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Game Over Online ~ NASCAR Racing 2002 Season

GameOver Game Reviews - NASCAR Racing 2002 Season (c) Sierra Entertainment, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher NASCAR Racing 2002 Season (c) Sierra Entertainment
System Requirements Windows, Pentium-II 450, 64MB RAM, 3D Accelerator, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 86%
Date Published Monday, April 15th, 2002 at 03:33 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

A little over a decade ago, Sierra was one of the de facto publishers and developers in the PC space. As their bread and butter -- the adventure game -- slowly dwindled and receded to nothing, Sierra was hard pressed to find new titles. However, like Sega or Nintendo, Sierra managed to acquire a host of expert 'first-party' developers. The city-building group at Impressions is one such example. The people responsible for Tribes in the former Dynamix are another. Papyrus, therefore, represented quite a tangent for Sierra. I remember fondly when Papyrus released their IndyCar Racing II in 1996. It was the first time I bought a steering wheel, and judging between this title and Need for Speed SE, I saw the whole racing genre bifurcate irrevocably thereafter. Shortly thereafter, Papyrus turned to the more potent NASCAR franchise and their releases have been heralded, one after another, as critical successes. And like the golfing franchise, Links, there appears to be no slowing down of the incumbent leader anytime soon.

Gamers used to the style of Need for Speed, Gran Turismo or the recent Project Gotham Racing, will undoubtedly be fazed by NASCAR Racing 2002 Season (NASCAR 2002). Frankly, put, NASCAR 2002 is not for all racing fans out there. Putting the entire engine in a full tilt towards simulation will make any novice frustrated before the first lap even ends -- that is, if they even get to the end of the first lap. Luckily, while you can put the engine into simulation mode, Papyrus has also provided a plethora of options to turn the game into little more than an arcade racer with a NASCAR motif. Players are helped with controller amenities like automatic clutching, traction control and all the comforts of a modern car. On the other hand, toggling the race from simulation to arcade lets most players pull fast turns around the track with ease, whereas in a more faithful setting, braking too fast or turning too much will undoubtedly cause your vehicle to spin out, thereby eliminating any potent chance at a top tier finish in the race.

Papyrus secured all the NASCAR licenses. The tracks that you see on television are also accessible in the game. Similarly, all the competing drivers are also available and in fact, Papyrus lets you manage the pool of AI players, albeit through very awkward attribute sliders. AI is often tricky in racing games since too many idiosyncratic movements will make an AI prone to being taken advantage of by a player. Conversely, should the AI play out a race too aggressively or flawlessly, it becomes unrealistic and one fatal move on the human player's part will effectively end the race. NASCAR 2002 is somewhat in the middle between these two poles. There are times when the AI appears to have a propensity to crash into other cars (including you) while on the other extreme, the starting formation you began the race more or less remains intact half a race later.

The developers have clearly worked this game towards the lay racing crowd. There is a substantial Driving Lessons tutorial in the game, instructing you on the finer elements of NASCAR rules, as well as how to listen and respond to your spotter and in general, manage to come out of a race without a DQ. Elements like eliminating crash damage is a concession to those who only know NASCAR through Days of Thunder, but it presents a double-edged sword in multiplayer games where, more often than not, irate players will simply crash into anything or anyone to prevent the race from carrying on. But those instances are eliminated if you find a good crew to race with and the staggering 40+ multiplayer field is something that other racing games simply cannot provide. NASCAR 2002 includes free play over Sierra's multiplayer service (the former WON) and veterans from NASCAR 4 will undoubtedly be there to school you on how to be beaten. Still, racing more than one hundred laps is something that can only be recommended to the insane or absolute purist. And by default, the single player portions are reduced to sixteen laps for brevity sake. But at least this isn't as demanding as a 'realistic' 24-hour Le Mans race, although you still have to be prepared to devote some time into appreciating the NASCAR 2002 engine.

