In the seven years that I've been reviewing video games, I've seen a lot of things. I've covered a variety of genres. I've seen some really broken, awful games. I've played my fair share of buggy, poorly tested multiplayer modes. With that background, I've got to say that NASCAR 2011: The Game has one of the most broken online modes I've ever played. I'd be more forgiving because there's a promised patch that will hopefully be hitting soon, but at this moment, the online mode is nearly unplayable. Some issues with the online portion seep into the single-player Career mode, and I find that to be completely unacceptable. It's been a little more than a month since the game was released, but in its current state, I would not recommend this title to anyone.
It's a bit of a shame, too, because there is a really decent racing game underneath this mess. According to the official game forums, the schedule patch should fix a lot of the issues that I'm having with the online mode. Keep in mind that these aren't simple things that could've been overlooked or can be chalked up to an unexpected number of online users. These are fundamental problems that were probably never detected prior to the game's release. There are a lot of factors at work in releasing a game — especially a licensed game — and sometimes developers are forced to push out a product to meet a deadline. Maybe that's the case here, but whoever was responsible for NASCAR 2011 should be ashamed that they tried to pawn this off on a customer base that was eagerly anticipating a new NASCAR title.
Let's go into the problems first. In NASCAR races, the cars are grouped together prior to the start in a double line formation, and they have a rolling start before the race actually begins. The game incorporates this for both the online and offline portions. Offline, you run with the full roster of 43 cars, which is pretty impressive to see on-screen. Rarely is there an issue with this, but when you go online, which is limited to 16 cars, it becomes a total mess. There are connection and lag issues, so not all racers load on the track at the same time.
The AI that controls the vehicles during the rolling start begins to fall apart, and you may begin a race with a wrecked car, since you could've gotten tangled up with the other cars in the rolling start and are unable to move. You can't correct this, either, as you have no control over your car until the game puts you across the starting line. If you begin the game as the lead car, chances are that you're going to win because you weren't tangled up in the mess. If you're one of the unlucky racers in the middle or rear of the pack, you'll probably be down two or three laps before you're able to start racing. This happens in almost every race that involved 10 or more vehicles. It's not a hard thing to replicate, so I'm so surprised that this issue wasn't caught in testing.
Another issue is with the car wrecks. If you've ever watched a NASCAR race, you realize that when there's a wreck on the track, a yellow caution flag comes out to warn the other racers and basically stop the race until the debris can be cleared. At this time, you lock in your place in the race and line up behind a pace car to deliberately slow down. This is a safety measure that allows everyone to get back on the track without making the original accident bigger than it needs to be. While playing NASCAR 2011 online, the yellow flag rarely makes an appearance, and this leads to many problems. If another racer crashes and tries to recover, he'll have a heck of a time doing so. Everyone else maintains their speed, but you'll be trying to get back on track, get off the wall, or circle around the right way. This typically leads to more wrecks, and frustrated players can get tied up in them, even if they weren't involved in the original crash. The absence of a yellow flag also makes it nearly impossible to recover and catch up again, as you'll probably lose a couple laps just trying to recover. Another issue is that when the caution flag does get thrown and a player chooses to pit, he'll usually be able to retain his place. That's not at all how it works in this game.
The last, and probably biggest issue I have, is that the game randomly decides to wipe your save file. I had this happen three times over the course of two days, and while I started to learn when it was going to happen, there doesn't seem to be a way to avoid it. Essentially, I'd be in a lobby waiting for a race to start, and the lobby closed and forced me out to the multiplayer menu. When I'd choose to do a quick race or custom race, I'd get an error telling me that there's a network problem. It never allowed me to go back into a lobby unless I restarted the game by exiting to the Xbox dashboard.
Backing out to the main menu or booting up the career mode didn't fix the issue. When I'd back out the dashboard and reboot the game, I'd be greeted with a "Choose your Driver" prompt. This is the first thing you'll do in the game, and when this occurs, it means that my last save was obliterated. Not only do I lose all single-player progress, but I also lose all of my online stats. Since the game works on a pretty standard experience and leveling system that's tied into both the single-player and multiplayer games, you're kind of screwed when this occurs. If you care about Achievements, that entire process is also reset. There are a few Achievements that require so many online wins, offline races won, etc., and you'll lose all that progress. This turned me off of the game completely, especially since it happened so frequently in a short time span. I was told that I should use a memory card or thumb drive to back up my game data. Granted, that would've allowed me to keep my progress intact, but I find it ridiculous that I need to resort making secondary and tertiary backups.
The only real suggestion I've seen about the online issues has been to check your NAT settings. I run with my NAT open since I've had that issue with other online games, but I still encounter this problem. The problems were blamed on other users who might have restricted NAT settings, and that this point, I wondered why the game doesn't incorporate a message system that informs you of your current NAT settings; I've seen this employed in other online console titles. If a restricted NAT setting can cause problems like this, users should know before they head into a race.
You might be thinking that these could be the issues of a fledgling developer, but I took a little time to check on that. The developer behind the game, Eutechnyx, might not be a household name, but it has been making racing games for over a decade. They've even made racing games for this console generation, including Ferrari Challenge and Supercar Challenge. Based on what I could find in the developer forums, both games also required at least one significant post-release patch to fix some issues. You would think there'd be a lesson learned going into this game, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I'm not writing this as a die-hard NASCAR fan who's up in arms over the way his sport is depicted in this game; I'm writing this as a consumer who expects purchased games to be playable on the release day. As far as the online experience goes, NASCAR 2011 is not.
If you opt to stay offline the entire time, you'll probably have a decent enough experience with the game. The offline portion, which mostly consists of Career mode, is pretty fun. It's not so much of a career mode in the sense that you take a rookie driver and put him through the paces over a few years. Instead, this is actually a season mode. You pick a driver and work your way up through a NASCAR season, visiting all the tracks that fans have come to know and love. From a casual fan's perspective, the tracks seem to be well rendered and constructed appropriately. While most non-fans will pass this off as a racing game in which you turn left a lot, that's really not the case. Each track has eccentricities to set it apart from the others, whether that's a narrow width of track, an oddly shaped oval, differing degrees on the turns, or a variety of other things. No two tracks race the same way, and that carries over to the game extremely well.
The control feels pretty spot-on for me. I could do just fine with the analog on the controller, but I imagine that using a wheel would feel even better. Things can get very hectic in a full race, and it'll take some time before you're able to consistently maintain a straight line, but you can tell that's an intended effect. Drafting is the major feature: You get behind the slipstream of another vehicle to pick up speed, and sometimes you need to swap places with other drivers to get ahead of the pack. There's also something called bump drafting, which I had a hard time pulling off, but that was due to my own shortcomings instead of the game.
There are definitely some enjoyable aspects to NASCAR 2011, but since the online portion is a major part of the game, you should pass on it for now. It would be great if the upcoming patch fixed most of these issues, and at that point, the game might be worth checking out. That's little solace for the people who picked it up at launch, though. Since the patch hasn't been released yet, who's to say that it will actually fix all of the problems? I last heard that the patch was with Microsoft, so I suspect that it'll come out later this month.
For now, I'd pass on NASCAR 2011: The Game. The multiplayer is completely busted, and I'm a big fan of voting with your dollar. If you're a NASCAR fan, maybe you should let your vote be heard by not picking up this mess. For those of you who did, I really I hope that the patch delivers on the promised fixes because I'd be greatly upset if I had spent $60 on this. My issues with the save file and other online problems don't seem to be sporadic, either. If you'd like to get a little more information or evidence, head over to the official game forums or numerous other online communities.
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