JOLIET, Ill.--We were on hand at the Chicagoland Speedway just outside the Windy City for last weekend's NASCAR Nextel Cup series race, and we had a chance to check out the latest build of NASCAR 06: Total Team Control. Since our last look, the team at EA Sports has changed the name of the game, moving away from the "Chase for the Cup" moniker to focus on the team controls that will be the central theme of this year's NASCAR game.
Perhaps for lack of a better term, the NASCAR 06 production group refers to the team concept in the game as "squad-based" racing. Although this implies a sort of overly militaristic approach to the action on the ovals, it is an accurate description of how the team mechanics work in the game. For one thing, depending on the team you choose to race for, your "squad" will vary anywhere from four teammates to one, or even none. Just as in the real-life sport of NASCAR, which places no restrictions on the size of a team, there can be a pretty wide gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the game.
Where real NASCAR teams share information both on and off the course on things like car setups, racing lines, and track conditions, your teammates in NASCAR 06 will be of most use to you when you're out on the track turning laps among your competition. The team controls will feature a number of commands you can give teammates while on the track, all of which will control your team's ever-evolving strategy on the asphalt. There are two methods for giving these commands in the game: using a USB headset to give voice commands, or by using the increasingly popular (in EA Sports games, at least) right analog stick to issue orders.
During our test session, the USB headset on hand unfortunately wasn't cooperating, so we didn't get a chance to check out the voice recognition. But the game's producers told us that not only will you be able to call on individual team members, but you'll also hear feedback from your crew chief in the headset earphones as he relays information to you about your teammates' positions. When using the right analog stick to issue orders, you'll be dependent on icons that will represent the various types of commands you can pull off. The nice thing is that the commands can be individually mapped however you see fit, so if you find yourself using the same commands in race after race, you'll be able to customize your setup accordingly.
Along with orders for blocking and drafting help, the most useful command in the game (especially for those who are new to virtual oval racing) will be car swapping. When running a race on the track, you'll be able to automatically switch to any of your teammates' cars simply by calling that car's number and choosing the swap command. The transition from one car to the next is very smooth, and you'll even have a buffer of around 15 seconds to get acclimated to your new position on the track before you'll have control of the car once again. The most obvious use for the swap command will be for those times when you manage to crash your ride but still want to find some points for a team member. Craftier players will use the swap command to make sure that each team member in the race finishes as high in the standings as possible. Another command that may be useful for teamcentric players is the "pit together" order, which tells a teammate to enter the pits at the same time you do, so that when it's time to exit the pits and reenter the track you'll have drafting help to get you caught up to the pack.
As NASCAR is a sport of personalities and conflicts--a sort of toned-down WWE with stock cars--grudges and alliances will ebb and flow as the virtual season progresses. How you attack the track and how closely you work with your team members will determine how you are publicly perceived as well. Aggressive driving, using other cars as steering assists, or consistent use of the intimidator feature (which returns to NASCAR 06 after its debut last year) will brand you as a "villain," while working well with others (such as drafting with teammates) will earn you the label of "hero." Just what these labels will mean to your performance off the track (such as in concessions earnings) remains to be seen.
Fighting for the Top Ten
NASCAR 06's career mode, dubbed "fight to the top," returns and will once again let you take control of a team, build a fan base, and participate in races as a driver, a team owner, or both. You won't be buying cars and making managerial decisions right away; like nearly any rookie, you'll start at the bottom and work your way up. In NASCAR 06 this means signing a contract to race in the Whelen Modified series and then hoping to rack up race wins and team earnings as you go.
Early in the series you'll be locked into a relatively long-term contract. But as you move forward, contract offers of various lengths will come your way and you can afford to be picky. As you build up race wins and your cash balance, you'll be able to buy cars in any of the NASCAR series--Busch, Craftsman Truck, Whelen, or Nextel Cup--and guide your team to victory. Along the way you'll be pouring money into new and better pit crew personnel, engineering resources, and, of course, your teammates as well. Also, once you're an owner you can choose exactly which events you want to personally drive in, and then simulate the rest if you like.
In our hands-on time with the game, we noticed a number of different tweaks that had been made. For one thing, the default camera angle has changed, which was especially noticeable when using the behind-the-car viewpoint. The new view provides a slightly lower and slightly wider view of the track. This was a design choice made by the development team in order to provide a view such that the driver would be able to better see any teammates that might be ahead of him. The HUD will also show you very clearly where any team members are, using each driver's distinctive number icon on an overhead track map.
In terms of how the game "drives," it's apparent that the development team has spent some time with the artificial intelligence drivers in the game, especially when racing in tight confines. Just as in real races, no one's afraid of a little contact at a NASCAR race. But it seems like the AI drivers in NASCAR 06 are more aware than ever of your position in the race and will often attempt to avoid contact if at all possible while also trying to maintain speed and position. We're not sure just how far this phenomenon extends in the entire game, but from what we saw, it looks promising so far.
Crash physics have been upgraded this time around--mainly in the form of debris from wrecked cars, which will stay on the track after an accident has occurred (or at least until the yellow flags come out). We had a chance to check out several different types of races, from the wide, fast Pocono Raceway (a new addition to the NASCAR 06 track lineup this year) to the more measured pace of road courses like Watkins Glen and Infineon Raceway. Cars feel just as sturdy as last year, and the tracks themselves benefit from some improved lighting and shadow effects, which don't seem to detract from the overall sense of speed.
With the final push toward the game's release in late August, we're still curious as to how its online features will work. What we do know is that NASCAR 06 will allow up to four racers to compete online against a full field of AI drivers. EA has also boasted some new anticheating features for online races, but wasn't willing to divulge the details just yet. We'll be keeping our eyes out for that and for any new information about NASCAR 06 as our coverage of this game continues throughout the summer.