Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 on Sunday night, but I had to watch it on DVR. Why? Because I was trying to win it with him on the newly released NASCAR '14.
Often times, real-life sports and their video game simulations battle for my attention. On this night, the need to publish my review nudged the game ahead of the sport by a hair.
I'm not bitter.
NASCAR '14 delivers some pulse-pounding action and decent options, but long-time fans of the series will have to determine whether there's enough new material available to warrant taking the plunge.
I had the opportunity to speak with Ed Martin, the executive vice president of Eutechnyx—the company that develops NASCAR video games. His answers to my questions offer a great perspective and some of the inquiries fans may have.
Because the conversation with Ed and my evaluation of the title came so close together, it seemed like a good idea to blend the interview and the review. Let's talk NASCAR.
No Next-Gen This Year
One of the things that undoubtedly jumped out at fans was the fact that the game did not make its anticipated debut on next-generation systems. Instead, NASCAR '14 was released for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC (via Steam).
I asked Ed to expound on the reason why the game wasn't released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. He said:
To be clear—we definitely plan on delivering NASCAR on next-gen consoles. But right now, there just isn’t a big enough market of NASCAR fans with next-gen consoles to justify the cost of making that game yet. You look at an install base of over 200 million Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 units out there.
And even after a successful holiday launch, we’re looking at roughly five million Xbox One and PlayStation 4 units out there. If you do the math on how many we can sell on PS3/Xbox 360 and extrapolate it out to next gen, it’s tough to make the numbers work. And not to over-refer to the same example, but even Sony decided to release the latest Gran Turismo on PlayStation 3.
Opting to stay on the current-gen systems was a safe approach, but it did eliminate the opportunity for the franchise to make a visual statement.
Don't get me wrong, NASCAR '14 looks nice, but it doesn't blow you away visually the way that Gran Turismo 6 does for the PS3.
Fans who are anxiously anticipating that ultra beautiful NASCAR video game will probably have to wait until 2015, when the game is expected to hit next-gen systems.
One good and promising sign for the next-gen version of the game is that the developers have had dev kits in their possession for an extended period, so the gameplay should be solid. Martin talked loosely about future plans:
It's [next-gen version] something that we have the rights to produce, that we really want to produce and NASCAR would like us to produce. We’ve had dev kits for a while, and we’re looking hard at it. But again, it has to be at the right time, and there has to be a market for it. Stay tuned!
The gameplay remains one of the best aspects of the series. NASCAR '14 does a great job of allowing virtual drivers of all skill levels an opportunity to have fun with the game.
It isn't too easy, but it also isn't so difficult that it will discourage a novice from attempting to win more than a couple of races. The game also does a great job of distinguishing the difference between stock car racing and other styles.
The weight of the cars feels different than in other racing games. Ed talked a little bit about how the team at Eutechnyx conveyed the spirit of NASCAR driving in the game. He said:
I like to use two analogies…NASCAR is like flying in a swarm of angry bees. Or, it’s like other racing games except in every single race, you have 42 levels (aka other drivers) to pass while navigating a very tight course. NASCAR is all about racing the pack.
It's not that racing the track isn’t in there, but with 43 cars in every race, there’s a lot more to it. And for people that like to joke about “it’s just driving in circles," try it! You’ll be surprised and challenged, because it’s really not about driving in circles.
That's certainly true. While every track is some sort of an oval, the incline, distance and sharpness of those turns makes every track different. You can't race the Daytona International Speedway the same way you'd race the Chicagoland Motor Speedway—at least not to be successful.
That dynamic is present in the game, and it makes the career mode enjoyable and challenging.
If there was an issue with the gameplay in past versions of the game, it was the control while driving near and around the walls. Ed talked about what caused those issues and how they were remedied. He said:
One of the challenges we had with the previous game is that we had to create the physics model for the gen-6 cars before they had ever been run in any real races. So just like the real teams out there, we’ve been able to learn a lot in the last year and adapt that to NASCAR ’14.
