Game Review - by James Allen
I've played every iteration of NASCAR Racing made by Papyrus. I've seen the series go from the good old days of DOS, continually adding more features and improvements. It comes as no surprise that NASCAR Racing 4 is one of the most anticipated titles for amateur stock car drivers everywhere. Now that serious competition, in the form of NASCAR Heat, has entered the track, Papyrus and Sierra cannot just rely on their laurels. Will NASCAR Racing 4 enter victory circle, or spin uncontrollably to a 40th place finish?
NASCAR Racing 4 simulates the Winston Cup series. Past versions have included both the Busch Series and trucks, but NASCAR 4 (at least until the expansion pack comes out, and you know it will) only concerns itself with the best series around. Finally, we have a NASCAR simulation that includes all the tracks the big boys race on, at least from the 2000 season. The newest tracks for this season have not been included, since they weren't completed or finalized by the time of release. However, 33 drivers from the 2001 season are found, with their new sponsors and everything. This is an impressive number of drivers, especially with all the licensing that must be done. There are not many popular drivers left out, except for the most popular driver in Winston Cup ("He's popular"). You can't ask for more coverage of the Winston Cup series. You can also select more than 43 cars to be in a list. However, rather than having 50 cars qualify for each race (and some not make the field) like in REAL Winston Cup, the game truncates the list at the 43rd entrant. What's the point of having a list over 43 drivers if it isn't used fully? The world may never know.
You can drive in Testing Sessions, Single Races, Championship Seasons, and Multiplayer. Each race can be customized thoroughly, including opponent strength, race length, damage level, pace laps and yellow flags, and weather. Multiplayer games can be joined over the Internet through a hosting service, or between "normal" computers. Racing in multiplayer is identical to the single races, except you are competing against human adversaries. NASCAR Racing 4 accurately simulates all the bells and whistles surrounding Winston Cup racing.
The sound is the same as the last few editions of NASCAR Racing. The engines sound realistic, and your spotter notes certain trouble spots around the track. However, I have heard that I am apparently three-wide, when only one other car is outside of me. Better to be safe than sorry, I guess. The crunching of sheet metal has been toned down to a more realistic level, at least from what I can gather from in-car cameras on TV. The wrecks sound less dramatic, but are seemingly more like real life. The sound in NASCAR 4 is excellent, but hasn't really been improved upon.
NASCAR Racing 4 uses a modified GPL (Grand Prix Legends) engine, which renders our NASCAR environment in three dimensions. This makes flipping possible, and models each of the four tires separately, although I haven't seen much difference from other versions of the game. It is, however, the most realistic, and thus difficult, simulation of stock car racing around. You can choose between arcade and simulation mode. Arcade mode slows the cars down, makes setups all the same, and relaxes on some of the rules of NASCAR. If you choose simulation mode, it's up to you to alter and change your set-ups, and everything that a Winston Cup team can mess with, you can too! There isn't a quick fix to every problem with your car, and it can be a long process to find that setup that's right for you. The rules from Winston Cup are all included, including pit road speed limit, proper merging, black flags, and even the lollipop guy at the end of pit road. Very nice.
You can gather much information in car. All of the changes that can be made in a real NASCAR pit stop can be altered while driving in circles. You can change tire pressure changes, wedge, track bar, grille tape, and even fix damage (to an extent). Another nice feature is that, if the pace car is rounding Turn 4, you can stop fixing your car and stay on the lead lap. This makes driving in NASCAR 4 that much more realistic.
Now, the AI. It seems a step backward has been made in the artificial intelligence in NASCAR 4. The main problem with the AI is that they do not react very well. In other games, if you are in the inside of a computer car, they will move up the racetrack to avoid a collision. No such worry in NASCAR 4! Passing is an adventure, and cars will routinely cut you off and spin in the process. I conducted an experiment, holding the same line during the beginning of the race. In 12 out of 13 races, the computer drivers came down and wrecked me. The poor AI is even more prevalent in practices. Whenever a wreck occurs (usually by two cars exiting the pits), the AI cars ignore the situation. I cannot tell you how many times I've hit by opponent cars after slowing for a wreck or even when taking a yellow flag. I conducted another experiment, parking my car in the middle of the racetrack. The other cars could pass me safely on either side. Not more than 10 seconds later, I was hit at full speed broadside, flipped, and collected 10 more cars that didn't slow down one iota. This is very typical of the AI in danger situations. The fact that the computer-controlled cars don't adjust their driving to the world around them makes NASCAR Racing 4 maddening.
The graphics in NASCAR Racing 4 are very good. The level of detail found in the tracks and cars is astounding. You feel immersed by the environment, especially with the 3-D cockpit rendering. Your viewpoint bobs and sways during a race, giving the feeling that you are actually driving a car, rather than playing a computer game. One aspect I found especially enjoyable is the roughness of the tracks surfaces. All too many times have the tracks been excessively smooth in NASCAR games, and you felt as though you were floating above the track. Driving at high speeds over none too even tracks is exquisitely represented in NASCAR Racing 4.
The damage modeling is especially worth noting. Using vertex damage (a feature implemented but never working in NASCAR Heat), the dents and dings you collect during a wreck is very realistic. Nothing like using a bent roof to show to your friends how the wreck wasn't your fault. Translucent smoke, dirt, and car parts fly off vehicles during a wreck, and seeing this action in the distance fills your world with dread. All of the tracks are also authentically rendered, and if you've ever been to a NASCAR facility, you can recognize every nook and cranny. The graphics, by far the best aspect of NASCAR Racing 4, really deliver an unreal driving experience.
NASCAR Racing 4 is a great stock car simulation. Wonderful graphics (at a price), solid sounds, and fine features. If it weren't for the problematic AI, we would be at the pinnacle of stock car gaming evolution. As it stands, NASCAR Racing 4 is a great attempt, but its shortcomings make it difficult and infuriating to play.