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.