NHRA Championship Drag Racing
Developer: Lucky Chicken
Release Date: August 24, 2005
If there ever were a sport that I saw no point in, it would have to be drag racing. Really, what can be exciting about a race that's over in five seconds, where two cars go 300 miles per hour in a straight line? The only exciting thing is when one of those thousand-horsepower dragsters fly off course and smack into the wall, disintegrating into a million pieces and leaving behind a burning wreck. Watching the driver walk away from such an accident as if nothing happened is the ultimate definition of cool.
So it was with a distinct lack of enthusiasm that I popped NHRA Championship Drag Racing into my PlayStation 2 and turned it on. Much to my surprise, drag racing is an extremely difficult and demanding sport that requires a lot of precision and concentration. In fact, it's so difficult that it took me several hours before I could even win a race. That doesn't change the fact that there are a lot of options packed into NHRA Championship Drag Racing.
When you get started, there are a few options for playing NHRA. You can race in a quick race, participate in a single event as one of the included drivers, or start your own career and be on your way to fame and money as a professional drag racer. The main element of the game is the career mode, which is probably the most rewarding aspect as well. In this mode, you pick your driver's picture (from a group of THQ janitors who posed for this section, from the looks of it), a nickname, and the type of car in which you'll be competing. There are three different types of cars to choose from: Top Fuel, which are the ones that look a bit like pencils that have huge wheels in the back and bicycle wheels in the front; Funny Car, which look more like regular cars but still have huge fins and blowers; and Pro Stock, which are most similar to the cars we drive every day.
Once you start your career, you're in charge of everything that happens. You have to go to each event and go through several qualifying rounds before you get to the big event. Before each race, you'll have the opportunity to tune up your car to meet the various specifications that you might need on each track. Depending on the weather, the temperature of the track, and other factors, you'll have to tune up your car to gain the optimal performance out of it. Aspects such as the ballast, tire pressure, wing height, gear ratio, and others can all be tweaked. For those of us who have absolutely no clue what any of these things do, there is an auto-tune option to automatically adjust each setting to the supposedly optimal level for the race.
Once this is completed, you go to the track. You have to line up your car carefully, following the on-screen instructions to get set for the race. Once you're all set to go, you have to watch the lights carefully, and as soon as the green shows up, you punch it and you're off. From here, you have to keep the car straight as well as focus on shifting at the right moment. If you drift outside of your lane, you'll be disqualified. It's all about the timing, and if you aren't quick enough, you'll find yourself losing consistently. Once you're up to speed and the race is complete, pop your chute to help you slow down and hope that you're the winner. After the racing is all done, you'll either get your trophy and your earnings or go back to the garage empty-handed. You can also hire a crew chief to help with your tuning and to keep your car in shape.
I found the racing part to be hard to get used to, but after a few practice runs and finally figuring out the timing and the shifting, it was pretty fun to get going and race. Of course, more often than not, I'd pop out my parachutes instead of shifting, which would really tick me off, but the whole experience is a lot more fun than I thought it'd end up being. Of course, if you wreck, the flames and debris fly, which is also a lot of fun.
Graphically, NHRA does not really hold up to the best titles out on the PS2. The cars look decent, but the framerate could be better and the tracks look pretty bland and are fairly similar to each other outside of the obvious landmarks that denote each track. The smoke and fire effects are basic, the parachutes are pretty static, and everything is rendered at a fairly low resolution. They get the job done though, and don't take away from the overall drag racing experience.
The sound also receives a very mediocre treatment in NHRA. The cars all sound like they should, with the engines revving and roaring and the tires spinning. The menus make use of an annoying heavy guitar track that sounds like something you might hear coming from an average metal-head's garage apartment that's attached to his parent's house. Of course, the music is only in the menuing system, so you'll not be hearing it when it really counts – during the race. There is also some commentating from some generic-sounding announcers, who aren't very good. Overall, the racing sound is good, and the rest is just plain mediocre.
One of the bonuses of NHRA is that there are lots of extra features available for viewing. You can look at the bios for all the drivers of each of the three types of cars, which gives you their picture and career stats. You can also watch some of the included videos, which show some of the more famous drivers, like John Force, racing against each other. The quality is pretty good, and it shows pretty closely what happens just before the race happens and the actual race itself. If you're a fan of NHRA and drag racing, it's pretty cool to see these videos and driver bios included, and they add an extra bit of value to the package.
There's also a basic multiplayer option that allows you to race against one of your friends in a head-to-head match. You can choose your cars, your track, and tune your cars, and then take each other on in a drag race. It's the perfect way to settle those disputes that friends have when you don't feel like getting into a brawl. It's basic, and there's no online component, but it is included and can provide a bit of a distraction on a lazy day with some friends.
Overall, I was impressed with NHRA Championship Drag Racing. It's a budget title that went a long way to stretch each dollar that went into development. The deep tuning component and the long career mode make the drag racing complex and enjoyable, even for someone like me, who finds drag racing to be a fairly boring sport. There is a lot to learn about the cars and how they operate at different times of day and on different track conditions. There are some miscues here and there, but the final product is sure to please drag racing fans.