Every so often a game falls into Kristan's hands that has him falling back on trickery, charm, promises, threats and so on to get someone to review it (not all at once, Oblivion fans). But I was pretty happy to get Nascar 08. I was curious. I mean, I've never played a Nascar game before, and I couldn't figure out how it was that EA had successfully built a series about driving for dozens and dozens of miles and only ever taking gentle left turns. What was their secret? Turns out it's this: make the left turns really, really, really hard.
After trying and failing and trying and failing the very first challenge in the game for twenty minutes I started wondering if there was anything I could do to help myself, even firing up the Nascar wikipedia page (a third of which, incidentally, is made up of criticisms of Nascar) to see if there was some secret driving technique I was missing.
If you even want to race a championship in The Chase mode, the nearest thing Nascar 08 has to a career mode, you need a car specific to the event you want to race in. To get that car you need to win a few test races with it. But to enter those test races you need a license to race in that event, and to do that you need to beat 10 challenges specific to that event. And I couldn't do the first, which has you maintaining a minimum speed through two long, banking curves, on the easiest setting and going for a bronze medal.
See, in Nascar, the cars go really, really fast, rarely dropping beneath 160mph, but they're not sprightly or agile like in other motorsports. This is the core of the game that you need to understand if you're thinking of buying Nascar 08. Your right index finger will become achy and claw-like as it perpetually pushes on the accelerator, and the game's about following the perfect racing line and not losing control as you're dealing with the painfully sensitive steering that comes with those high-speeds. Unless you're playing on one of the game's few tight and windy Road Courses, the only time you'll ever brake is when you're coming in for a pitstop to grab some more gas and replace your two ailing left tyres.
Take all this, then factor in tinkering with the specifics of your car and the wind resistance and slingshot mechanics when you've got 40 other cars crammed onto the track with you, and you start figuring that maybe you could make a good Nascar game. Unfortunately, Nascar 08 really isn't one of those. EA has no competition here, and the result is something that feels a bit empty and a bit cheap.
For a start it looks like ass, with the PS3 version in particular barely looking a step up from the PS2 version and only running at a maximum of 720i. You'd think they could have at least made it look like shiny-ass, or throw in some motion blur to make it look like ass going at 200mph, but no. The cars are a bit jagged, the courses lack detail and there's just no love or attention paid to anything.
And as for the racing, while it's hard to fault the handling and the degree to which you can tune it to your liking (disabling some of the more in-depth features, for instance, or tweaking how much auto-steer there is) it's the AI which causes the pile-up here. Because it never feels like artificial intelligence at all - it feels like a machine.
For a start, it's impossibly aggressive, giving the impression it's really, really pissed off with you all the time. Understandably, for the kind of speeds at which Nascar takes place, any kind of aggressive driving is frowned upon, and even accidentally nudging someone running parallel with you on a corner can have your race advisers barking in your ear that you're going to get black-flagged if you keep that up. Yet if an AI car coming up behind you has more speed than you do, it's not going to hang around in your wake until it has the speed to smoothly slingshot past you. It's going to come up behind you and repeatedly ram you, sending your car swerving and giving you flashbacks of John Connor's bike getting run down in Terminator 2.
Equally annoying is the sense that these tens of opponents you're on the track with are using different controls to you. At the beginning of a race you'll be capable of accelerating faster, yet they'll always effortlessly take corners in the smoothest curve imaginable while you snap left and right trying to find the sweet spot.
And even when you do finish a challenge or qualify in a race, there's no sense of reward. I reckon I can speak for everyone at Eurogamer when I say fiddle solos are awesome, but getting to listen to one while picking out what you're going to attempt next doesn't really spur you on.
With something like FIFA, tough competition has lead to EA doing just about everything they can to make the better game. With Nascar 08, it leaves you exasperated because you're always thinking of little things they could have done to make the game better. Why, when you make a pit stop, doesn't the game show your team making the changes you've asked for? Why can't you choose time or day and weather? Why can't you customise your driver in The Chase mode? Why isn't there a race commentary?
This generation is drowning in impossibly good racing games. If you want something technical, you've got DiRT; if you want something easygoing, you've got SEGA Rally; if you want something cool, you've got PGR4. If you want Nascar 08, you've got problems. But then if you really want a last-generation Nascar game on a next-generation console, I guess you don't have an awful lot of choice.