NASCAR Racing 4 Review
By Steven Conover |
Before I dive into this review, I have to say that it was a very hard review to write and finish. See, in NASCAR 4, there's still a certain black #3 Chevy to contend with, and memories of Daytona and the huge loss of Dale Earnhardt fill my mind, and sometimes I just want to turn the computer off and go stare out a window for awhile. Writer after writer has attempted to put into words just what it means for the sport and for the fans to have lost someone of his stature, a living legend. I will not attempt to compete with these writers. You probably all can guess that I share a similar sense of loss and wish he were with us today, racing for that eighth NASCAR title. I do, however, find it strangely comforting that, while doing my last full race before writing the review, Dale's AI counterpart flew by me (and I gave him a lot of room), and after the 79 lap Rockingham race, it was Dale Earnhardt who won it (see screenshots). And so, as I start to write this review, that's my last impression of NASCAR 4 for tonight: Dale Earnhardt taking the checkered flag and being touted in the newspaper as "showing his muscle". So, this review is for you, Dale....
Okay, deep breath. NASCAR 4 has finally been released. It's been the release that has been waited for even while Papyrus was preparing NASCAR 3 and NASCAR Legends. Everyone wanted that Grand Prix Legends put into a more current auto racing simulation, and although I would have preferred that the sim be a CART sim, Papyrus is listening to the money and NASCAR is the money.
But the difference was while Papyrus brought NASCAR up to date, Hasbro and Monster Games released NASCAR Heat, and many NASCAR fans found that it was a very nice NASCAR sim and kept them busy. Whether Hasbro had any shot at really dethroning the legend of Papyrus' NASCAR legacy is a topic for debate, but it must be said that whether you deem NASCAR Heat to have a comparable physics engine or not, they innovated on several fronts whereas Papyrus has seemed content to incrementally fill in the details for each version.
NASCAR 4 is not much different than NASCAR 3, or NASCAR 2 for that matter, at least in terms of new modes of play or other innovations. What NASCAR 4 is -- in a nutshell -- is perhaps the completion of the vision of the previous versions. There are so many rules and regulations in NASCAR that no simulation has done an even halfway competent job of implementing them all. For instance, there are the various penalties which differ based upon the condition at the time of the infraction, the number of laps under yellow, the double file restarts and so on. Also, Papyrus polished off their multiplayer engine, allowing a server with enough bandwidth to run full 43 car grids at any NASCAR track, and of course this now includes the long coveted Daytona. And finally, the physics engine is now close to being the beast that was the GPL physics engine.
I've heard people swear that the NASCAR 4 graphics just destroy NASCAR Heat's. I have mixed feelings about this because I think there are areas where each beats the other, and it would be a long and boring review if I tried to quantify each and every one. However, the two are both incredibly good. Papyrus has put a lot of work into the fine details. The pavement cracks are clearly visible, there are pockmarks and black streaks on the walls, the lights overhead actually reflect off your gauges as you drive by, and some environmental mapping has been added to the cars, which are more detailed than ever.
Damage modeling is solid, as you will see from the screenshots of my Rockingham race where I slowly but surely turned my car into scrap metal. There isn't much in the way of debris, though.
The cockpit view is fully 3D. I know this if for no other reason than that I tried the game with Elsa's 3D Revelator glasses and lo and behold found myself staring into my monitor at a full three dimensional view of my car's interior and the track outside. I would have kept racing this way except the frame rate hit on those drivers is still too high and my eyes get kind of tired after using the glasses for an extended period of time.
One downside (or upside, depending upon your point of view), is that your interior view is incredibly claustrophobic. You just can't see as well as you'd like out the front window and so I'm sure some people will opt for the eminently usable roof camera which is quite entertaining to drive from, even if it's not realistic. There are also chase cameras and bumper cameras for those who like those views.
Special effects have been enhanced for this version. Anyone following the development of this title knows about the huge flumes of blinding smoke, but perhaps doesn't realize that the smoke often hangs in the air for quite awhile, depending upon wind conditions. The same is true for skid marks. If you do donuts down the front straight, be prepared to look at those skid marks all day long. When part of your car bottoms out, sparks will fly, as they will if you scrape along the wall. If you lock up one or more tires, the appropriate tires will spew out thick tire smoke. Also, if your car gets backwards, the roof flaps deploy and as you turn around they will fall into place again.
Papyrus has finally added a motion captured pit crew, which goes through every motion of jacking up your car, changing your tires, and adding gas. You don't get to see repair work, but you hear the frantic hammering in nice 3D stereo sound. A NASCAR official will be monitoring you there. Also he's at the end of pit row with a sign letting you know that you can leave the pits.
The sky graphics are also worth mentioning. Daytona at night is particularly beautiful as one direction is darker and the other is a nice twilight view with fluffy clouds. The effect is all too realistic.