Technically, the game is absolutely malleable to a wide variety of platforms but like the steep learning curve, glamorous graphics will demand steep system requirements. The initial setup process for this game is rather strange as it dumps the user into a white text on black screen console for a few minutes in determining the capabilities of your video display. Such things seem amateurish but the options you are allowed to tweak within the game afterwards are anything but amateur. Much of the slowdowns come from having a full field of cars, especially when they are simultaneously displayed, so it can be conjectured that significant detail went into the vehicles themselves. Otherwise, you can more often than not tweak the detail level down to nothing but the bare roads and the lesser detail quality definitely helps in large multiplayer matches. I found the presence of ample amounts of memory (~512mb RAM) and use of a fairly modern video card (GeForce3 and up) will remove most of the performance bottlenecks. After all, NASCAR 2002, to NASCAR PC veterans, is merely a dress-up of NASCAR 4. One noted improvement is the ability to instantly restart a race or qualifying run. When the 3D revolution hit the PC last decade, I was almost certain this was a trump for PC-based 3D products, since technically speaking, would a reset of the level you are playing merely be placing all the playing pieces in original order again? Papyrus does not disappoint and this should definitely help novices as in the beginning, you'll be hard-pressed just to finish the qualifier.

The aural component of this title is simply one of the best in a racing game, par excellence. Most racing titles merely give you the initial growl of an engine and then follows it up with a higher pitched whine. In NASCAR 2002, you get to hear all that and everything in between. The whole spectrum is even more realistic when pared up with a full field of opponents. Though it turns out to be cacophonous at times, the clarity of the samples in this game is unrivalled.

Simulations tend to have the best support for specialized hardware controllers. NASCAR 2002 is no different in this aspect. Because it's so easy to spin out at top speed turns in NASCAR, the control interface is paramount to a racer's enjoyment of the game. Papyrus does not disappoint and in fact, there are features to aid those playing on a keyboard but I wholeheartedly recommend a half decent steering rig with pedals to truly appreciate the visual and audio immersion this title provides.

Unlike arcade racing titles, NASCAR 2002 begins the game with all the tracks available for playing as well as all the cars. You can modify your own persona or any one of the opponents, should you find that ever desirable. Cars do not need to be unlocked either; you get a selection of all the cars, including the ones your opponents drive, right from the start. There is no instant race per se, but there is an option for a quick race nested beneath the track selection menu. NASCAR 2002 even features some documentary options where you get the narrated history and highlights of a particular setting.

Overall, NASCAR 2002 proves that Papyrus is one of the progenies of the racing simulation genre. Its depth and attention to detail simply is unrivalled compared to what arcade racers considered 'realistic' beforehand. In last year's movie, Driven, I thought the presence of attractive women at racing venues was merely something derived by the moviemakers to make their product less male-oriented. But recently, a female acquaintance of mine revealed that she was in fact an adamant NASCAR fan. So I'm sure NASCAR 2002 will appeal to those who are infatuated with the tactics and craft of the sport. Be forewarned: novices will have to put in some amount of time to actually appreciate this product. Driving in arcade mode is fine for beginners but I don't think it even begins to do the game justice. Investment in decent computer hardware as well as a respectable set of steering controls is wholly recommended. Combine this with a broadband connection for any serious online gameplay and you have a very highly specialized, almost elitist, niche audience.

Like Sega's reliance on Sonic Team, or Nintendo's reliance on subsidiaries like Rare, Sierra's Papyrus consistently releases premier racing simulation titles. NASCAR 2002 is no exception but then again, it's not exactly an expansion pack to NASCAR 4. It is undeniably the most realistic NASCAR simulation out on the market today. If you want NASCAR, don't go looking elsewhere. However, as gaming is moving more into the mainstream, pure simulators are gradually dying off. It was not too long ago that the market was able to cope with more than a dozen airplane simulators. Nowadays, you're lucky to get that many released in a year. At one point in time, Sierra aspired to convert their adventure-less development vacuum to a comprehensive sports line, infamously or famously known as Front Page Sports. These days, Sierra has all but given up on the mainstream sports and the division, now known as Sierra Sports, manages to eke out a few titles on fishing, hunting and NASCAR 2002. In that context, NASCAR 2002 appears almost out of place and orphaned. But it's my earnest hope that the next release will upgrade the core of NASCAR for 2003 (NASCAR 5?) or perhaps Papyrus can devote their efforts back to formula racing. Either way, I'm sure simulation fans will be immensely gratified someone is still carrying their torch, raising the bar year after year and literally redefining the term realism for those who thought Grand Turismo or Grand Theft Auto was anything near realistic.


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