NHRA: Countdown to the Championship Review
There's a relatively standard format for most all racing games: a track, some cars, and a start and finish line. But in this particular racing title, you spend far more time preparing and tuning than you do actually racing...the races aren't more than a few seconds long. It's NHRA: Countdown to the Championship, and you'll be flying down a quarter-mile track in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock events, all of which are designed to cater to the micromanagement drag fans. And while the depth of the tweaking is impressive, there's one major problem with this budget title- it simply isn't fun for the vast majority of gamers. If they could've managed to bring the intensity of the sport to the virtual screen, it would've been great, but NHRA is too tedious for its own good.
The graphics are vintage budget: it's a little blurry, it's not very detailed, and the typical last-generation drawbacks are evident. But even so, it's a pretty consistent visual presentation, and one that shouldn't dissuade hardcore fans of drag racing. Obviously, you don't spend a great deal of time on the track, so we should also score the menu interaction graphics as well...and, umm...it works. That's about the best that can be said for it, primarily because we were hoping for a more robust and engaging off-the-track graphical palette. Hey, we're spending much of our time tuning and upgrading our highly complex vehicles, so either the racetrack needs to be brilliant, or the extra visuals had best be accomplished and absorbing. Unfortunately, we kinda get caught in the middle for both, and while this one doesn't look too bad, it falls well shy of later - and bigger budget - PS2 productions.
The sound doesn't fare much better, even though the engine growls and bursts are faithfully recreated for the game and there's some nice quality when on the track. The announcer, despite being quite clear and well balanced with the sound effects, is both boring and repetitive, and the music is generic and hardly involving. The sound relies heavily on the explosive impact of those ridiculously powerful engines, which does indeed serve its purpose. But as we said earlier, you don't spend a great deal of time racing, so the best aspect of the sound isn't always part of the experience. As we play, we hear far more of the menu music and mini-effects as we tinker around with our race cars, and in that vein, the sound isn't very impressive. Again, though, it's similar to the graphics in that this category is passable (especially for fans of NHRA), but it falls well short of being anything special.
In most racing games, even in many of the so-called simulators, novices can persevere with only a little effort. You'll probably even recognize most of the terminology, even if you're not entirely sure what each word means...but in the world of drag racing, you may not have the slightest clue. And in this particular case, that's a crippling factor, which is why NHRA: Countdown to the Championship seems best suited for avid followers of the sport. For example, you may spend a lot of time learning just how to start a race, and even more time attempting to nail the timing down to a science. Those who aren't familiar should absolutely check out the Tutorials at the start so they can learn about tuning, burnouts, staging, racing and analysis. Were you aware you burned a little ways down the strip before racing? Are you capable at shifting gears on the fly for Pro Stock? If not, the learning curve of this game could be a hell of a lot steeper than you might think...
But let's start with the difficult basics (no, that's not an oxymoron in this case)- the number of options afforded the player is actually quite staggering. Depending on which event you participate in, you will be altering the tire pressure, rear wings, front ballast, compression ratio, overdrive sliders, and weight settings. Obviously, even the slightest tweak can drastically change how your vehicle performs on the track, so you should definitely get an education. Each option comes with a standard description, but you can find a more advanced explanation if you check with crew chiefs. Thankfully, you can use an "auto-tune" feature by simply getting your crew chief to implement his best recommendations (these setups will change with different chiefs). But even if you dedicate your own time and effort to learning each and every tuning possibility, you've still got to learn and understand the race start sequence. Here is where you'll encounter the burning and staging, which are essential to your ultimate success.
Early on, you'll be suffering plenty of disqualifications due to a variety of miscues. The most common of these will center on lining up for the start; it's easily the most frustrating part of the gameplay. The concept should be simple- drive forward slowly, stop at the line, and wait for the green to floor it. But you'll constantly be overshooting the starting line - it results in an immediate DQ - because your car moves forward by itself, and you have to stop it in exactly the right spot. The text prompts on the screen are fine ("drive forward," "drive forward slowly," and "inch forward"), but even the slightest move past "inch forward" means you went too far, and you're forced to start the entire process over again. It's an absurd flaw because it completely takes the player out of the game and causes us to lose interest ultra-fast. Staging is supposed to be a pinpoint and intricate process, but the unforgivable controls seem far too sensitive, and this will inhibit your entertainment almost immediately from the get-go.
Of course, you could halt the car further back; it's an obvious disadvantage but at least you won't risk constant DQs. And besides, you'll have the chance to actually race, which may seem like an absolute novelty after the struggle to begin the contest. And when you finally get rolling, you get to see an entirely new dimension of the game, and it's the most appealing feature: the realism and control you're required to have over your rocket-like vehicle. Not only do you need finely honed reflexes to get a good start out of the gate, but you also need to use a deft hand to correct your line and keep everything going smoothly. For example, you have to pump the gas if your tires start to smoke (skidding is bad), you need to release your chute at the right time, and you shouldn't push your engine too far on a particularly hot day. This almost makes NHRA: Countdown to the Championship worth the tedium of and clumsiness the player must deal with throughout the game...almost. If you have the patience and the interest to see it through to the end, you should be satisfied with what you find.
The rewards are high, and provided you can handle the quick shifting in the Pro Stock and all the infinitesimal adjustments here and there, you will enjoy yourself for a while. But it just doesn't make any effort to appeal to those who aren't familiar with drag racing, and due to a somewhat clunky interface and over-sensitivity in the Staging part of the process, the gameplay is more a practice in tolerance. The good news is that the computer AI isn't infallible, and each and every one of your alterations could prove significant in the long run. If you can nail down the correct balance, and if you can somehow avoid chucking your controller at the television screen every time you get disqualified for yet another reason you didn't foresee...well, then you just might see all the good NHRA has to offer. Problem is, not everyone will do this. Furthermore, the game gives you no real incentive to slog through the learning curve, and that creates an even bigger problem.
And on top of this, even though there are more than enough tuning options, the rest of the game just feels bland and unfinished. The Season mode consists of a bunch of events strung together, and the entire process - regardless of which mode you select - feels extremely repetitive and unrefined. But for those few seconds when you're hurtling down the stretch, neck and neck with your opponent (maybe), the game suddenly shines very brightly. It's just that, all the stuff leading up to that excellent adrenaline rush isn't implemented well enough. There are a lot of drivers and cars, and those mechanical alterations are both numerous and necessary, but unless you're a big-time fan, this one probably isn't for you. NHRA: Countdown to the Championship is an okay effort, but it's hampered by average technicals, insane repetitiveness, outrageously frustrating preparation, and only fleeting moments of fun.
8/14/2007 Ben Dutka