As far as EA's console NASCAR titles are concerned, last year's Chase for the Cup
represented a significant step forward. Total Team Control
doesn't make as large a leap for the franchise, but it does still offer enough to add real value to a series that may sometimes seem to be slipping into iterative game design's downward spiral.
This year's ride kicks off with the tail end of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Instead of being subjected to an inappropriate street race against a surprisingly reckless Ryan Newman, players are asked to become Jeff Gordon and hold first after teammate Jimmy Johnson takes a bad tumble while bumping J.G. ahead of Dale Jr. and the rest. This is Total Team Control's way of introducing car swapping, an activity that promises all the thrill of spouse swapping, only with far fewer post-rush consequences. Swapping is the sell.
After the Pepsi 400 concludes, NASCAR rather abruptly funnels its players into the basics. This year's game features multiplayer, cup chasing, the Fight to the Top, some point challenges, and other kinds of general racing. It's essentially the same setup as before and unfortunately, deep interactive tutorials are still nowhere to be found.
To really experience NASCAR 06, we leapt right into Fight to the Top, where we could deal with prestige, racing mates, contracts, team ownership, in-race grudges, actual driving, and the new Total Team Control mechanics.
As an avid player, I feel extremely comfortable with NASCAR gaming and so enjoy the longer races. That's why I opted to play at the maximum length and with limited fuel, real tire wear, and applied damage. These choices were very, very good ones in retrospect. To understand why, we'll need to first look at the basic concepts behind Total Team Control's new gameplay.
The biggest addition to racing is car swapping. Instead of racing as an individual, players are picking apart courses as hunting packs. Personal success is emphasized, but the overall placement of the team is of paramount importance. The team will increase prestige and fan support. And the team will eventually lead to more lucrative deals, in-game advancement, and validated hero status.
Swapping requires patience and multitasking skills. My general strategy is to pull into the top ten as quickly as possible and with as little adverse impact as possible (maybe six to eight laps depending on the qualifier and assuming I run steady). Once situated, I'll switch places with a teammate stuck in the latter half of the thickest group with a simple series of controller inputs. I'll then work at pushing that car up to my own racer's level. Again, I'll want all drivers to fall in somewhere between the one and 10 spots. I'll repeat this process until my entire team is situated in the upper ranks.
Now that I've got a running pack in prime position. I toggle between my boys, setup shared drafts, flip to myself, and use my own character as the vanguard for what amounts to a heavy cavalry column. With my guys in tow, I intimidate the holy hell out of anyone stupid enough to take the low line and eventually run my train to first place. Once my team secures the one to four spots I switch to my rear guard. I'll use this shield to protect my pack's flanks and block potential threats, especially three-deep drafters that come from my usually vulnerable outside line.
This back and forth jockeying adds a tremendous amount of tactical stress to NASCAR racing. It also prevented me from ever falling into a lull because I absolutely always had something to do. I had to secure placing. I had to protect. I had to run a straggler through the mass. I had to position my leaders. I had to safeguard the rear. I had to beware when lapping the bottom feeders. And I still had to keep my team's monetary interests in mind and not become a bastardly villain with a negative prestige level. Never did I find myself leading by a minute, hopelessly bored as I gassed past the back-end of some scrubs I just lapped.
Switching between racers is brilliant. It's a great way to focus on the team-based racing that is real NASCAR while providing players new ways to intensify the actual gameplay. And this all happens without a radical departure from established conventions. But...Total Team Control only works extremely well if you play like me. Casual gamers who disregard pit stops (especially timed, collaborative ones) and prefer to play on the super short scale will have no time to flip between teammates and fight for standing. When I'm 20 laps in, I can establish a 10 second lead with a couple racers and then confidently skip into my stragglers without having to worry about my own character. But if I only have 16 laps to work with, I'm totally screwed. So if you are really into NASCAR and play the long races, you will really be into the team control aspect of Total Team Control, otherwise you just won't be capable of appreciating how well it all comes together.
So that's the biggest addition: control. Behind it comes the commanding system. This aspect of Total Team Control is almost as engaging as actually switching between cars, but still needs a bit of polish. Basically, there are eight general commands that can be issued to AI teammates: work with me, block, follow, drop back, hold position, move over, and pit now (the eighth is the car swap command). It breaks down nicely in-game, but again, playing on short runs simply will not allow you to enjoy command & control.
Note that commands are not designed to work on their own. Focusing explicitly on the command system to usher your team into the higher ranks just isn't going to work. You can toggle through your squad and switch up orders hoping for a result, or you can leap out of your car, jump back a few places to a slacking teammate, order your original self to "work with me," create a train, order yourself again to "drop back" and then "block." Now you can race ahead as the lagger, catch up to your original self, swap back into your own car (now behind the caught up lagger), and then pull up under your boy's tail and keep pace.
