NASCAR Racing: 2003 Season Review
By Steven Conover |
When I read that the racing gurus at Papyrus would no longer be making NASCAR sims, the first thing I did was dig for corroborating evidence. I just could not believe they would abandon their cash cow. Unfortunately for them, either EA outbid them, or for some other financial reason Papyrus couldn't continue the way they were, and thus we are faced with the reality that NASCAR Racing 2003 is their last such title. So they "pulled out the stops" as designer Rich Yasi put it, to give us the best possible experience, and set the bar as high as possible for EA.
If I had to bet, I'd say most readers of this review have likely purchased an earlier version of this series, and are wondering just why you should buy it AGAIN. For those of you who have not purchased one of these titles, or are perhaps played a different NASCAR game and crave a deeper, more involving experience, you've come to the right place.
This title has always been first and foremost about trying to produce the most realistic simulation of stock car racing ever. Its success in this regard has drawn praise from NASCAR drivers themselves, but more significantly, these guys don't just drive the car for promotional dollars, but because they feel it's realistic enough to actually help them stay sharp for the real thing. That's high praise indeed.
Because this game is primarily about the physics model, that's where I'll start. The 2003 takes the Papyrus physics model to a whole new level of accuracy, and for the first time in this series, I felt like I truly had to focus on just driving the car, not just worrying about racing the competition. While I did the obligatory quickie race at Daytona, things really got interesting when I took the car to Atlanta, where lifting off the throttle for turns is required. The first indication of the newly enhanced physics model is how much the car pulls to the left down the straights, because of the way the car is set up to turn left more easily. I had to steer to the right to go straight, so much so with the included setups that I actually exited the game to recalibrate my controller. I just couldn't believe that for the first time I couldn't more or less relax my hold on the force feedback wheel down the straights. This will vary from track to track and from setup to setup. For example the "easy" setup at Daytona hardly pulls left at all. On the "fast" setup the left pull was so severe that I was STILL turning the wheel slightly to the right in the middle of the corners! Regardless, it is a welcome sign to see that the cars seem to behave accurately here.
So, what about the graphics? Papyrus has never really had people gushing over its NASCAR graphics. Other titles have been flashier. This year Papyrus has made several improvements. When I max out everything on my GeForce 4 the graphics look very nice, indeed. The lighting model has been improved everywhere, so you can see reflections on cars and trackside objects, such as shiny mirrored buildings around the grandstands. I also really loved the way the overhead track stadium lights would rhythmically brighten my metallic in-car dash. Realistic shaded skid marks appear where cars lose grip and stay on the track. The whole thing is just eerily real.
The cars also bounce and bob more realistically along the uneven parts of the track, although there is a bit of glitchiness with shadows in that when the car squats low, sometimes it seems to dive into its own shadow and that looks a little funny. If you have a GeForce 4 you can set the texture filtering quality to extreme, otherwise, the car textures look a little 'fuzzy', and that seems to make a big difference in image quality. I was all ready to knock the game for this until I discovered this setting. It didn't seem to hit the frame rate much, if at all, on the GeForce I have.
But all the glitz in the world matters little if the frame rate is choppy. With everything on in a 30 car field even sitting still waiting to come around for the pace lap, my frame rate dips into the mid-teens, and that's on a Pentium 1.7Ghz with the GeForce4 4400Ti. So those of you with faster Pentiums or better GeForces should be able to turn nearly everything on and enjoy the amazing graphics. For the rest of us, turning a few of the more expensive things off will give a compromise which still looks pretty darned good even with a full field. One other important note is that Papyrus sims tend not to be "one year and out" products. Because they went so far at the high end, this game will look even better as you upgrade your computer, so it was good that the Papyrus people aimed high.