While I could dredge up some complaints about the graphics if I try, I really have to try. The frame rate is just fine on my computer, which is a P750 with a GeForce 2 GTS. I imagine there may be some complaints with people who have lower spec machines and I believe that at any given level NASCAR Heat will run faster, but you have the same options you always had to turn graphics up and down, as well as change resolutions. By the way, NASCAR 4 is a Direct3D game, complete with TnL support.
At this point, I think about the only way the graphics could get better is if they started modeling each and every fan in the stands, and perhaps getting gestures from other drivers when things don't go right out on the track!
Papyrus has substantially beefed up the sound, both in terms of the engine noises, shifting noises and other sound effects, as well as the various lines the spotter and crew chief have. Pit stop errors have been added, and you may be told a lugnut is stuck. After one lengthy stop, my crew chief was quite apologetic, but cheering me up by telling me we'd get it back on the track (easy for him to say!). The spotter is still letting you know when cars are high or low. I always love that three wide mention: "stay low you're three wide!!" I can't stop my hands from tightly gripping the wheel and praying that no one budges from their lane.
Penalties are also firmly enforced, and man is NASCAR a stickler for rules in this game. I've been black flagged for not entering the pits safely, merging onto the track before the crew chief tells me I've reached the 'blend line', exceeding the pit lane speed limit, passing a car before green, and probably a bunch of others I've forgotten. And that deal about not entering the pits safely, geez, I was down to the speed limit well before entering the pits, but maybe they felt I got down onto the apron too late. Who knows? In some cases it was a stop and go, and other cases I was sent to the back of the longest line, and in another case I was told "They're gonna keep us here awhile" after I finished my pit service. At least I haven't been dumb enough to enter a closed pit (yet)!
You're also informed of damage and if you really mess up your car, you might get "take it easy, this is gonna take awhile". There are also encouraging messages on the track, but basically it feels more and more like you have a team around you.
The engine sounds and tire squeal sounds are what I expected. They didn't blow me away with how good they are, but then neither do the sounds on TV. You have to be AT a race to really appreciate the engine sounds (and they still can't compare to the sound of a turbo charged CART engine -- sorry, had to throw that in, too).
The basic interface structures of Papyrus' racing sims haven't changed in years. If you've owned anything back to NASCAR 2 you'll feel very comfortable here. I put in the main screen so you could see just how obvious the game modes and options are. The complexities are in the various screens, such as the race or car setup screens, or the multiplayer screens. Papyrus excels in controller support, and you shouldn't have any problem whatsoever calibrating and assigning any axis to gas, brake and steering, even with multiple input devices plugged in. Force Feedback is supported.
In some cases, tabs have been added to separate things and clean up the appearance of the screen. So the track map and information is on one tab, while the entry list for the race is on another tab and the current session standings are on yet another tab.
The setup sheet is no longer just one page but is now divided up into logical sections, such as suspension, aerodynamics, and weight setup. Everything I can think of you can change is now incorporated in the game, including caster, track bar, grille tape, and so on, in addition to all the other setup options we've had. I'm told that they are very accurate to the real cars so drivers could put in real setups and they would be modeled well in the behavior of the car. I can't confirm this, because it was second hand, but it wouldn't surprise me at all considering Papyrus' NASCAR connections and fanatic devotion to physics accuracy. Also you can write setup notes and track notes about your setup. The game comes with an easy (don't bother), intermediate (a little pushy), and fast (often way loose) setup, as well as a qualifying setup for each track, so you can get started right away.
You also have the good ole AI slider to set at some percentage to match your ability to those of the AI cars. I wish Papyrus would rub brain cells together and innovate here. I'm very tired of spending nearly an hour practicing and tweaking the AI percentage to match my abilities, since this can only really be done with trial and error. I'd much rather have the ability to do a set of 10 laps or so and have the computer set the AI based upon my best/worst/standard deviation data. It would save me warming up anyhow. But no, Papyrus still wants me to waste precious time figuring out just where a competitive level will be, and this continues to annoy me and keep me from spending more time in their game.
Multiplayer screens are more elaborate than ever, as Papyrus has integrated multiplayer with both direct connects & LAN play to the Sierra.com racing servers. You can now host any race you want or set up a dedicated server and everyone else logging into the Sierra.com server will see it. You can specify maximum latencies to keep out slower connections, required driver ratings (a system which takes time to really take hold), set passwords for races, set the conditions at each track, and even decide whether or not to force everyone on the client side to drive from inside the cockpit and have smoke on. If you choose a custom setup and then check "Fixed Setup" then everyone gets a copy of that setup (which they can view and save). This is excellent for league administrators who might want to run IROC-style races but develop a solid and popular setup for the race. No files need to be sent in advance of the race. (It's a pity the same cannot be said of custom paint jobs for cars).
That dovetails to the fact that you can still use the paintshop to create cars and I'm sure Internet people are already cranking out real and fantasy cars and importing images onto the car maps.
Aside from the occasional quirk, the interface does everything it's supposed to, and I can't see anyone seriously dismissing this product based upon poor interface design. It's solid and very usable here.
