By Todd Zuniga 04/12/2007 Not only does NASCAR have some of the U.S. of A.'s most passionate fans, the videogame, while oft-criticized for being little more than a "turn left" experience, has had some significant innovations for the racing genre. First EA stuck a whopping 43 cars in one race. Then it established grudges and allies, and went on to include team racing in what is generally thought of as an individual sport. At a recent press event, we got some hands-on time with EA's stock car franchise as it accelerates onto next-gen systems with NASCAR 08.
The new game's tagline (and major selling point) is, "Can you handle the car of tomorrow?" In real life, NASCAR's move to safer, more aerodynamic and slightly slower cars next season intends to make the races more exciting than ever -- something the game aims to capitalize on. But not to worry; the stock cars we've seen 'round the tracks for ages will be included as well.
With the leap to next-gen, though, the graphics are the most obvious prize. The dusk to night transitions are superb, as it feels like you're racing on two different tracks over the course of a long race. The dynamic light and shadows really make the visuals pop. When there's a spin out, the smoke effects are outrageously good, occasionally creating Days of Thunder-type of moments after big crashes. But the smoke looks best when you're spinning your wheels during a victory celebration, kicking up tons of dust with your sticker-covered speed machine.
[Click the image above to check out all NASCAR 08 screens.]
If you make it to the finish line, that is. The new damage system is miles beyond anything we've seen in a NASCAR game before, as the car can break apart in realistic and not-so-realistic ways. It's breathtaking to see a car lose control, flip over, and kick up dirt on the infield.
But all of this is expected for next-gen. What's unexpected is how far the creators have gone to coax NASCAR nay-sayers behind the wheel. The Chase mode kicks off with licenses -- like many racing games today. But the mode plays like a fun NASCAR class. You'll learn how to manage your tire wear, how to effectively draft, how to deal with angles on banks, and how to keep your engine cool when the action's white hot. The mode puts you in full control of your car throughout the race -- in a way that doesn't feel overwhelming.
The game has plenty for NASCAR nuts, often in subtle ways. For instance, there's a bump when you come out of the tunnel at Daytona. Drivers talk about it all the time, we're told, but such slight details weren't possible on the PS2. Now, after you shift gears to next-gen, you can be part of that conversation.