crucial question, especially for a European site is, will you like the game if you don't watch much NASCAR?

While NASCAR is on our televisions more and more of late, there's still no easy way to stay up-to-date with the USA's favourite motor sport. The adrenaline of close door-to-door racing at well over 150mph with concrete walls on one side leaving very little margin for error should, in theory, be easy to recreate in a videogame. The immense concentration it takes to keep a vehicle on the circuit over tonnes of laps is harder to do, but EA Tiburon have made more than a decent job of it.

Presentation wise, it's a huge step above all the NASCAR games preceding it. You have the privilege of four-time Sprint Cup and three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon. It uses a similar technology to the type seen in recent Need for Speed games, whereby a real life actor (or in this case, sportsperson, such as Jeff Gordon) is put into the game with an artificial edge. The idea is to make them blend in with the background of the game, where simple cut and pasted characters from film clips would look out of place. He guides you right from the off, in as much or as little detail as you want.

The locations are not too repetitive, but they won't float everyone's boat.

First off, you're introduced to the basics. In '09, you can choose a handling model for your racing. Either Normal or Pro. They make a big difference to your mentality. In Normal mode you don't have to keep one eye on the wall quite so much - racing in the middle of the track is a definite possibility. Pro mode is the opposite, where you have to stay on the racing line and defend it aggressively to come out on top. You get the chance to try them both out, with Jeff's help.

There is a fairly robust vinyl and car-editing system in the game. While the vehicles on offer are limited (there's only one car for each series of events), the ability to design your own paintjob on your PC and upload it to EA to use in game is a fantastic one – let's hope we'll see it in Need for Speed too. There is a massive list of real sponsors to choose from, which you can place on your car. Enhancing your rep in the game will open up more sponsorship deals; they then set you targets which, if you beat them, get you more rep. It's a nice friendly circle.

It takes a bit of time to actually get into the game, and the multitude of modes, options and settings may overwhelm those not familiar to the sport. You can choose from a number of different modes and events to play, including Craftsman Truck, Nationwide or Sprint Cup. There's a Sprint Cup Championship and Chase for the Cup season type, as well as masses of customisation options in terms of season length, composition and design for more general seasons. Everything is racing though of course, and with the driving set-up pretty much the same throughout you'll find something you enjoy even if you're just pushing the confirm button wildly in the dark.

A nice change from the gritty greys of most modern games.

Something that will interest simulation fans is that if you're a Pro you can personally tune many aspects of your car to give you the edge against what would otherwise be exactly the same vehicles in the races. All the usual stuff: tyres, suspension, aero etc., but it's not necessary unless you're intent on playing on the harder setting as the AI simply won't push you hard enough to warrant it.

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