Version tested: PlayStation 3
Nope, it's not just about turning left. It may be oh-so-amusing to mock the most popular form of motor sport in North America over a pint down The Griffin while in the company of your burly mates – it's OK, we've all done it. But to fail to recognise the merits of NASCAR when you're back in the privacy of your living room, as Premier Sports beams live weekend race feeds onto your supersized LCD, would be pushing denial to a level even Freud would have trouble quantifying.
You may not recognise the names, but NASCAR is a fascinating spectacle of race strategy, driving delicacy, tyre pressure and wear management, psychological warfare, set-up proficiency and pure (and absurd) speed – not to mention some of the closest, fiercest racing on the planet. And if it's exciting for the fans (few motor sport events are as spectator-focused as NASCAR), it's undeniably thrilling for the drivers.
If you remain unconvinced, NASCAR The Game 2011 will eagerly strap you into a Willans harness and attempt to highlight all of the above firsthand. That's assuming you're prepared to import the region-free PS3 version, as Activision has decided not to go ahead with a European release.
Like the sport's four-speed, naturally aspirated 865bhp machines, the official game is relatively basic in its make-up. Bypass the Quick Race, Eliminator and Practice single-player options and the main draw is a Career mode that sees you slide on the fireproof overalls of any of the current drivers (or create your own) and take a car through a 36-race season.
At any of the rounds you can tweak the parameters to suit your mood or ability. So if you fancy tackling all 200 laps of the Indy 500 and want to bump up the AI difficulty, max out tyre wear and fuel consumption, run with full damage, caution flags, and turn off all of the driving aids, go for it; you only live once, after all.
All I'd say is that at that rate you're unlikely to live long enough to make The Chase (entry to the last ten races of the season is limited to the drivers with the most points). Not that a challenge isn't good for the soul – in fact, joypad players are encouraged to dial down some of the assists from the off because the game will quickly prove too easy if left on its default options. but maintaining the concentration levels required to successfully tackle numerous laps on circuits that feel as packed and as treacherous as road rage happy hour on the M25 takes its toll.
Use a decent force feedback wheel and that effort takes on a physical dimension, too, meaning you'll come out of even the shortest of races with your arms burning. Part of this is down to Eutechnyx nailing the handling model so that the difficulty of controlling NASCAR's lumbering beasts at race speeds is competently conveyed, requiring constant, precise input. This game could teach GT5's NASCAR segment a thing or two about dynamics.
While it's there, it could also give an impromptu lecture on player involvement, because the reason you'll emerge from a full season able to take on Arnold Schwarzenegger at arm wrestling is the intensity of the experience on offer. When you're battling against 42 other cars, often door panel to door panel, at 180mph-plus, whilst knowing that the best-case scenario for the smallest of errors will be a five to 10 position loss, there is simply no time to relax. There is a Rewind option, but that's not the point. When everything works as it should, NASCAR 2011 delivers a superbly engaging racing experience and you'll grip that wheel as though your life depends on it.
Unfortunately, not everything does work as it should. While the AI opposition is suitably aggressive and controlled during large segments of a race, there are too many instances when it's as dumb as your average redneck. Its stupidity aggravates further because the deployment of caution periods is inconsistent, meaning that it's not uncommon to lose out massively from being shunted off the track only for the yellow flags not to come out in order to get everyone back in line.
Which brings us to the crashes. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that marvelling at the mayhem of multiple-car pile-ups is part of the attraction of NASCAR. What a disappointment, then, that while accidents in NASCAR 2011 feel reasonably convincing when in-car (an incident that saw me plough through a cloud of tyre smoke to grab first position, just as a competitor barrel-rolled overhead, would have had Don Simpson rise from his grave in approval), they look so feeble in replays. Cars comically pile into each other without suffering body deformation while accompanied by the stingiest display of particle effects.
If you want spectacular crashes, you'll have to go online. Here up to 16 players will get to witness cars clambering to get on top of each other, frantically flipping through the air, or bouncing energetically across the track – and that's on the formation lap.
At time of writing the online portion of NASCAR 2011 is fundamentally broken, with the majority of encounters descending into ridiculous displays of programming bugs. From driving through the pace car or seeing competitors floating above the track, to spending an entire race under yellow flags while the game continuously failed to tame the hysterically raucous behaviour of the cars in order to enable a restart, only the tiniest proportion of attempted events play out without incidents. Eutechnyx is reportedly hard at work on a patch, but until that materialises the game should be considered an offline proposition only.
Offline, the NXP (NASCAR Experience Points) gained from racing manoeuvres – and, in a nice touch, performing victory burnouts and donuts – have no discernible influence on the core game. Levelling up doesn't reward you with access to a better car (because there's no such thing in NASCAR) or even a wider selection, so what you're left with in terms of rewards are things like driver paint schemes. Hardly the strongest of incentives for anyone but the most dedicated NASCAR follower.
Die-hard NASCAR devotees looking for a sim racing experience may bemoan Eutechnyx's slightly more mainstream approach, but you get the feeling the developer has done its homework and more general followers of the sport should find much to like here. The 720p visuals do a fine job of recreating the liveries and details of the cars, and the tracks are faithful recreations of what you see on TV. They're not as crisp as GT5's equivalent, perhaps, but they feel more organic and atmospheric.
Generally, presentation is of a good standard, with attractive selection menus and loading screens, while pre-race sequences featuring commentary from Performance Racing Network broadcasters Doug Rice and Mark Garrow set the right ambience. But the growl of the 6.8L V8 powering a NASCAR should sound like Satan is shouting in your ears, and here you could be forgiven for thinking His Devilishness has a soul or two caught in his throat.
Ignore the inexcusably damaged online portion, and NASCAR 2011's offline game still has a tendency to slam into the wall just as it's got you engaged in its admittedly rewarding racing.
As the first official game of the sport since EA's disappointing NASCAR 09, Eutechnyx's effort was always bound to find a large, enthusiastic audience willing it to succeed upon release. Many will leave disappointed, yet the more reasonable should still welcome this faithful yet flawed interpretation of their sport. Come the inevitable sequel, though, the developer will need to really turn the corner.
6 / 10