Some games can be many things to many people. Quite often, a videogame will reach out, surpass all limitations and speak to a great number of people far beyond what may have initially been considered its target audience. In that case, let's get one thing out of the way straight off the bat. NASCAR 09 is not that game. This is unequivocally a game designed for NASCAR fans, by NASCAR fans. It's a game reared on the smell of petrol, or rather, gas, and it proudly acknowledges it. That's not to say you won't get any enjoyment out of it if you don't like NASCAR, as it's not completely diffident to the non-converted. However, and though it seems obvious, it is worthwhile noting it is inescapably about a very particular type of racing.
This somewhat obvious preamble is necessary, because in reviewing this game, we face a problem of sorts. NASCAR is perhaps a uniquely American phenomenon, or, at least, not an Australian one. And it's probably fair to say that this game was made by those sharing a common dislike for right turns, while most petrolhead Australians will fancy turns in both directions, if you get our meaning. Our own personal challenge, then, is to review, from our Australian perspective, a profoundly American game for an Australian audience. Not so difficult, you say. And fair enough, too. Then again, how do you imagine one of our stateside brethren would fare reviewing an AFL title?
Sports games are known for incremental increases to keep players interested year after year, and the NASCAR series is no different. Last year, NASCAR 08 was the first next-gen NASCAR title, and like many inaugural franchise games on a new system, it suffered a bit of a feature drop. Fans of the series will then be pleased to hear that NASCAR 09 represents a return to prior glories, and includes some interesting new features of its own.
Prime among them is that Jeff Gordon, a superstar of the NASCAR circuit, has been ripped right off the cover of the game and thrust into the menus themselves. In essence, Gordon acts as a blue-screened, real-life explanation bubble - he'll talk you through all the decisions you need to make to set up your game and progress to the finish line. It's quite a unique method of engaging the player, as it isn't often that a cover athlete plays more than a cursory role in a sports videogame. We found that while Gordon's presence was helpful to rank amateurs in the NASCAR lane (such as ourselves), it also soon became distracting to the task of actually navigating the menus normally. Still, there's something to be said for celebrity, and there's almost certainly another layer that NASCAR fans will pick up on and love with Gordon's appearance. The game also bases itself on a from-rags-to-riches mentality, with the player earning reputation through a career to eventually signing a contract with Gordon himself, which of course adds another dimension to his commentary.
NASCAR 09 also allows near-complete customisation of the player's car. The in-game options are varied, with complete control over the tuning of the car, and excellent choices of visuals. Additionally, driving well will gain the player performance points, which can be used to boost the mechanical aspects of your car. The game comes into its own, however, when you factor in the ability to download a blank canvas from EA's website and edit your car to your every whim in photoshop for use in the game. The visuals of the game are also generally pleasing, though by a second next-gen iteration of a franchise, we'd expect them to be at, or above the level they're at with NASCAR 09. Night races are the most pleasing, but picky players will still find plenty of pop-up and drabness to complain about.
Trying to capture the excitement of a NASCAR race is an interesting prospect. The races are fast, and that certainly carries over into NASCAR 09. Flying around the track at 300km/h is no mean feat, but that sense of speed is nullified somewhat by the challengeless tracks. The excitement, therefore, is derived from an almost chess-like strategy. The aim of the game is not necessarily to soar at blindingly fast speed, as that's almost a given. Instead, the real interest of NASCAR comes from a cat-and-mouse game of chicken. Do you overtake on the high side of the turn, or the inside? Watch your opponent's wheels carefully. At this speed, just one misjudged movement to the left while you are on the inside can spell the end of any hopes you'd had about finishing in a place. NASCAR is also a racing game which will make you watch your rear-vision mirror with care: challengers will come, and when they do, position is everything.
The problem is that this is all well and good in theory; in application, it's something else. NASCAR 09 certainly provides some thrills and spills, but unless you are racing against other living, breathing humans, you'll find that the artificial intelligence provides little of the nuance required to really make the game interesting. Rivals are either easily held off or impossible to overtake, and some ludicrous strategies are sometimes glimpsed, such as poor pit-stop timing, or having opponents disregard caution periods to fly into the back of a leading car. Similarly, spotters (those who alert drivers via a walkie-talkie of the location of closing rivals) tend to only work half of the time, with many warnings given too late to take counter action. All these problems might be small on their own, but together, it means that the strategy and interest of NASCAR is reduced to simply driving -- you guessed it -- around in circles.
It's tempting to make more comparisons about the cross-cultural divide, and how surely we're missing a crucial layer of interest when reviewing a NASCAR game, but there'll be no more beating around the bush. Fans of the sport or not, we're willing to be definitive: where NASCAR 09 ultimately fails as a videogame is by making racing at high-octane speeds dull. NASCAR 09 lacks either the flair of an arcade racer, or the real authenticity, the smell of petrol, of a true-to-life Formula One racer. Certainly, the presentation is slick, and the focus on a genuine career means that if players can enjoy the basic gameplay, they'll likely be coming back for more. However, NASCAR 09 simply fails to make NASCAR driving an enjoyable videogame experience.