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NASCAR 2011: The Game (Xbox 360) artwork

NASCAR 2011: The Game (Xbox 360) review

"There's plenty of good in here for the true fan; a lot of love went into trivia, racers, cars and feel. If you're into NASCAR this is a good buy, but a leftover copy of Forza 3 or Gran Turismo 5 would be a better purchase for the casual fan of realistic racers."

I don't know if this needs to be said or not, but as a man who predominately reviews video games, I've never been a fan of NASCAR or any other racing sport and sim. I get the appeal of racing, but for me it's sort of like the appeal behind shooting terrorists in Iraq or fist-fighting street criminals in a Batman costume -- I feel like it's a thrill best simulated in the virtual realm, where everyday problems like death and pain are replaced by explosions and power-ups.

NASCAR 2011: The Game is pretty far from that. The whole game reminds me of my brief flirtations with Gran Turismo, where nine tenths of the reason the game existed was the pursuit of realism. So let's be completely clear here and acknowledge that this is a game for fans. If you don't set aside time every Sunday to watch the real-life event, it's safe to say you're not the real target of the NASCAR 2011 party, a position where I found myself as I sat down to play and then review it.

I tried my best, though. I spun into the game's career mode and futzed around with all the settings to immerse myself in the experience. What I ultimately discovered is that while NASCAR 2011 isn't a bad racing sim, many of the things it does simply have been done before, and done better.

The feel is completely there; little trivia Q+A games about NASCAR fill the time while the game loads, giving anyone who knows Dale Earnhardt's entire career by memory alone the ability to flex their muscles. The main menu takes place in a garage while pit crews work on the car, futzing with dials while entire crowds walk around the spectacle. Licensed rock music plays while you fiddle with settings and select your racer and car settings--like camber and cold pressure of tires--and the whole affair really does resemble what I saw the few times I've looked into NASCAR (though thankfully, the 300 laps drivers typically must race have here been reduced to anywhere between five and twenty). The graphics are nothing special, which comes as a disappointment considering how samey the tracks look, and yet you’ll find yourself staring at loading screens (strangely devoid of the aforementioned factoids) before any race for most of an agonizing minute.

The meat of the game's driving engine is as realistic as you can expect without leaving you in fear that you’ll break your neck during a high-speed collision. Driving at 170 miles an hour makes it exceptionally hard to make a sharp turn, and usually requires you to slow the hell down before you even get into the bend. There's also a Need for Speed-style draft system where you gain extra speed for staying behind another racer's wind. The first few shots you take at playing this game will likely be riddled with failure, and though I appreciate the difficulty, it gets pretty annoying when you make mistakes.

I get that the appeal of NASCAR is the speed, but when you have so many racers clustered into a tiny group trying to get ahead of one another, it becomes apparent why this sport has so many godforsaken fatalities in it. Every time I'd overtake an opponent and try to slip into line ahead of him, he'd turn into me, and his hood tapping me on the back half at 185MPH in a hyper-realistic game resulted in a twenty-car pileup that dropped me ten places and prompted in-game officials to toss out the caution flag. That meant that everyone had to go back into a neat little line and try to do that lap again while watching the top-down view of the wreck cam.

It certainly doesn't help that the artificial intelligence in this game is legendarily awful. Computer opponents drive to overtake their other AI opponents well enough, but the minute a wrench is thrown into the works it all falls apart. Other racers don't react at all to anything: not wrecks, crashes, drafting or anything else. Overtaking them from the inside brings up the aforementioned fishtail scenario, overtaking them from the outside prompts them to shove you into a wall, and if you've ever wrecked they’ll plow right into you without batting an eyelash. During one spectacular crash my car was left facing another racer and the other driver didn't even flinch, just kept driving straight forward until the wreck cam started replaying my horrible failure.

The more I play this game, the more the immersion-breaking tidbits start to come out one by one. All rival cars drive in a predestined path as if robots are in control behind the wheel. The guy over your headset gives you advice, but it always comes a good ten seconds late and never amounts to much more than “don't hit the wall,” while his voice is so muffled for all I knew it could've been Charlie Brown's teacher. Pit stops are largely unnecessary in the five or so hours that I played, and once I found out that a superior strategy is to floor it and hug the inside wall--something I'm fairly certain nobody in NASCAR ever does--I rarely ever fell behind.

This might be some sort of issue with the Rookie difficulty I was playing at, but the game promised competitive AI that matched the real-world racer style. I was interested to see how that would play out, but for life of me I could never discern one racer from another based on the style of driving. The licensed music is a good idea that could have added to the immersion, but since it only appears in the title screen all I remember of the songs are the brief snippets I heard during the menus ahead of career mode or invitation races. Why not accompany the actual driving with some music? Why not at least include it in the qualifying race? It would have made everything a hell of a lot less monotonous.

The whole experience of NASCAR is faithfully recreated, and the parts of NASCAR 2011 that are simplified for game purposes feel like the only ones the developers can touch in fear of harming one of the sacred NASCAR cows. But still I find myself disappointed – as a non-fan this was the game's opportunity to lure me into the sport, yet I find myself unimpressed. There's plenty of good in here for the true fan; a lot of love went into trivia, racers, cars and feel. If you're into NASCAR this is a good buy, but a leftover copy of Forza 3 or Gran Turismo 5 would be a better purchase for the casual fan of realistic racers.


TheMirai's avatar
Freelance review by Julian Williams (April 19, 2011)

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CoarseDragon posted April 21, 2011:

Good review. It is always nice to know how well a racing game does in the handling department and I think you nailed that. As a non-fan myself I will not pick this one up. I would not know any of that trivia anyway.

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