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NASCAR Thunder 2002 (PS2) Review

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Screens (8)


Last year EA gave us the utterly disgusting NASCAR 2001 on the PlayStation 2. The horrid graphics with its dodgy frame antics completely destroyed any gameplay associated with the title. One year later and with loads of development under their belts, EA puts a much better product out on the street this time around. NASCAR Thunder 2002, with its 43 car races, is a more enjoyable title than its predecessor. All the things left out in the 2001 version are here in full force for 2002. To add more incentive to purchase, EA gives us every track on the Winston Cup circuit.

Presentation/Graphics : 90
The first thing to mention about the graphics is that unlike 2001, the rearview mirror in 2002 doesn't cause the game to freak out and go into a graphical tailspin. Miraculously, EA did this even with 43 cars on the track at one time and better looking cars and tracks. Kudos to the developers for finally unleashing some PS2 power.

While there are 43 cars on track, diehard NASCAR fans may get bent out of shape by the lack of tobacco and alcohol sponsors in the game. Since kids can buy this title, law states no ciggy ads. To be honest, I don't miss the Winston or Miller logos in the game; I'm too busy concentrating on the racing. The cars that are there, however, look fantastic. Aside from the offending advertisers, the cars look picture perfect. Dale Jarrett's UPS car is spot on as is the Jeff Gordon's DuPont number 24. In addition, some cars have additional sticker schemes should you tire of the status quo.

The graphical amazement doesn't end with the decals. At times you'll notice some backfire flames coming from the exhaust of the cars. And when you smoke the tires, a fairly realistic smoke cloud forms and slowly dissipates. All the while the scorched tires leave a permanent mark on the track. Should a car spin and start going backwards, the required speed brake pops up on top of the car and keeps the car stable. Damage is visible, and if you scrape the wall enough, you find the side of your car is scratched up as you enter the pits. Finally, if you bang your car or one of an AI opponents hard enough, you can cause enough damage to start a fire with realistic looking flames.

The action is viewed from one of many vantage points. There are two third-person views and three first-person views. A bumper camera is available as well as a roof camera which gives you a sliver of the hood. For cockpit fans, the in-car view complete with a functional steering wheel and dash is present. In all views you can pop the rear view mirror up as well as various status indicators. Things like damage readouts, tracks maps, and timing information are laid out well on the screen.

Presentation/Audio : 75
There's not much to say about the sound in the game. The engine sounds are credible, tire squeal is realistic, and so on. Even bumping up against the wall or rear-ending another car seems accurate. About the only suspect sound is that of two cars scraping together - think of dragging a fork across a metal object. It's high-pitched and rather annoying.

One area where the sound affects gameplay is with the spotter's calls. While the spotter does a pretty good job, there have numerous occasions where he fails to mention a car behind you. I've been bumped many times on a rear quarter panel by an overzealous driver that doesn't show up in my rearview mirror. Like the Winston Cup drivers, I depend on my spotter to let me know where the field is, and unfortunately he tends to be asleep at times.

Interface : 90
Remember how everyone accused EA of holding back on their initial releases of PS2 games? Their second efforts have been feature packed, and Thunder is no exception. While you get the traditional racing modes of single races and seasons, an exhaustive and entertaining career mode has been added. The career mode allows you to race across multiple seasons and pick up sponsorship money and buy upgrades for your car and pit crew. You can even custom design your sticker and paint scheme for your car. During the season detailed stats are tracked. Stats include the appropriate Winston Cup scoring system (including bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps in a race), money earned, and positional stats.

In addition to the game modes, there are options to adjust the sound, controller mappings, video, and gameplay. Gameplay options include the use of yellow flags, driver aids, race length, and AI strength. All the options are easy to get to through the menus. The only problem I encountered with the menus is that some settings would reset after a qualifying session and you would have to modify them again once in a race.

When I first started playing Thunder, I wasn't too pleased with the control when using the Dual Shock 2 controller. I tried the game with the Logitech Force Feedback wheel and was pleasantly surprised that it was supported. The first thing I noticed was the control was much better, and using a wheel is recommended. Unfortunately, the wheel's force feedback is not implemented as well as with NASCAR Heat 2002, which has the best integration with the wheel of any game on the market.

Gameplay : 80
Before delving into the gameplay, I have to say that racing is my favorite genre of games. While I love a deep-rooted sim racer, I appreciate a fine arcade racer. I consider games like GT, F355, Colin McRae, Need for Speed 3, Moto GP, NASCAR Heat, TXR, and more to be some of the best ever made. Some of those games approach true simulations, others are totally arcade racers, and some are a mix of the two extremes. If you were to classify NASCAR Thunder 2002, you can't use either extreme. It's not a sim in the sense of F355 nor is it an arcade title like the Dreamcast's Daytona. The mixture of sim and arcade elements in Thunder was no doubt intentional. EA was trying to make a game accessible to a wider market. Hey, it's a business.