I didn't really notice a major difference in this part of the game, but it is something you get used to with extended gameplay. Also, it's not a big enough issue to hurt what is otherwise a very solid playing racing title.
Customization and Career Mode
The customization of your car has taken a nice step forward. Having the ability to add layers of paint, decals and other design details really lets you individualize your vehicle.
Beyond making new vehicular eye candy, NASCAR '14 also lets gamers build a strong team. Managing funds to improve vehicles was a nice touch. Ed also talked about the ideology behind the career mode advancements.
We’ve always had the ability to do pretty much everything to your car that the real teams can do (and that NASCAR allows you to do). But with Career Mode, we’ve added the real-world elements of winning and wisely investing your earnings in your team. So you don’t start as today’s version of Rick Hendrick, you start as a hopeful up-and-comer and try to make yourself more successful than any of the other teams.
As the driver, you go out and win as much as you can. But then, you have to decide what to do as the team owner to invest in the race program to make that car better for YOU as the driver. And that’s unique for everyone who plays; there’s no magic formula that works for everyone.
It's nice to see the team management aspect, but it could have been a little deeper. The game does suffer from a lack of human personality. Face-to-face meetings with team owners and shots of the drivers outside of the car would have been great.
NASCAR is so much about the drivers and their personalities and spats. We're still waiting to see a game that effectively captures that and the exciting racing.
NASCAR Highlights Are Awesome
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the game is the mode called NASCAR Highlights. The mode throws you into situations from the 2013 season and gives you tasks to overcome to complete the objective.
For example, the first task is to "Steal Jimmie's Thunder" at the 2013 Daytona 500 with Earnhardt Jr. The challenge picks up in the final two laps, and you have to win the race without caution flags or ever falling more than six cars behind.
Here's a video of me completing the task after about the seventh attempt.
There are a ton of these scenarios in the mode, and they are a blast. Eutechnyx went to great lengths to make sure these races were accurate and true to what we saw when they occurred in 2013.
Ed talked about the elements involved in recreating history so you could re-write it, explaining:
The NASCAR Highlights are built using the actual telemetry from every car in the race. NASCAR captures data at a rate of five times per second. We are fortunate to have access to that data. The teams don’t even have access to it!
So we use that data to exactly recreate the moments of the race that we want to drop the player into…those incredible “what if?” moments that all fans like to talk about after the race. Once we drop you into that moment, however, the player input, game physics and game artificial intelligence (AI) take over.
So every time you play a challenge, it’s different. The other cars are placed into the state they were in at the moment we are re-creating. So in some regards, things that occurred downstream are possible to occur again. But there is no concept of “fate” in the Highlights. As the player, you get dropped into the actual moment, and it's totally up to you what you do with it.
The online component of the game also got a boost with the inclusion of online leagues. Yes, you can actually have your own NASCAR season with the ability to pick whether the events will include the practice runs, duels (in the case of the Daytona 500) or just the races.
You'll also get a chance to pick which races will be run in your league. That's pretty awesome, but what is a bit handicapping is the fact that in order to run the league, the participants must be on your friends list.
If you already have a full friends list like myself—or you simply don't know enough people to form a league—this setup won't satisfy you.
Also, the servers didn't have enough gamers present to actually enjoy the game online. As I tried to test the online functionality, I had to race a few gamers one-on-one.
Those races went over without a hitch, but it didn't deliver the full effect of a full grid. Conceptually, the online aspects are headed in the right direction, but it still feels a little incomplete.
The Bottom Line
Overall, this is an enjoyable game with more positives than negatives. It plays very much like previous versions. Some may consider that good; others may think it's a bad thing. I'm a bit in the middle of the two extremes.
Because I like NASCAR more than any other racing, and because the gameplay and career mode is solid, this game will get the majority of my virtual racing attention.
That said, I'm still very interested to see what this series will look like on PS4 and Xbox One.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
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