Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: August 30, 2005
At the time of this writing, there are only a few races left in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, and it is well into crunch time for the cup hopefuls. With NASCAR in the spotlight in motorsports right now, what better time to take a look at NASCAR 06: Total Team Control, brought to us by EA Sports. To be honest, there is currently no shortage of racing games in the market. However, EA, as they’ve been prone to do recently, has gobbled up yet another exclusive license and is the only developer who can bring authentic NASCAR-endorsed racing to your Xbox console. The question is, Has EA become complacent since earning this exclusivity? Have they sought to further and improve their sports franchise, or are they resting on their laurels, knowing that they’re the only source for fans of the sport? Let’s find out shall we?
NASCAR 06: Total Team Control puts you into the game immediately with a prologue race. After selecting a new game from the menu, you are immediately thrown into a situation wherein you assume the role of NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, who has just been taken out of the race in a highlight reel crash. EA takes that opportunity to craft a little drama as well as introduce the team aspect of the title by instructing you to use the right thumbstick and utilize the "Total Team Control" to switch cars to Jeff Gordon and win the race. Not only does this surprising sequence whet your appetite, but it is also a great introduction to the team aspect of the game.
The next thing I did at the main menu was take a look at the available options. At your fingertips are the following choices: Fight to the Top, Race Modes, My NASCAR, NASCAR Tutorials, EA Sports Extras, and finally, settings. My natural inclination was to head to the tutorials first to find out what was so new and special about this game. Upon selecting the first tutorial, the "Interactive Crew Chief" greeted me, the ever-loveable Ace Moneymaker, who acts as your personal guide through the entire world of NASCAR. To be honest, I found Ace’s gimmicky Jerry Maguire style agent vernacular to be nothing short of hilarious. He adds a certain distinct persona to the experience, injecting some much-needed personality into the title. Not only that, but he also does a pretty solid job of explaining the rather large assortment of racing controls.
The Interactive Crew Chief control allows you to communicate with your pit and teammates while you race. This allows you to do everything from asking a teammate for a block, to requesting specific amounts of fuel during a pit stop. Now this doesn’t seem like a big deal until you actually play the game, at which point you will realize that it is practically the entire premise around which this was meant to be played. They tried to warn you by naming it "Total Team Control" (which, by the way, they re-emphasize at a ridiculous rate), if you’re interested in racing by yourself and making a dashing race to the top, try out Forza or Project Gotham Racing because this is not the racing title for you. Your own personal progress will be sped up or significantly hampered by the performance of your team as a whole. In NASCAR 06, your success is defined by the number of teammates you can put in the winner’s circle. To that end, you can jump from car to car by merely clicking the right thumbstick to gain complete control of a teammate's ride (a la the intro race you played to start the game -- it’s all becoming clear now, yes?).
The various modes provide you with all of the flexibility you would expect from a racing game. You can pick exactly how you want to race, whether it be to win any of the different cup series, or enter the Chase for the NEXTEL cup with just 10 races to go, or start from scratch and build the prestige of your team and your created racer in the Fight to the Top mode. Each mode has its own host of advantages, but all of them tend to cater to the aspect of team racing and skill. Learning to pass, draft, and power through situations will be just as crucial as learning how to give the right commands to your fellow teammates.
In addition to assisting in meeting the goals of your sponsors and winning crowd fame, if your teammates like you, they’ll be much more inclined to listen when you bark commands from your cockpit. Piss off your teammates, and you’ll not only receive no kudos when you reach the platform, but you’ll also find no love on the course when you ask for a block or some room to pass. This element makes the game a lot more complex than straightforward racing, and surprisingly, I found it to be a welcome addition to what some would feel is the monotony of endlessly driving a car around a track. EA did a great job in making sure that all of the drivers on the track respond to how you race. If you decide to intimidate other drivers on the raceway instead of sharing their draft, you’ll quickly find yourself blacklisted as a villainous driver. Crash another driver’s car, and he’ll be sure to look to return the favor in the next race. In the Fight to the Top mode, you’re given the option to apologize to other drivers for actions that were out of line, further developing your status as a hero or a villain.
I found that adding a dramatic aspect to NASCAR 06 was a really appropriate touch. Any fan of the sport knows that there is no shortage of short fuses and wary relationships in the world of racing, and NASCAR 06 certainly explores that aspect of the sport more so than did previous iterations. Honestly, I feel as though they could’ve gone more over the top with driver-to-driver interaction. It would’ve been nice to have the option of blasting another driver in a press conference or throwing a helmet at their car after wrecking out, as has been seen this NASCAR season.
The Fight to the Top mode is where you’ll find the majority of the game played out to the hilt. All of the above-mentioned features are present and make the title enjoyable, as you start your driver off in the lowly Whelen series and prove your worth until you finally escalate to the top in the NEXTEL Cup series, all the while earning money and fan adulation or loathing for yourself and your wise-cracking agent. In addition to just racing and advancing your status, you are also granted the option to invest the various monies you acquire in purchasing your own racing squads. The more support you have from the fans (and the more green you can put in people’s pockets), the more dominant a racing team you can purchase and use to your advantage. After all, if you’ve got the three best racers on the track on the payroll, life is very good.
The controls for NASCAR 06 are what make the gameplay enjoyable and solid. Like most other racers on the Xbox, the right trigger accelerates and the left trigger is used to brake. If you want to change your gears, you can shift using Y and X, and to engage the various communicator options, you wiggle your right thumbstick in the direction of the command you wish to execute. In addition, NASCAR 06 allows you to utilize the communicator headset to bark orders instead of the right thumbstick. Sweet, right? Well, sort of; as with most voice recognition or voice-activated command systems, this one is prone to some error. It’s pretty annoying when you ask for a block, and the HUD disappears from your screen instead, but be sure not to curse at the screen in disgust, or you will receive a reprimand from your crew chief and be docked some cash for your lack of momma-instilled manners. Ironically enough, cursing is the one thing that the voice recognition rarely slips up on, which is hilarious, considering the majority of the reasons to curse into the mic will be inspired by the lack of comprehension you are receiving from your pit. The voice commands are a great idea, but the execution will need improvement in future generations. Thankfully, any command you give can be confirmed or negated by using manual commands with the thumbstick. The game’s overall feel is not really affected by this glitch, but it is unfortunate that this aspect isn’t just a little bit better, as it could have added so much.
The graphics in NASCAR 06 are not particularly impressive. I felt like I was playing an older generation game with slight improvements, as opposed to a full-out, almost next-gen racer. Honestly, considering the fact that you have to stare at these cars for hour after hour when playing this game, it’s somewhat surprising that they didn’t make them look just a liiiiiitle bit better. EA Sports did do a great job at presenting crashes (the only reason 80% of people watch NASCAR 06 anyway), which feel and look great and are captured in what feels like absolute slow motion. The graphics are passable, but compared to other recent racing titles like Forza, the engine employed here looks decidedly dated. All of you graduating art designers out there should strongly consider working for EA in the future -- I’m pretty sure they’ll be hiring.
So what’s the verdict? Is NASCAR 06 worth your hard-earned green? If you enjoy racing games, I believe that you’ll enjoy NASCAR 06, but if you don’t enjoy them, there’s nothing here that’s going to particularly win you over. Fans of the genre will be happy to spend some time cruising the tracks in one of the most renowned racing series in the world. In addition to solid racing, there are just enough extras in this game, from the hilarious agent, to the off-track drama and persona building that make this worth investing some time in. If you don’t like Ace Moneymaker’s brash comments and cocky attitude for some reason, don’t come yelling at me. It’s your own sense of humor that is to blame.