I’ve never really understood NASCAR. From a non-supporters point of view there’s a bunch of over 40 cars driving round a banked oval for hundreds of laps, with a crazy scramble at the end which makes the previous two hours seem more or less pointless. Between all this you have the odd moment when a few cars have a little pileup, everyone dives into the pits for new tyres and the whole saga begins again. NASCAR 14 gave me the chance to see it all from another angle though, a chance to find out how it felt to be in the middle of it all.
From moment one the racing seemed pretty simple. I dived into a career mode, played around with my car’s customisation a bit and skipped ahead to the first qualifying section. I got clues as to when I should brake and advice from the pit wall; a few moments later and I was on top of the leaderboards with the fastest time, ready to start the race in P1. As the race started I tried to defend my position, edging slowly across the track to force the car behind to back off. But the car behind didn’t back off, and as the front of his bonnet caught the rear of my car it all went wrong. The tiniest of touches and I was facing the wrong way on the infield grass, with cars streaming past me without bothering to check I was ok. With the red mist descending I restarted the race, determined to avoid the same incident. The car radar on the screen showed me a car on my inside, so I moved gently towards the wall, keen to avoid the same issue happening again. This time a totally different car tagged me and sent me into the wall, through the oncoming swarm of cars and into the middle again. Bugger.
And so it went on, until it finally twigged that this wasn’t a “normal” racing game I was playing. Cars weren’t driving in a single line, or only dropping off the quickest route to overtake. A swarm of cars was entirely the right phrase to use, it was like wasps buzzing around you constantly, waiting for a moment to pounce and screw everything up for you. A different approach would be needed.
And that’s what makes NASCAR 14 such an intriguing racer. You can’t employ the same racing style you use in every other racing game, you can’t race your way to the front and assume some clever racing lines will keep you there, you can’t sway gently side to side down a straight and expect to keep going without incident. Other drivers are aggressive, keen to win and will use all manner of tactics to get past. Sometimes this drifts into the territory of outright violence, giving you some thumps from behind that give you no chance of staying on course. Without watching loads of NASCAR and finding out if this is authentic tactics not not I wouldn’t want to say it’s horribly unrealistic, but it can be a huge pain in the arse at times.
The actual career mode is pretty extensive though. As well as numerous circuits which have key differences to each other you can research and upgrade your car with improved suspension, engines and so on. It’s not an overly deep research tree, but with very little instruction on what to do that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are also huge numbers of ways to tart up your car with paint jobs and sponsors, and a multi-layer design process allows some impressive looking results. It’s a long and deep game mode which will keep NASCAR fans happy with its huge breadth of official content, as well as giving new players a chance to see all of the tracks and have a good stab at fighting their way up from obscurity to become a champion. A difficulty setting which goes up in increments of 5% helps with this, allowing everyone to pitch the difficulty to suit their own experience. The presentation throughout is impressive too, with TV style replays and some fantastic looking car models only being ruined by an inconsistent damage model, but overall everything is very polished and makes it clear that a next gen version will look pretty special indeed.
There’s also a pretty cool online option too, allowing you to set up online leagues with your friends and race against them to come out on top. But there’s a problem with this… we’re based in the UK. This place isn’t famed for its love of NASCAR, so if you find one other person on your friends list who owns the game you’re doing well. You could jump online and try some of the open lobbies but they seemed a little player-starved when we tried. Maybe the time difference between here and the US didn’t help with that either; I suspect if I’d tried at 3am I might’ve managed to get a few races in.
So for most people in this country NASCAR 14 will give them a chance to get to know the sport a little more, but it’ll be a slightly lonely experience. The career mode will keep you busy though, and the other option which lets you drop into set scenarios from previously held races gives some interesting challenges which will both excite and frustrate in equal measure. But that seems to be just how NASCAR is: unforgiving, brutal and occasionally unfair. Not everyone will find the racing all that interesting – you’re essentially surviving around an oval as opposed to lining up stunning overtaking moves – but there’s a definite charm and uniqueness to the racing which some people will be drawn to very easily. And let’s not forget fans of NASCAR; these are the folk who will devour everything here and still come back for more.
NASCAR 14 is a good, solid racer. But just how enjoyable it is will depend entirely on what you’re looking for.
Reviewed on PS3