NASCAR games are tricky to review and - being modest here - at least a tiny bit trickier to make. You can envisage a driving simulator, like Gran Turismo, entertaining both hardcore and casual fans alike. A NASCAR simulator, on the other hand, will almost never appeal to a more casual racing fan. Stray too far away from the simulation aspect, however, and you begin to alienate the hardcore NASCAR fans who are most likely to want to purchase the game. A tough scale to balance, then. One that Eutechnyx, the developer behind NASCAR 2011: The Game, have, with mixed results, done their best to even out.
Once you’ve selected your favourite driver (or created your own) you can opt to either take part in a simple single player race (choosing between your basic time trial, eliminator or standard race events) or begin your career (throughout the course of which you’ll unlock bonus invitational events). As you would expect, the difficulty level is adjustable, so too are other factors like the effects of damage, driving assists and, thankfully, race lengths. So no, you won’t have to race the full 200 laps at Daytona. In this way newcomers to NASCAR can adjust the difficulty level to make races genuinely accessible, whilst NASCAR purists can self flagellate themselves to their heart’s content.
There’s one significant caveat to that, however. The art of drafting and slipstream, which makes the oval tracks an enjoyable, tactical affair, become a chore when transferred to road races. That, combined with the clunky controls, makes these tracks an absolute nightmare to negotiate. The game just doesn’t feel designed with them in mind. It’s a problem that also crops up, although to a lesser extent, on the smaller oval tracks. On the other hand, depending on your view of NASCAR, you’d be surprised at how varied each track is. Even the similarly shaped oval ones which at first glance may look virtually identical will feel different, be it due to the degree of turn on the bends, the length of the track, or angle of banking.
Simulation enthusiasts will be disappointed to learn that the driver A.I. is acceptable at best, falling into the usual pitfalls of rubber-banding and lack of aggression. On the default difficulty settings it’s also an all too effective tactic to never release the accelerator and just bounce along the side of the walls when you’re in the corners.
The graphics are fair. Races feature a full roster of 43 cars, which is fantastic. Each of the 22 racing tracks is well replicated, the more arena-like ones giving off a great vibe. And it’s all pulled off with little in the way of framerate drops or technical glitches once you actually get down to the racing. Elsewhere, however, technical problems do pop up: for some reason, the framerate becomes an issue immediately after a race as the menus come to the forefront and you continue to see your car chug along in the background, and the lengthy loading times (and frequency of said loading times) are worth noting. On the plus side, several of the ideas for menus and loading screens appear to have been ripped right out of DiRT 2, so at least most of those are nice to look at.
Everyone loves a good 43 car pile-up, but not in NASCAR 2011: The Game you won’t. The crash physics and damage modelling both leave a lot to be desired; this is no Burnout or Race Driver: GRID, that’s for sure, and it’s not even close to what you see on TV. The cars become dented, metal crags hang off and the paintwork gets messed up, but it’s all very underwhelming.
The audio is fairly bare-boned. The announcement team feature to introduce a race, but once it gets going they depart. The radio chatter is, one imagines, fairly authentic, but that also means it’s barely discernable. Engines growl and purr rather than roar, and there’s a limited but acceptable licensed soundtrack which plays whilst you’re navigating the menus.
Value-wise, NASCAR 2011: The Game features your standard modes and little else. There’s the aforementioned career and mix of single player events. There’s also both online and offline (split screen) multiplayer. Online is fairly unreliable and limited, however. Being dropped from the lobby before the lengthy timer finally counts down to zero seems more likely than not. The game also has a penchant for freezing occasionally during loading screens (which are even longer in multiplayer). Lag is also a frequent problem. If you do manage to get into a lag-free race then come prepared for griefing or glitches galore, because it’s oh-so-tempting to drive the wrong way around the track once you’re out of contention, which causes a crash, which results in the flag being waved, which... you get the picture. The online leaderboards are also a joke at present, dominated by clearly bogus lap times. To sum up: could be better, much better.
NASCAR 2011: The Game surprised me a little. Admittedly, my expectations were low; I expected a poor title at best, but even casual NASCAR fans (or racing fans in general) should be able to enjoy themselves with the core single player offering. Hardcore fans will find they have plenty of bones to pick, the multiplayer is essentially broken, and there’s undoubtedly plenty of room for improvement. If you’re looking for a NASCAR racer then, to put it bluntly, it’s all you’ve got, so it’s fortunate then that NASCAR 2011: The Game is a decent and somewhat enjoyable first entry from Eutechnyx.