To me, the sport of NASCAR is a bit like classic Russian literature. I respect it, but I don't really claim to understand it. I can never keep all the characters straight, and I eventually just fall asleep during the dull bits.
There is drama and excitement to be found in NASCAR but it's not easily translated into videogame fun, which may be why Electronic Arts, sole owner of the sport's game licensing rights, has struggled with the franchise in recent years. People love the sport because it's an American institution peppered with friendly, colorful personalities who just happen to be highly skilled race car drivers. The races can be thrilling at times, but the cars all look the same, only turn left most of the time and can remain separated by just a couple seconds for most for the race. That's a recipe for a pretty dull videogame experience.
And it's a recipe EA followed almost to the letter. Like others before it, NASCAR 09 is just a functional stock car racing game that offers no major innovation. Rather than overhaul the franchise and start from scratch, Tiburon took the basic framework of NASCAR 08, and added a few features, most of which don't add anything particularly exciting to the experience.
The big sell this time around is the inclusion of a photorealistic Jeff Gordon, whose fully digitized self guides you through the game, whether encouraging you to sign a new sponsor or consoling you awkwardly when your racing team boots you for underperforming. It's a creepily realistic feature, but it adds nothing except star power to the experience.
Once Gordon gets you started, it's off to the races in the Nationwide, Craftsman Truck or Sprint Cup series. In the career mode, called the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, you start out at the beginning of the racing season and make your way through, building reputation points as you go along. Gaining rep opens up sponsorship and team opportunities. But since there's no currency in NASCAR 09, sponsorship deals don't make you cash, so I'm really not sure why the rep function exists at all. Performance points are what really matter and you rack them up by fulfilling sponsorship obligations and completing Sprint Driver Challenges.
Each challenge tests you on NASCAR racing skills including pit entry, drafting, speed maintenance, hitting your racing line, passing and avoiding wrecks. Completing a challenge opens up related tests, of which there are 77 in all, and nets you performance points. These points can be dropped into four general categories: speedway, superspeedway, short track and road course. Within those categories are separate slots for more detailed upgrades. It's a bare-bones system that doesn't affect your individual vehicles but your overall garage, depending on what series you're racing.
But NASCAR 09 does let you dig deep to tailor the experience to your liking. There are two basic difficulty levels – normal and pro. Pro mode lets you tweak car controls like traction and steering for a simulation approach, while normal mode locks those controls in a pre-set position, giving a more arcade-like feel to driving. In either mode, you can fully adjust your car setup, tweaking everything from camber to differential ratio, and save and upload it.
There's also a fairly detailed in-game paint shop that lets you design your car the way you see fit, whether it's adding flames or old-school stripes to your ride. EA also introduced a custom online paint system with NASCAR 09, but it's so tedious to use that most gamers will never even touch it. It involves downloading a template, importing it into a professional image editing program, creating your design, downloading a third-party plugin, using said plugin to save your file, uploading that file to the EA Website (after creating an account and separate persona), then downloading the design to your console. If you're truly dedicated and get that far, only the people on your friends list will be able to see it online. To everyone else, your car will appear putty-gray. A far cry from Forza Motorsport 2's friendly livery system.
But image isn't everything, and NASCAR 09 does include a number of actual racing preferences. You can choose whether to run with black flags, yellow flags or no caution at all. I raced most of my first career on normal mode with only yellow caution flags turned on. I easily won almost every race I entered. IGN Xbox associate editor Nate Ahearn won a race on normal mode at Daytona using only the rear camera view, if that tells you anything. Turning black flags on makes things a bit more difficult on normal mode, but that challenge comes at the cost of relentless monotony.
Even casually tapping bumpers with the car ahead will get you black flagged, and then you'll have to roll slowly through pit road while the race continues without you. You can't skip this animation, and you can't even change your camera view while you wait to re-enter the race. Isn't losing a lap punishment enough? Like most of NASCAR 09, getting a caution flag – even a yellow – is an exercise in the mundane. Pitting is also boring, as there are no mini-games or quick-time events to keep things interesting. After 20 laps on a perfectly oval track, anything to break up the monotony would be nice.
As with NASCAR 08, there are no team dynamics this time around – you'll be racing in a vacuum except for the disembodied voice of your spotter, who is helpful on the turns but gives terrible advice. Even if I had just pitted moments ago, he nearly always suggested I pit on a caution lap, regardless of my car's condition.
NASCAR 09 lacks the details that help make a great-looking racing game. The crashes are unspectacular and the collision physics at times border on the ridiculous. For many NASCAR fans and casual observers, the crashes are part of the draw and little of that excitement is present in NASCAR 09. Most collisions are preceded by slight slowdown, which sucks the drama out of the moment of impact, and the game seems designed to discourage wrecks. That's a noble effort on EA's part to dissuade people from glorifying automotive carnage, but let's face it -- crashing cars is fun. Except in NASCAR 09.
In third-person view, your driver is completely stationary and never moves his hands on the steering wheel. This looks especially antiquated in the already hobbled celebration mode, when you're driving around in tight circles on close-up with no camera control. The third-person also suffers from some perspective problems that make your car somehow appear disproportionately larger than the cars passing you. It's a strange effect that multiple IGN editors scratched their heads over when watching or playing NASCAR 09.
There are other missing details and disappointing exclusions – you can drive through cars on pit road during practice runs; the replay mode only records a few of your laps; the AI drivers rarely spin out or crash unless you're involved; and your career seasons end with little fanfare.
The multiplayer (which is online only, no split-screen) takes the dullness of the single-player mode and drags it onto the Internet. There are ranked and un-ranked matches available, and you have full control over how you want to find or set up matches. You can choose tracks, damage, flag rules, and more, customizing your races to your specifications. The races we ran over Xbox Live functioned well, although we did see a bit of funky lag here and there. My main issue with NASCAR 09's multiplayer was that I had to wait in lobbies for 20 minutes before the 10-minute races actually got underway. And two thirds of each race unfolded under caution, which makes for a less than thrilling online experience.
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