To make this process easier and more exciting, EA has implemented a new voice control system. It's a great idea -- a great, semi functional idea.
Voice control does allow for some quick calls to be made (all the teammate commands, a small selection of prepped pit orders, a few interface tweaks, and some general position / information queries), but most of the actions are a little unnecessary. I call it the Firefox effect.
In 1982 Clint Eastwood starred in his own Firefox, a film adapted from Craig Thomas' novel. Stay with me for a second here. In Firefox, Clint was tasked by the United States military to infiltrate a top secret Soviet installation and steal a prototype jet fighter that could be controlled in part by a pilot's mind, provided that pilot thought in Russian. So as Clint is flying this plane away he has to occasionally think in Russian to get things working right.
At one point Clint is being dogged by the fighter's sister ship and he has to launch some countermeasures to avoid being disintegrated. "Flare! Flare! Chaff! Chaff!" It's all very intense and takes several nail biting moments before Clint finally musters up enough brain strength to clearly think, "Please don't let that freaking missile hit me in the ass." Finally, and with some serious dramatic effect, the countermeasures shoot out and Clint is saved.
Funny how he could have just PRESSED A FREAKING COUNTERMEASURE BUTTON IN ONE MILLIONTH OF A SECOND TO SAVE HIMSELF.
That's basically the problem with NASCAR's voice control. I don't need to scream "Mirror Off" into my microphone seven times before the game picks up on the fact that I perhaps don't want my, "Left Side Tires Changed," and in fact would probably like my stupid mirror turned off. I can just press select to handle that, you know?
The voice control is spotty enough that some things will just spontaneously happen and much of what I want to happen will not. It also has the added bonus of recognizing only specific parts of phrases. For instance, I'll say "Cancel" to belay a previous command but the game will hear "can" and will accordingly assign me one can of fuel whenever I decide to pit. I should have said "Cancel Command." It's tricky like that.
Now while voice control doesn't always work and may even make you feel like a goof when you're vainly arguing with a fictional character on the other end of the line, it does at least create an illusion of real interaction. That is, it provides unknowing players the sensation that they are doing something miraculous -- that they are specifically playing the boss and the driver. Even if it's all possible with the control pad, the idea of voice recognition is at least still worth something.
All of this newness makes up NASCAR 06's gameplay, and is especially apparent in the Fight to the Top mode. But that specific mode still needs some presentational value applied to it. It's just too impersonal as is (even if the rivalry system did add personality at one point). It's all phones and bland menus without any advanced overlays. And since the objective in Fight to the Top is to attain star status and loads of money, why didn't Tiburon elect to put our characters in pre-race areas that represented this? We could have started in a dilapidated trailer office and driveway that eventually blossomed into a top tier garage once the 10 million dollar contracts started rolling in. Without good visual representations of the effects of winning vs. losing, the only real post-race bonus to having prestige and money is knowing that you have them.
This makes some of the extras a little unnecessary. Really, why would I care about a merchandising cut if I can't appreciate my rabid fans sporting all the Ts and asking for autographs? Conversely, what's the downside to being a villain and not selling any goods if I don't see a few hecklers saunter by my home throwing stones?
The same goes for relationships and prestige, which tie directly into race performance. While alliances and rivalries may alter gameplay (in so far as an ally will become a rival and vice versa), there's no an apparent gain or loss to being loved or hated (even if the brief after race cutscenes do vary slightly).
It can also get a little aggravating to be pinned with villainy prestige because some daft racer couldn't tell when his line was broken and decided to force the issue and his own car into the wall by nudging me at the wrong time. This has even happened with a teammate of mine, who quickly turned rival and then blatantly rammed me for the next four laps until I fish-tailed off into the green and lost my patience. Of course, I used the swap car feature to swing into his seat and turn him backward on the track, just because I'm a vengeful jerk like that.
In general, the AI has improved quite a bit, though. It can just be a little frustrating if a teammate AI will PIT you into the wall (the precision immobilization technique cops use). It's more aggravating than usual because I just told this AI multiple times to drop back and move over, which he agreed to seconds before sending me to a fiery death and becoming my rival.
The last thing I really want to touch on before cutting out is the basic technical side of NASCAR. The multiplayer still works well, the sound quality still rocks even if this one does feature the largest collection of Joe Satriani in gaming history, but Total Team Control doesn't feel like an enormous technical advancement over Chase for the Cup. At least, it's not such a big improvement as the last game was over Thunder before it.
There have been additions, but it's getting to the point where I'd happily sacrifice some of the trackside detail and soft lighting effects for a crisper overall image and a smoother framerate, especially on PS2 where the aliased graphics and sporadic performance can hurt play and result in three-wide crashes on tight courses. But then when I bring up these complaints I must also remind myself that not long ago -- on this very generation of gaming systems -- NASCAR titles were limited to between 16 and 20 cars on-screen.
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