NASCAR 09 (PS2, PS3, Xbox 360)

When Australia lacks a proper Ford vs. Holden game, we turn to America’s big franchise for some stock car racing. Will it make it to the finish or just crash & burn?

When I was living in Texas, one of the biggest things you could be into was NASCAR. The car racing sport that took people around the shape of an oval at a different degree of racing never quite took my fancy before I lived in Texas, but seeing as everyone else there seemed to like it, I started to like it too.

Now you can put yourself in the game as EA Sports have brought out NASCAR 09, another entry in the long running franchise of EA Sports yearly titles.

Last year, I actually asked for a copy of NASCAR 08, and while we did end up getting a lot of games, sadly NASCAR 08 was not among them. That wasn’t so different from many game stores however as I couldn’t find a copy at a single one which led me to believe that NASCAR 08 wasn’t exactly in wide supply in Australia.

A year has gone by though and now NASCAR can be seen gracing the shelves of your local retailer and this time, it means business.

You’ll be guided through the circuits of America’s loudest racing arenas by none other than Jeff Gordon, one of NASCAR’s best. Rather than just being a dodgy 3D character representation, the team at EA Sports have decided to use proper video capture of Jeff among the 3D gameplay to let his real visage come to you as you play.

One thing that you will find is that with an interactive guide like Jeff Gordon at the helm, you can more or less throw the manual away. It’s quite nice how you’re given his presence as a teacher & tutor for almost every part of the game, whether you’re racing for fun or as a pro. It is a little weird if you look too closely at things though, what with the video pulled from real-life Jeff stuck against the moving and living 3D world that the game takes places in, but provided you ignore that minor detail, it won’t affect you.

Depending on what you’re feeling like, you can race a season, a driver challenge, tune your car while taking it for a spin, or hit the career move which is pretty in-depth. In a way, you could almost consider parts of the career mode to Codemasters’ hit Race Driver GRID except for that in NASCAR 09, all you’re racing is stock cars against the rest of the pro’s on the NASCAR circuit.

Gameplay-wise is pretty bare basics: it’s a racing game and further from that, a racing game where you tend to stick to pretty ovular tracks. For the most part, you’ll be steering a lot to the left as you make your way around the inclines that make up tracks like Talladega, Texas Motor Speedway, and every Sega fan’s dream Daytona International Speedway.

The cockpits all look and sound excellent and when you get down to it, you can really feel that this is the way to play. There’s nothing quite like being in the middle of all the action and NASCAR looks & feels the part when you’re sitting inside of it all. Outside, the game retains its sense of speed and the graphics reflect a solid and plain environment that only NASCAR could give off, but it just doesn’t have the “Wow” factor that the inside gives off.

When racing, it’s best to avoid crashing however. You’re probably aware by now that “driving” and “crashing” are two entirely different things, but “crashing” is one area where NASCAR 09 lets you down gently. Real gently.

On the one hand, you probably won’t want to crash all that often and will prefer keeping it on the slow and steady. While on the other, sometimes you can’t avoid a crash and NASCAR 09 might disappoint you. I tried to get some explosive crashes working just like the box indicated, but sadly no matter what I did, all I could push out of me were ho-hum accidents that did nothing for my “whoa”-factor. This might be good and it might feel more realistic with the right elements being required for the sort of action, but I’ve watched NASCAR and I know just how – like many car racing events – unpredictable it all is.

Alas, that wasn’t something I felt from NASCAR 09. Instead, I felt bored playing it. I did enjoy racing around their circuits in the very real cockpits that pushed our hunks of steel and rubber around… and yet… something felt amiss. While it was entertaining, it wasn’t inviting.

I believe that a successful game – any game, really – should make you feel as if you’re part of the action, the suspense, the sport of it all and with NASCAR, I sort of just felt like I was playing a mediocre game with some great elements to it.

Would I buy it? Yes, but probably not this year. It’s fun, but it could still be a hell of a lot better.

Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Classification: G
Formats: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Reviewed by Leigh D. Stark