Game Review - by James Allen
Now since the NFL season is over and my beloved Jacksonville Jaguars finished tied for last in the AFC Central, we try and find a substitute until training camps start in July. Not counting hockey (because this is a review about a NASCAR game), the best replacement is NASCAR, and the folks at Papyrus have served up an update of last year's NASCAR Racing 4: NASCAR Racing 2002 Season. Featuring the current drivers, the new tracks, new-fangled track tutorials, and updated graphics, the Papyrus racing series seems to be evolving into the EA credo of releasing a "new" game every season. Will NASCAR Racing 2002 Season prove to be the culmination of many years of work, or just a $50 patch?
It will probably serve you well to read the review of NASCAR Racing 4, as most of what will be discussed in this review will be improvements in relation to last year's game. First off, the most Winston Cup drivers are included (43), with every single major driver in the game except for Jimmy Spencer and Sterling Marlin (does Chip Ganassi have some problem with Papyrus?). So, you don't need to use fake drivers ever again. On top of this, most of the major (and minor) missing drivers have been painted and uploaded to the various fan sites. This time around, if you have a field of more than 43 drivers, the game randomly selects from the worst drivers as to which ones qualify for the race, rather than just truncating the list as in past versions. Also, the two newest additions to the Winston Cup schedule (Kansas and Chicagoland) and a fantasy track are included for your racing enjoyment. For the beginners, a set of driving lessons are integrated, which cover such areas as pitting strategy and tire management. Another new addition is the track tutorials given by Darrell Waltrip: these cover braking points, appropriate speeds, and the driving line for each track in the game. This ties into the superimposed driving lines (which also slow braking and acceleration amounts) on each track while you drive, which is a great supplement. The track tours were made with the new replay editor, in which you can incorporate text, sounds, and other extras to saved replays in the game to share with your friends. You can avoid the AI pitfalls (more on this later) by playing multiplayer, which can support 43 cars on the track and licensed cars are drivable. There's also a ranking system in place, so that you can see how you stack up against people much better than you. Even with all of the new, cool add-ons, it baffles me that a save game feature STILL is not included in NASCAR Racing 2002 Season. After the outcry from NASCAR Racing 4, I have no idea why they didn't include this important feature this year. This may be an indication of how little Papyrus altered with the game itself, rather settling for new drivers and other extras. Makes you think.
The sound seems unchanged from last year's game. The spotter audio is exactly the same, along with very similar crashing effects. The new sounds that I can hear are the tires "rolling over" (I guess that's what it is) when you go in the turns and slightly tweaked engine audio. But other than that, the game audio is the same as NASCAR 4. This isn't a terrible thing, but a few more improvements would be nice.
The gameplay is very well done, except for one crucial area that needs to be fixed. The game is starting to tailor to both advanced and beginner drivers, with the addition of racing lines and track tours. I guess that Papyrus took a hint from NASCAR Heat in some aspects of the game. The default setups have been loosened up, especially the "fast" setup: it seems pretty realistic, as loose is fast (or so Days of Thunder says) and I found out I can't drive that well, so "intermediate" is the land of opportunity for me. The game is definitely made for people with a wheel and pedal set, as most of the tracks require 1/3 braking or ½ throttle, rather than full acceleration and braking as people with joysticks are relegated to. Also, damage is almost realistic, as smacking a wall at high speed usually results in a busted engine. However, I have seen cars flip over many times, and then finish in the top five. Weird. Now, on to the AI. You can scale the speed of the AI as a percentage, but this does nothing to their realistic aggressiveness, so beginners will have to deal with cars going 3-wide around them and diving underneath them all the time as they learn the game. So, the AI generally is very good, except for one particular situation which may discourage gamers from playing the game. During wrecks, the AI is random at best. They will plow full speed into the sides of other cars, not even trying to avoid the wreck; this makes a three car wreck evolve into a 20 car wreck. In addition, I've had cars slam full speed into the back of me as I was accelerating after a wreck, and cars have been known to smash into the pace car. THE PACE CAR for goodness sake! Other than this, the AI is actually good, behaving realistically with minimal crashing (barring the occasional bump with the wall) and good pitting strategy. It's sad that more couldn't have been improved from last year, though.
The graphics are, again, approaching photo-realism. Each of the tracks are rendered in exacting detail, and the cars look very realistic, damage in reasonable ways, and the smoke and dirt have been upgraded (smoke pouring from your car looks very ominous). It seems that the new additions are more textured grass and asphalt/concrete (you can pick out individual grains), but other than that you probably won't notice any more additions from NASCAR 4. But with graphics this good, how could you complain? Well, with these seemingly minor improvements in graphics, the frame rates have slowed down for the same level of detail from NASCAR 4 (on the rate of 10-15 FPS). I have found (at least on my system) that using the unsupported OpenGL drivers speeds up the game greatly, and the game is playable to frame rates of around 15 FPS, so that's good for those of us without top of the line computers. Screenshots sell games, and I guess you have to pay a price for graphics of this high quality.
So, here's the bottom line: if you have NASCAR Racing 4, I don't think that NASCAR Racing 2002 Season has enough improvements in the core gameplay to warrant paying for the new version. If you haven't been introduced to the NASCAR series, you should aim for this game. NASCAR Racing 2002 Season is a great game; it's just not enough of an upgrade over NASCAR 4. If they add saved games and improve the wreck AI, then we might have a debate brewing. So I would wait to see if Papyrus releases any patches before I plunk down my hard earned cash for a $50 stand-alone expansion pack.