Papyrus promised us a better physics engine and they've put in an excellent one here, derived from the GPL physics engine, perhaps the most complex and complete physics engine written outside a major automotive engineering lab (or who knows, we gamers may be killing 'em there, too!). The aero package is a major addition to the Legends engine, and it is very solid. Based upon single and multiplayer drafting, I was very satisfied with the size of the draft and the resulting effects on gameplay. At Daytona it was interesting to lead two other cars and notice how I could get away from them when they were dicing side by side, but when they finally used their brains and lined up how quickly they began to close on me.
For the fun of it, a friend and I logged onto the crash-fest amateur races known as Sierra.com with our phone headsets on and our DSL lines humming. We entered a Daytona race and proceeded to sandbag at the start and let our victims get away. We then lined up together and began hunting them down as a two-car pack, knowing that the people online hate working together. Consequently, they are roadkill for anyone who knows how to use the draft. (Why does everyone think taking the lead by turn 1 is the best thing in the world??). Anyway, we had one guy left to get and he DID know how to use the draft. What he didn't know was that my partner and I were in touch and coordinating our activities. My partner passed him on the inside, splitting us up. But instead of letting his car drift up to the wall (as our victim expected), I asked him to stay low. By doing so, he deprived our friend of any draft and gave me a nice tow past him on the inside. Coincidentally, his camshaft then blew up (yes, this is in my screenshots). Had my partner taken a 'normal' line and let the car drift out to the wall, then our opponent would have had a nice tow and I'd have had to also go high and get in line. This is exactly how it works in real life, except for the telephone conspiracy that is!
Some boundary conditions exist. If you scrape the wall you can actually ride along it without losing too much speed. Getting off of it, however, can put you into traffic in a hurry, and not at a nice angle. We've gone from Papyrus sims which seemed to have wall glue to something closer to Grand Prix Legends, where you can ride the wall, even with full damage on. Eventually you start to get some damage, but the game is a bit too forgiving now.
If you put a wheel beneath the white line so you're half way on the banking and halfway on the flatter apron, the results are dependent upon many factors, including speed, bank angle difference, setup, etc. I've sometimes just driven back onto the banking with just a bit of speed loss and a little steering correction, and other times I've been sent up into the wall sideways, smoke flying everywhere.
In this manner, Papyrus is a little less predictable than the 'hardcore' setting of NASCAR Heat, which likes to send you to the wall the instant you cross that line.
After several races against the AI, including races with full rules and damage, I have to say the AI needs some work before the game can truly be complete. In fact, the AI is bad enough that for now NASCAR Heat gets the edge in this department in spite of the flaws of the latter and its incomplete rules implementation. In the 79-lap race at Rockingham, I was involved in every yellow flag that came out, but I analyzed the replay afterwards to see who was to blame in each case. I found that some incidents were my own doing, such as coming up high off the corner and tapping the wall, sending me back down into a car and crashing us both (I did this a couple of times before showing the wall some more respect). In a couple of other cases I dipped a wheel below the white line trying desperately to stay below the car above me and the resulting control loss put me up into the car I was trying to respect!
But then the AI had its moments, too. The most common problem I saw was that an AI car doesn't know how to deal with you when you are above him in a turn. I had several cars move up into me when I was fully alongside them on the high side, with no place to go. In real life, a spotter would be telling them I was there and they would hold their car low to avoid an incident, but instead, I got 'walled' several times by the AI. On the Super Speedways, there are also pit accidents and various other miscues amongst the AI cars. I don't know how much further the product has to go with the AI, but when it gets done, this will be the most complete NASCAR product ever created, and a must-have for anyone who likes the sport. Until it is fixed, it is best to work on hot laps, find friends you can trust on the Internet, and set up some private or league races there. I'm sure sites are already going up on the 'net where a premium is placed on clean driving. And I have confidence that Papyrus will not let the flaws in their slightly rushed masterpiece go without being fixed.
By the way, another cool measure of the physics engine is that if you slam on your brakes while watching the F5 tire status screen, you can watch your tires go from green to yellow to red to gone, all in just several seconds of full lockup. Hey they weren't made to tolerate that kind of behavior! Word to the wise: Take care of your tires and they'll take care of you!
In summary I'd have to say that true NASCAR fans probably should own both Heat and NASCAR 4. They both offer a great experience. I do think that beginners who want to race with the AI and enjoy a good NASCAR game while learning how to get better will enjoy Heat more. There's just no real learning curve in NASCAR 4, and the AI isn't going to be kind, either. The Beat the Heat and Race the Pro modes kick Heat over the top for people wanting to fire it up and race. But if you want the most detailed, most accurate simulation of NASCAR racing and even multiplayer up to 43 drivers, NASCAR 4 is the only obvious choice and the game deserves to be a best seller, but only if they patch the AI!
-- Randy Magruder
Want to share your opinions with the world?
Talk about it on the IGNPC message boards, or
send some mail to IGNPC about this story.