So the game will certainly suffer the wrath of serious sim fans, but really there is plenty of good in the game to make the title enjoyable. First, the racing is improved over previous NASCAR titles due in large part to the larger field. Racing at Bristol with 42 opponents means you have to be on your toes. Even on the super speedways there's enough traffic to keep things interesting. A further indication of the intended target audience is the limited setup parameters in the garage. You can adjust the overall gear ratio, wedge, suspension, spoiler angle, and tire pressure, and each change results in a change or vehicle response on a bar chart. While I wouldn't call this car setup for dummies, it comes close. It's nowhere as deep as Heat's garage where you can adjust camber or each gear ratio. The wonderful implementation of Heat's tire temperatures isn't replicated here.

Yet another sign that the game isn't a sim is the driving model. The NASCAR series has always been deficient in the area of speed bleed off when you let off the throttle. When you let go of the gas, you expect a rapid decrease in speed (just try it in your own car). Yet Thunder rolls along with little speed loss. This makes braking a key feature of the game. For the most part, the car setups are neutral or have too much push, or understeer. Exiting a corner on short tracks or road courses offers no indication of power-induced oversteer. In fact, the car almost seems to control itself and whip into shape off a turn. This is also seen when you get loose from a tap. The car fishtails violently but you never feel like you're going to lose control. Speaking of taps, I have yet to cause an AI car to spin out. No matter how hard you hit them, they don't want to spin. They'll fishtail a bit, but they won't spin up towards the wall as they should.

The AI drivers are a mixed bag. On the one hand I like the constant motion they exhibit on the track. Often you find cars two or three wide down the straights, and at the super speedways you get long single or double pacelines barreling down the track. The cars are constantly moving in and out of their line trying to overtake and sometimes will even get tangled up, though AI wrecks seem few and far between. What I don't like about the AI cars is the lack of intelligence at times. When they want to pit there's nothing standing in their way. If you are down near the apron and an AI car wants to pit, it will dart towards the infield without regard to your position. Also, if you can get a decent lead on some of the longer tracks, it often doesn't last. The cars will increase in speed unrealistically and eventually catch up. Again, they don't seem to care about your position. I had Jeff Gordon smack me on the right rear as he came up behind me and simply held his line. If you learn to live with the suspect AI, you'll find the title enjoyable. Besides, people rave about Gran Turismo 3 and consider it the best racing game of all time. GT3's AI is among the worst I've seen in a game. If gamers can blindly look past the poor programming of GT3's AI, they can certainly find Thunder acceptable. While annoying at times, Thunder's AI is nowhere near as bad as GT3.

Thunder incorporates a damage model that only slightly affects your car's performance. Tire wear is the sole contributor to adverse impacts on your car's handling. Body damage has no apparent effect on the aerodynamics of the car, and multiple hits into the wall doesn't cause a problem with your suspension. But if you hit the front too much, the engine will smoke and your day is done. If you head to the pits before too much damage accumulates, you can repair your car. The pit time is a function of damage, though you can toggle a parameter to skip the repairs on the pit stop. Likewise, you have full control of how much gas to put in, which tires to change, and if you want to adjust the wedge.

One aspect of the game I'm struggling with is the drafting model. Over the years the NASCAR series has been criticized for an exaggerated drafting model. The drafting has been toned down, but in the process it seems like it got messed up. Due to pressure drag, a car alone on the track will require more power to sustain the same speed as a car that is drafting. Conversely, for the same power, the car in the drafting position can accelerate while the lead car remains at a constant velocity. Now cars also require air to form a fuel-air mixture for combustion. With no air a fuel rich state exists where combustion and thus power isn't as efficient. What I've found is that you can accelerate well when positioned a decent distance from a car. But as you approach the car, your car slows down. While I'd like to think that a new level of depth has been achieved, I've seen enough NASCAR racing to know that the drafting vehicle shouldn't be as severely crippled as it is in Thunder. Winston Cup cars routinely drive inches apart from each other to create a quick train. The strange drafting physics means you have to exploit the traffic to your gain. Instead of drafting off a car in front of you, look for one ahead of another car. More times than not you'll get a better pull with the more distant vehicle.

Despite some of the AI problems NASCAR Thunder 2002 still provides a good race. The huge field certainly enhances the gameplay and makes passing a key aspect of the game. The limited garage options means I don't have to spend extra time during practice finding the absolute best setup. This is a pick up and play title. It's not a sim and shouldn't be held in the same category as one. As a sim lover, I really enjoy the challenge of a game like NASCAR Heat. Yet I'm also enjoying NASCAR Thunder because of its instant accessibility.

Replay Value : 80
The racing is intense with plenty of passing and every Winston series track is there. If that's not enough to keep you occupied, the cool career mode is a blast. The only thing that adversely affects the replay value is the AI which likes to bump you from behind. Even so, you learn to block it out or improve your skills to avoid tricky situations.

Overall : 82
Much like Madden 2002, NASCAR Thunder 2002 deserves a most improved award. The 2001 version of the game was an abomination. The programming staff has atoned for their gaming sins and delivered a fun racing game. The graphics have improved while the field was nearly doubled, and the career mode is one of the best you'll find in a racing game. Yes, there are a few AI issues, but they aren't nearly as bad as what most PS2 owners consider the best racing game on the PS2. The racing is better than most titles, and this leads to a fun experience.

By: James Smith 10/30/01

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