Stock car racing is a way of life for me -- something that I grew up around; something my family used to plan vacations around; it's in my blood. And, as NASCAR is the premier stock car racing series in the world, I take my NASCAR very seriously. So I've followed the progress of the games ever since crap like Bill Elliott's NASCAR Challenge came to the NES back in 1991.
Say what you will about EA's NASCAR endeavors: They've gotten gradually better as the years have worn on. It seems like Tiburon (a studio in the heart of NASCAR country) is constantly learning from their mistakes year in and year out. Each game is a bit rough around the edges, but almost always a bit better than the one before.
[Click the image above to check out all NASCAR 08 screens.]
In a lot of ways, NASCAR 08 continues that important trend. The on-track gameplay this year is the best it's ever been from a control standpoint. The cars handle like the high-horsepower rear-wheel-drive monsters they really are. Laying on the gas coming out of a relatively tight turn is a good way to end up facing the wrong direction as your rear end kicks out and the tires scream for grip. Likewise, plowing into the turns with a full head of steam is a great way to nose into the new, safer barriers, which for all their purported "soft-wall technology" still tear the hell out of a right front fender.
Yes, despite the fact that most NASCAR races are run in circles, this really is a finesse sport. And NASCAR 08 conveys that beautifully thanks to the aforementioned controls and the wonderful sense of traffic on the track (42 cars in National and Nextel competition, 36 in Craftsman truck races). Unless you want to be black-flagged for rough driving, using your competition as a bumper to get through the turn simply won't work this year.
And some of the minutiae that went missing in previous years are here, as well. Things like the relatively new green-white-checkered rule, or the lucky dog award given to the first driver scored one lap down on a caution -- things that those who don't know the sport inside and out have never really missed, but that are so important to re-creating the experience.
To help the rookie crowd learn how to drive these beasts (along with the newly-standard "Cars of Tomorrow"), EA has included more setup options than ever before in their console NASCAR games, as well as a series of license tests designed to familiarize folks with the intricacies of oval racing: Learning to draft, slingshot, find the best line, et cetera.
None of this is new, but the implementation of said tests is the real difference in NASCAR 08. It's also what completely kills career mode. This year instead of starting a single-car team and trying to work your way up to the status of Nextel Cup Champion, career mode consists of a series of tests and contract races that are required in order to earn your own cars and upgrades and to actually compete. Before you can even run your first two career events, you'll have suffered through 20 different license tests and around 10 contract (read: meaningless) races.
It's incredibly frustrating, and most veterans probably won't want to bother, focusing instead on the standard season modes. It's too bad, too -- the previous years' games have all featured very compelling career modes. Why Tiburon made the choices they did here is just confusing. Not only is it too heavy with the licensing on the front end, but it completely destroys any feeling of real-world progress. The Craftsman and National series (both included in the game) are completely inconsequential now. The previously included Featherlite series has been excised entirely. And housekeeping like signing sponsors and building new cars is nonexistent, something fans of the sport and its intricacies will sorely miss. The career mode doesn't actually feel like...well, a career anymore.
[Click the image above to check out all NASCAR 08 screens.
The only other major issue people will have with NASCAR 08 is the behavior of the computer-controlled drivers out on the track. And the odd part is that they only seem to act up at certain venues, while they're quite normal at others. Run a few laps on the road course at Watkins Glen and you won't have any problems. But tackle 42 other drivers in the bullring at Bristol and prepare for some major headaches. Drivers on this track just don't seem to know you're there through the turns. Even if you set up a pass well before you enter a turn (i.e., don't "cannonball" underneath someone once they've already committed to a racing line), your opponents still tend to pull down into you, either forcing you to wreck them (and thus possibly earning you a black flag), or forcing you down onto the apron, where the chances of a spin increase a hundredfold. It's like everyone's driving in the throes of a Tony Stewart temper tantrum.
And then there's Martinsville, where the other cars tend to brake really, really early down the long straights, leading to a lot of nose-to-tail collisions. Or how about Daytona and Talladega? While it's really great that other drivers will actually bump draft a bit now (the art of slamming into the car ahead of you in order to give it a speed boost), for some reason they don't seem to understand that it's best not to do so through the turns. Racing in a tight pack around those gigantic tracks should be intense, but not because you're in jeopardy of getting dumped every time you enter the turn.
Other minor issues have to do with what's been left out this year. Along with the aforementioned Featherlite series (a real shame), superstar driver Carl Edwards is MIA again this year. And while NASCAR goes on and on about spreading the love to other countries this season, neither of the events in Mexico or Canada are represented in NASCAR 08.
And despite all that, NASCAR 08 is still a good -- if not great -- game. Learn to deal with the artificial intelligence on particular tracks, and the experience in an enjoyable one. Just as long as you're not looking for a very deep -- or even all that logical -- career mode. It seems like the leap to PS3/360 didn't hurt NASCAR as much as it has some of EA's other sports franchises, but NASCAR 08 still could have been a lot better.