Replay Value: 9.8
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Number Of Players: 1-2
When I first sat down to play EA's latest offering in the Nascar genre, I was a bit skeptical. Knowing very little about the sport of Nascar, I was preparing myself for a slight let down. The few times that I've flipped thru channels and saw a Nascar event on television, I wasn't drawn or compelled to watch for very long. It looked boring and repetitive with the exception of your occasional collisions and crashes. Therefore, keep in mind that this review is coming from someone who has very limited knowledge of Nascar racing.
Looking at the graphics, I find that most of EA's sports games visually get the job done, but don't blow you away. With Nascar Thunder 2003, the same can be said as I found that the graphics were adequate, but they didn't amaze or wow me very often. The only negative thing I have to say about the graphics during any given race, is that they don't really make you feel like you are going 200+ MPH (even though it might say that on your speedometer). The only indication that you are going really fast is when you try and take a turn at a high speed, and if you fail to slow down or break in time, you end up crashing into the wall.
The player is given a good choice between camera angles. There is the option of 4 different perspectives which include 2 inside the car views (one where the camera is pressed to the windshield and another where you see the driver and the steering wheel), an outside the car close and finally, outside the car far. I found myself using outside the car far, only because it allows you see if anyone is trying to pass you on the left or right hand side of the track. The user can customize the screen during the race with the option to have the rear view mirror and speedometer on or off, as well as toggle between a map of the track and a diagram of your car which shows you the condition of things such as your tires and bumpers.
Where the graphics really shine in this game is when you realize the fact that there are 43 cars racing around the track without any noticeable slow down. Also, before each race the camera pans around the track giving the player a good feeling of what it would the course looks like in real life. This definitely helps build mood and atmosphere and despite the fact that every track has a similar oval shape, there are noticeable difference that makes each track unique.
The other thing that really appealed to me is the instant replays that occur during any kind of crash. This works out perfectly as you are treated to a zoomed in view where you can see what happened from multiple camera angles. The graphical detail shown in these replays is pretty amazing as various dents and body damage is very noticeable. When your car gets damaged, it both looks and feels that way. At the end of each race, you can also see some replays of key scenes regarding your car's performance, and these can be slowed down to see details that you might have missed in the heat of the race.
Finally, the pit crew animations are done quite well, and EA has made the pit stops a bit more exciting by having your crew make mistakes from time to time. For example, you might see your right tire changer bump into the guy filling up your tank with gas, and as a result, there will be a loss of precious seconds. All this was done using motion capture, and it makes for some tense excitement as you sit there and cross your fingers hoping everything goes smoothly.
Not being a die hard fan of Nascar, what drew me to the game was the different number of features. I have always been intrigued when game developers try to make games have more depth and in this year's version of Nascar Thunder, there is plenty of depth. To start off there is Nascar Thunder's deep career mode, which is where most gamers will spend the bulk of their time. Like most of the other sports games out on the market, Nascar Thunder offers multiple seasons of play (20 to be exact). The game puts you in the position of a rookie Nascar driver, who must first design a car from scratch. You start off by picking color schemes as well as the model of your car (Dodge, Pontiac, Ford, Chrysler). While this is purely an exercise in aesthetics, (as your car will perform the same way, no matter what you pick), it gives the player some freedom in what their car will look like.
Once this has been done, it is time to get into the more intriguing aspects of Nascar racing. You need a lot of money in order to race competitively each week, and in order to do this, you need to sign sponsors. There are many sponsors who are willing to pay you, but the key thing here is that at the beginning, you cannot be greedy. The first career that I started, I foolishly signed top sponsors like McDonalds or UPS who offered to pay top dollar for each race. However, I quickly found out that I was making no money. You cannot blindly do anything in this game, and you must be very careful as to your sponsor's requirements. Some are quite easy (i.e. finish the race), while others are a lot more difficult (i.e. finish in the top 10).
After picking a sponsor and getting a little money, your next step is to sign a pit crew. The game puts you in the shoes of something similar to the GM of a sports franchise where you have to pick everyone from the guy who fills up the tank with gas, to the guy who changes your right tires. At first, you won't have too many people to chose from (since few skilled pit crew members want to work with a rookie team), but as your career progresses, you will have a broader group to decide from. What is neat is that the pit crew members have different attributes such as skill, speed and potential. With other details such as name, age and salary, it makes it interesting when deciding who you are going to hire.
Once this is done it is time to race, but be prepared to draw on your reserves of patience. With Nascar Thunder 2003, you must have a lot of patience that will enable you to stick with the game and not get frustrated. Unless you get very lucky, your car will not be competitive during the early part of your career. Therefore you have to be able to live with finishes of below 20th, and hopefully, the sponsor you chose can also live with these finishes. The good thing is that if you exceed your sponsors expectations, their prestige factor goes up, and they are more likely to resign with you (typically, they sign on for 9 races). If you consistently fail to meet their requirements, then you are in trouble. If your sponsor's prestige or happiness drops too much, then you will get little or no money at the end of each race, and you will be unable to conduct repairs or pay your pit crew. If this happens, a vicious circle starts where you will do worse and worse and pretty soon, your sponsor will simply drop you. The first career mode I started had to be deleted, as this is exactly what happened to me. The second time around, I was a lot more careful, and I actually managed to finish 17th in the Daytona 500.
