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I almost, almost, spent way too much of my money buying the recently released NASCAR 08, from Electronic Arts (EA).  It was on my list, I had a deposit down on it, I had been waiting impatiently for it, but...  A friend reminded me of just how quickly the values drop in the video gaming world (he had tried to trade in last year's Madden game for this year's NCAA game and was offered a whopping $2 for it at his local EB/Gamestop store) so I decided instead that it would make more sense to just rent the game first and try it before I bought it.

NASCAR 08 cover
Cover linked from Wikipedia.org

I've tried a few gaming rental situations in the past, found Gameznflix.com lacking (they are dirt cheap, but their service suffers for it), my local Blockbuster brick & mortar store very much lacking in inventory and choice, and had little or no other local alternatives so I took advise from some friends and gave Gamefly.com a try.  Gamefly.com isn't the cheapest out there, but they seem to have the best reputation.  An alternative is Gamerang.com, but they are priced in line with Gamefly.com and aren't as well known/advertised.  I digress though, as this article isn't about rental companies, it's about NASCAR 08.

NASCAR 08 is the latest in the NASCAR gaming series from EA Sports.  The EA Sports that has the exclusive license to NASCAR (as well as the NFL), therefore the only gaming company that will be making available any NASCAR game will be, well, EA.  I wouldn't necessarily say that is a bad thing, but as in the football gaming world, I do still strongly believe that competition is a good thing and that we get better products when there is competition.

... continued in the comments area.  Please continue there to see the rest of this article.

on Jul 30, 2007

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Prior to NASCAR 08, and a very recent backwards compatibility update for the Xbox 360 that allows play of the older NASCAR game (Total Control or Team Control, or whatever the subtitle was for the game released about 3 years ago), there was no hope of playing a NASCAR type game on the Xbox 360.  Older titles weren't playable thanks to the lack of backwards compatibility modules.  Even if they were available, the graphics would be dated at this point, and spoiled babies like me would probably look at them and just get all the more frustrated at the lack of a game for the newest consoles.

NASCAR 08 was announced some time back, and once it was, people like me started getting the anticipatory jitters and started getting excited at the possibility of playing a NASCAR game on the Xbox 360 (and other console systems).  Visions of updated graphics, and improvements to the game play, were dancing in our heads, as well as visions of championship points and cup trophies.

Speaking of visions, well, please forgive the bad seque here, but visually speaking NASCAR 08 delivers.  The graphics are purty, at least for the cars and track.  The grandstands and other background maybe yes, maybe no.  Hard to say since I didn't see that much of them.  But, the cars and track look great.  Not ultra realistic, not so realistic you think you are looking at a TV broadcast of an actual race, but darned nice.

Image from NASCAR 08
Screen shot linked from EA.com

Unfortunately though, beyond the graphics lie a lot of frustrating problems for rookie drivers, uh, gamers, that want to play NASCAR 08 on their systems.

First there are issues with controls.  Using an gamepad/arcade style controller for the game is incredibly frustrating.  The controls, no matter how you adjust the few available adjustments in the settings area, are just far too touchy.  Move the joy stick even a hair and you oversteer and start wiggling out of control.  The game cries for the use of a racing/steering wheel.  An add-on item that adds considerable expense to the cost of the game if you really want to play it.  Even then, you may still find the game difficult to control and steer, and of course you have to have room in your gaming area for setting up the wheel in a manner condusive to gaming and your own personal comfort.

Image from NASCAR 08
Screen shot linked from EA.com

Add on top of that frustration the frustration of computer controlled drivers out on the track with you that have absolutely no intention of letting you have an easy time out on the track.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but in the implementation in this game, well, it is.  The computer controlled drivers give absolutely no quarter.  They'll rub you, they'll bump you, they'll spin you out, and otherwise use highly aggressive techniques to keep you from accomplishing your goals.  Even on the 'easy' settings, the computer controlled drivers are far too aggressive and instead of being simply competitive, they're going to be obstacles to you getting through a day without tearing your car up completely.  Of course those same computer controlled players won't bump and grind on each other, only *you* the non-a.i. driver on the track.

The game includes several 'mini-games' that are supposed to help train players on how to get better at the game, including learning how to hold the racing line, how to navigate through a wreck, how to hold your speed, how to draft, etc.  Those are implemented well, and they do a decent job of helping to get you used to how the game will work.  Sadly though, once you start a race, you are up against the darned a.i., and you stand virtually no chance at getting through a race without severe damage to your ride that will put you at the back of the pack.  Never mind letting faster cars pass you so you can draft behind them.  If you do that, you'll just keep falling further back and oh, yeah, keep getting bumped and rubbed until your car is the slowest turtle out on the track.

Image from NASCAR 08
Screen shot linked from EA.com

I could understand, and even forgive, the game for being too harsh in that area if I was trying to playing it on some diffiiculty level other than easy, but instead of getting to have a fun time driving around in the circle and turning left, instead I got treated to utter frustration no matter what I tried to do.

For the ultimate NASCAR fan, NASCAR 08 is loaded with a lot of things that a fan should want to try out, tinker with, and learn from.  As a simulator it's a great package.  You can tinker with so many different set-ups and settings for your car that you can take your own best shot at being a crew chief or NASCAR engineer.  That is great for later in the game, after you've learned the ropes some, after you've finished in the top of a few races and you start hungering for more, but until you've done that, you're likely to feel unfulfilled and unhappy about the game.

EA seems to have forgotten that the cart comes after the horse, and they've given buyers and players of this game such a pain-in-the-posterior to get through before paying off with those extras.

I know I'm focusing on the single player modes here, and so far I've not addressed the idea of racing against other human controlled cars via Xbox Live.  You may think that is where I could get rid of my unhappiness with the game and be happier that the other players aren't out there trying to wreck me.  Unfortunately you can't count on that on Xbox Live.  In fact, just the opposite can be found much of the time.  Some gamers will intentionally try to crash as many cars as they can when racing against others.  It's just a fact that Xbox Live has way too many jerks on it, many of which will grab a rental of a game like this and behave like a horse's rump in the races they get into.  You can boot the jerks, give them a bad rating/reputation, but as quickly as you get rid of one, you find another ready to take their place.

So, you suggest playing with friends?  Sure.  You can form up your own leagues/groups and race and that is a great idea.  But what happens when several of the people in the group are not as talented as others?  What happens if one of the people in the group doesn't have their controls down as well as they should and they wind up spinning out consistently?  They wind up getting kicked to the curb and never getting a chance to learn how to get better.  Even if you do form your own groups, you could still have issues if you have a few computer controlled cars in the races with you as those cars will drive the lesser players crazy, possibly wrecking them, and in turn potentially gumming up the works for the better players.

I hope that at some point in the future EA gets things right and offers up a game that treats n00bs as well as they seem to be trying to treat the higher caliber players with NASCAR 08.  I know I tend to look at games such as their NCAA series, or the MADDEN football series and hate on them for making those games too easy, always seeming to include 'money plays' and stupid a.i. that never catches on to a players habits.  They seem to have taken that advise a bit too seriously in the case of NASCAR 08 and instead they seem to have forgotten that there are lots of players out there looking for a game they can play and enjoy as they learn.

In summary, if you want a NASCAR racing game, rent this one.  Don't spend the money on it until you've tried it and learned what is to like and what is there to dislike about this on.  Hopefully things will improve via a patch, or in the form of next years racing game.  Until then, I wouldn't spend the money to buy this one.

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