Replay Value: 7.5
Perhaps Madden is EA Sports’ flagship franchise, but don’t think for a second that their equally long-running NASCAR series is significantly less popular. In fact, it’s one of the most popular sports on earth, and avid fans are always awaiting a better installment from EA each and every year. We always find more options, customization, and general tweaking with each new title, and this year’s is no exception…oh wait, yes it is. We were all prepared to write that semi-generic statement because we just assumed it would be true, but as it turns out, NASCAR 08 is a significant step backwards. The Chase is a great way to get players involved quickly and give it a Gran Turismo-esque feel with Licenses to earn through a variety of challenges, but that just gets too tedious, too quickly. The rest is an exercise in the mundane average and mediocrity, which is most unfortunate. What the heck happened here, EA?
This is supposed to be a PlayStation 3 game. It says so right on the box. The “PlayStation 3” logo pops up with that now-trademark electronic chime. So we know the facts, but when we get out on the track, NASCAR 08 doesn’t look much better than NASCAR 07…the PS2 version of 07. There are a lot of muddy textures, a serious lack of detail and clarity, and in general, this is an unappealing and unrefined visual presentation. The draw distance is decent and the wreckage detail isn’t bad – your car looks appropriately banged up after an accident – but this in no way is an example of high-quality next-generation graphics. We know EA has had problems with the PS3’s hardware, but we’ve also taken a gander at the Xbox 360 version, and the visuals aren’t any better. The graphics here are just…bad. It’s only the first year of the PS3’s existence, but we’ve already seen games that look far better, and that includes several launch titles. There’s no excuse for this one, EA.
Thankfully, the sound is a lot better, primarily due to the participation of real-life NASCAR announcers, solid sound effects, and a surprisingly good soundtrack. The racing effects sometimes leave a little something to be desired, though, as the squealing of tires or scraping of metal isn’t intense or realistic enough to keep the player absorbed. Unfortunately, the gameplay represents the low point of sound (despite good engine effects and radio voices from the crew) and the soundtrack and menu effects represent the high point. There’s a significant country and rock tinge to the songs, and with the help of professional NASCAR color men outlining your next challenge or explaining the race situation, the sound is certainly the best part of this game. Of course, we still have to talk about the gameplay, so that’s not exactly a good thing, but hey, we give credit where credit’s due. If only the graphics reflected a similar amount of effort and professionalism; then we might’ve had an okay-to-good technical production.
The first thing the game does – and it's not a bad idea – is this: it sucks you directly into The Chase, and you’re immediately trying out the first challenge on the list. You will complete a series of challenges (usually 10, but sometimes only 5) en route to earning the necessary Licenses and Contracts. Once you complete those, you can work your way towards owning and controlling your own team. This is exactly the type of thing that should entice hardcore fans of the sport, especially because you’ll be learning the tricks of the trade along the way. Essentially, you have to prove yourself before you can advance to the actual races, and while that can take a while, it’s a true test of skill, endurance, and determination. The only problem is…well, it takes a long while, and with extremely sub-par controls, the process can be so unbelievably tedious and mind-numbing, you’ll soon grow tired of the whole thing. Well, unless you're a really diehard fan.
The game does support a force feedback steering wheel, but if you don’t have that option, you’re stuck with the analog control. We have to say “stuck” because it’s ridiculously loose and erratic, which means you spend your life battling the controls and desperately trying to find the best possible setup. You can alter the responsiveness and linearity with sliders, but the default sucks and you’ve got to do some serious fiddling before you find a setting that’s even remotely accessible. This is a crippling issue, and one that puts a big-time hurt on the fun factor. You know, plenty of other racers utilize the analog, and many of them have turned out to be excellent. Therefore, it’s painfully clear EA just dropped the ball when it comes to control, and in a sport that relies heavily on pinpoint precision, that poses a problem. Racing in the midst of a full set of cars should be a harrowing experience, not an impossible one.
And for some reason, the developers decided to remove Total Team Control, a feature that made last year’s NASCAR title all the more intricate and appealing. Instead, we get a helpful yet very un-sim-like draft VTV function, which allows you to actually see the draft behind opponents. As any racing fan knows, the more you stay in the draft, the faster you will go, and you can use it to catch up to and “slingshot” around other racers. They abuse the hell out of this decent little feature, though, as far too many challenges focus on the draft tunnel and your ability to get in it, and stay in it for as long as possible. The challenges are various, as they range from passing a number of cars in a certain amount of time to slowing to pit road speed and entering the pits in the allotted time, but the drafting got boring after a while. It’s also a relatively lame visual effect, but then again, that just fits in with the rest of the lame graphics. We do appreciate the 40+ mechanical customization options, but they’re mostly reserved for the expert player.
The Chase is a great idea, but it’s extraordinarily linear. While there are plenty of things to do, and while you can select challenges in any order, you can’t advance until you complete certain Licenses and Contracts. Only when you’ve completed them can you move on to participating in real races, and it could take quite a long time before you get to that point. Furthermore, the setup for completing the challenges is a little bizarre and annoying: those of you familiar with the License Tests in the Gran Turismo titles are well aware of the bronze, silver, and gold medals you can obtain. That structure is here as well, but with an unfortunate twist. Rather than assigning a medal to your success based on your performance, you have to actually try for a certain medal, one at a time. In other words, if you select the bronze option test, you can only get the bronze regardless of how well you do. This can be immensely frustrating if you nail down a silver or gold run but it doesn’t count because you had selected the bronze (easy) test option.
There’s a decent amount of realism sprinkled throughout the gameplay, but they’ve taken away the flash of the crashes. Of course, you shouldn’t be trying to crash, but oftentimes, the caution comes out halfway through a wreck, well before the smoke has had a chance to clear. Just when the action starts, they stop it! How is that any fun? Fighting shouldn’t be part of hockey, either, but it is an attraction; imagine if you started swinging in a hockey game and you suddenly found yourself in the penalty box. Glorifying bad things is something video games take a lot of flak for, but hey, we’re talking about entertainment, and if you hadn’t noticed, it’s the wrecks that get all the airtime on ESPN. Speaking of the all-sports channel, there is a nice ESPN-based online option in this game, which is a good addition but again, one that isn’t likely to appeal to casual racing fans. If you’re just looking to sit down and race, you’re going to run into more than a few problems.
NASCAR 08 does a few things right, and too many things wrong. The control is borderline horrendous, the graphics are very disappointing, The Chase – while deep and rewarding – isn’t implemented very well, and besides the numerous pit and mechanical options, there’s a surprising lack of car customization features. There is a Career mode but no Season mode (another major drawback), and we had extreme difficulty in getting an online match going. It was fine when it worked, but that wasn’t often. We’re not really sure what caused EA to slack off on this one, but it’s not the kind of production we were expecting. It’s too bad, but NASACAR 08 isn’t worth your money, even if watching the Nextel Cup in a comfy armchair with a Bud is your idea of heaven on earth. That’s a better option than this game, anyway.