After each race, you must decide what to do with your winnings. Usually, one of your engines or chassis needs repairs, so a little money has to be invested in your garage. As well, one of the coolest features I found was the Research and Development option. You have mechanics and engineers in your pay roll, and you can use your winnings to develop a better engine, or better tire grip. This feature is very similar to anyone who has played strategy games such as Civilizations or Age of Empires. Depending on how much money you can invest, improvements in R&D can be done quickly or take a long time (anywhere from 3 races to 9 races). Once something has been successfully researched, you can build better engines and work on other improvements to your car that will make you more competitive and help you win more money. A stronger, faster car means you can do better in the standings, and therefore sign better sponsors, which in turn pays more per race. The game forces you to think long term, and at the beginning, you must set your expectations low if you want to succeed from season to season.
Although I have talked a lot about the career mode, this isn't the only mode in the game. In fact, this game is so deep, it would take anyone many hours to explore all that it has to offer. There is something called "Lightning Mode" (which apparently is a knock-off from Nascar Heat's Challenge mode). This is actually an incredible mode which I wish other sports games would incorporate. It puts you in the drivers seat of various Nascar drivers during one of the highlights of their career. The actual Nascar drive comes on screen to explain the background of the situation, what he had to do to win, and then he challenges you do repeat what he has done. The game then puts you into this driver's respective car, and you have to pull off the same maneuvers that allowed them to come away with the big win. For someone who knows little about Nascar, I found this to be an excellent way to learn about the different memorable moments in Nascar, and it is especially neat when you hear how it happened from the driver himself.
Things get even more interesting because upon successfully completing each challenge, you can unlock what are called Thunder Plates. These are the equivalent of Madden and NHL cards, and they enable you to unlock things in the game. For Nascar Thunder, the things you can unlock include drivers, tracks and race videos. This is great for when you need a break from the season or career modes, and I thought it was an excellent way of making extra features available in the game. Some of the rewards that are unlocked can even be incorporated into the other parts of the game, such as paint schemes, which you can then use to create a new car and import it into your career.
The other game modes that are offered include Season mode (similar to Career, except that you can assume the persona of your favorite Nascar driver, and try and complete one season with them, using their car), and Thunder License. For someone with little experience with Nascar, Thunder License was a good way to learn how the sport works, and how to play the game. The course covers everything from turning to braking and gives you a feel for how to play the game.
There really isn't much remarkable about the sound in this game other than the music. I have noticed that EA's 2003 sports titles contain a good number of well chosen tracks to go with the game. With Nascar Thunder, these tracks only play during the replays or end of game highlights which is a little unfortunate. Nothing was more fun than racing a car in Grand Turismo 3 and choosing the songs that would play as you drive, and it is a shame this cannot be done in Nascar Thunder.
Other than the motors revving and the sound of rubber squealing when you break into sharp turns, the only other effects worth noting is your pit chief either congratulating you for making a great pass, or harassing you for scratching the car, or hitting the wall. Most times, the chief's comments are actually funny and well deserved. I cannot count the number of times he asked me "Are you sure you're a professional?" or told me that "You'd better help out with the body work this week". Unfortunately, these get old fast, and there isn't enough variety in the comments to keep it fresh. There is also some commentary at the beginning of the race where the announcers talk about a few of the drivers and how their season is going. Most times, they didn't have anything good to say about me, as I have yet to gain a 1st place finish in the game, but it gives you a little insight as to who the top drivers are.
The game controls handle pretty well, but for the most part, you just keep the gas pressed down, and either let up or brake during turns. This is pretty simple and you will find yourself limited to using the X and square buttons. In this sense, there isn't much you can do with the controls and I found that how well you did in each race had more to do with the performance and setting up of your car than any control techniques. Nothing is wrong with that as I found this to be the case with most car games.
Overall, Nascar Thunder 2003 is a great game. With it's 20 season career mode, it brings a huge amount of depth and replay value similar to Madden or NFL 2K3's franchise modes. Even with no knowledge of Nascar racing, I was drawn in to the challenge of courting sponsors and hiring my pit crew. Every time you win a race, you get excited to see what you can spend with your winnings to improve your car, and the research and development feature is well executed.
For fans of Nascar I cannot think of what is missing from the game. All the tracks are here, as well as the drivers, cars and sponsors. Lightning mode is a great feature I wish EA would add to all sports games, as it puts in the driver seat of classic moments in Nascar history. The Thunder licenses are great for those who like unlocking things in the game, and in my opinion, is works better than the cards from EA's other sports titles.
I think that one of the reasons why I liked this game so much because I wasn't expecting much out of it. In the end though, I think any fan of racing games would be wise to pick this title up. It might deter some gamers because of it's high learning curve (tinkering with the car's setup each race isn't for everyone), and if you're the type of person who has to win every race you'd best shy away, as even on rookie mode, this game is extremely challenging. However, if you're willing to stick with the game, the rewards and satisfaction that they bring is well worth it. In my opinion, Nascar Thunder 2003 is a good example of what racing is all about. Bumping cars out of the way and making your way from 40th position to 1st as you zoom around a tight track filled with 43 cars is what anyone who loves racing games craves. Many games try to emulate this, but Nascar is one of the few that does it very successfully.