Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: June 10, 2008
While EA Sports brands such as Madden and Fight Night have found enormous mainstream success in appealing to hardcore and casual fans alike, NASCAR has remained a series that's been somewhat more intimidating to those of us that don't know a thing about gear tuning and just want to drive. NASCAR 09, however, bears numerous features that show EA is trying to do away with the series' "strictly for the hardcore" image. The additions of new driving modes for more casual players, and a collection of challenges for dedicated NASCAR fans add some freshness to this year's iteration, but most will find the on-track experience largely the same.
Upon booting up, you'll immediately be greeted by a live representation of NASCAR's poster boy himself, Jeff Gordon, who will continually give you advice and information on the all the modes and options that the title contains. It's pretty obvious that EA is trying to give the series a more inviting appearance, and this carries through to the two new driving modes available at the onset, Normal and Pro. Normal mode is for gamers looking for a more arcade-like feel and who just want to enjoy the thrill of the race rather than have the constant fear of spinning out while trying to handle more sim-like controls (found in Pro). But even in Normal mode, all of the regular rules of NASCAR are still present, as well as the 40-plus tuning options. The actual control set remains the same for both modes, with the left thumbstick serving as the "wheel," the right and left triggers for acceleration and braking, and finally the X for the vehicle telemetry visor to see a comprehensive head's-up display of your car's status. And yes, the game does support the Xbox 360 racing wheel.
Finally before heading out onto the track, players can enter the paint shop to customize their car using a variety of designs and real world logos, or can even download a Photoshop template on a computer to create totally unique designs and then upload them to the EA servers for download to their 360. The usual exhibition, season, and career race modes return, but bringing in a refreshing right turn to the mix is Sprint Driver Challenge Mode, where players can partake in over 77 events that test their skills with tasks such as maintaining a certain speed, staying within another driver's draft, or avoiding a terrible wreck. If you're looking for some more depth, career mode allows you to create a custom driver and compete in varying NASCAR events including the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Craftsman truck series.
Now the thing that makes competing in these series a bit different in NASCAR 09 is Rep. You can earn it by achieving high placement in races, but it will also change while in the middle of a race, depending on the quality of your driving. Improving your Rep will allow you to attract more prestigious racing teams and sponsors who will add performance points to your driving, but these fancy corporations will also demand results, so placing in the top five is a must if you are to maintain your contracts. Rep is a neat little addition to the series, but there's just one problem: It can be gained in every single other mode besides career, even in straight exhibition races, as long as you're using your own custom car rather than one of the 60 licensed pro rides. This makes it incredibly easy to rack up a ton of Rep points before you've even finished a single race in career mode, negating that sense of growth and progression from rookie to champion that career modes in all sports games are supposed to offer.
Despite the introduction of Rep and new driving modes, the core racing mechanic of the NASCAR series has remained largely the same. The ability for players to get a more arcade-like experience is a plus, but it doesn't change the essence of the gameplay, and odds are if you're not a very big NASCAR enthusiast, Normal mode probably won't covert you. The AI isn't too terribly challenging, a common worry in most racers, but it can get pretty aggressive when you work your way up to the final places in a race.
The multilayer portion also has little innovation to offer. There is a new feature titled "Own the Track," which records your friends' best times on each track so that players can continually one-up each other by tenths of second, but it would be no substitute for a multiplayer version of the game's Sprint Driver Challenge, which is sadly nonexistent. All of the usual quick, custom, and create-a-match options are available tp let players tweak features such as lap numbers, collision intensity, and, most importantly, player behavior. Nobody wants to race a guy who thinks he's in Burnout and continually halts the game for the caution flag.
The online mode supports up to 13 players (which you can't stick with), but that's only one player more than last year's game, and with real-world races containing 43 cars, we can't help but imagine how fun, or just plain chaotic, a higher player count would be. EA's apparent attention to the easygoing drivers also tends to switch gears, as the multiplayer does not support split-screen, and when heading online, all drivers must race in Pro mode. Why force gamers to race one way when you could simply filter Normal and Pro sessions?
Graphically, NASCAR 09 is a bit of a mixed bag; all of the tracks are extremely well lit, and the sunlight reflects beautifully off the cars and is appropriately mottled on the pavement. The only problem is that the cars contain such a high amount of sheen that they start to look a little fake, and they just don't pack the polygon count that other racers are currently offering. With crowds that don't move at all and car scratch marks that look more like smudges, NASCAR 09 just doesn't live up to the visual standard of other racers, or EA Sports games for that matter, and a lot more can certainly be done on the 360.
As with every EA Sports title, the EA Trax make an appearance with 15 songs including bands such as Airbourne, Parlor Mob and P.O.D. The lineup isn't all that bad, and if there are a couple of tunes that ruin the game for you, they can be disabled. Using the ESPN license, some of the station's personalities are present, like Rusty Wallace who will give tips on each of the game's 22 tracks. Once on the track, no commentary is present, but your crew will continue to give advice and updates on the status of your car and warn you of any opponents trying to sneak by or are on a collision course. Naturally, the sounds of roaring engines and rubber tearing on concrete are present; the only thing missing is the driver's post-race cursing at one another, but this is an E-rated game.
NASCAR 09 adds some notable additions such as Rep points and the Sprint Driver Challenge mode, but the core gameplay has not changed much at all. Although EA has implemented different driving modes in order to streamline the series' appeal, the inclusion of a more robust multiplayer component, better graphics, and actual gameplay enhancements on the track itself would have probably attracted more potential buyers than a slightly easier driving mechanic and virtual Jeff Gordon. This doesn't mean that hardcore NASCAR buffs need to worry about the series slowing down for all the racing noobs out there, since the series' staple features have been preserved. If you're one of those fans, then NASCAR 09 won't likely disappoint, but anyone else won't find enough compelling changes to make this year's game more than just another lap around the track.
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