NASCAR 08 marked the series' long-awaited debut on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Unfortunately, the game failed to capitalize on the transition from last-gen to the current-gen. The developers have browsed the message boards and read the reviews--and they've taken that feedback into account during the development of NASCAR 09, which was unveiled before the Sam's Town 300 Nationwide race in Las Vegas.
One of NASCAR's greatest strengths is its drivers--they're recognizable, charismatic, and, of course, they're the ones behind the wheel. There was nary a driver to be heard from in NASCAR 08, but that's going to change in 09. Cover driver Jeff Gordon won't just be a smiling face on the front of the game's box; he'll play an integral role in the game. He'll be the one to guide you through your career. He'll test your skill level from the get-go to help place you in a car and even suggest training sessions if you're weak at a particular track to help build your skills there. Nonfans of the Rainbow Warrior will be pleased to know that he's not the only driver with a role in NASCAR 09. Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya, and others will have key roles as well. They'll be featured in video segments introducing their specific driver challenges, and if you're good enough, they'll congratulate you after you win. We're unsure if he'll be one of the drivers in the driver challenges, but we do know that Carl Edwards has finally come to an agreement with EA and will be included in the game this year.
Gordon is also tied to NASCAR 09's all-new rep system. After all, it's hard to find a driver with a better reputation than the four-time NASCAR champion. Right from the start your reputation will play an integral role in your progression through NASCAR 09's career mode. You'll have the option of starting at the Sprint Series level, but you'll also be able to join the truck and Nationwide series as well. Regardless of where you start, your rep will start at zero, and you'll quickly accumulate points the more races you win. You'll earn even more points for racing clean and avoiding on-track incidents. As your reputation grows you'll be offered new contracts and sponsor deals, but your reputation won't just affect the business aspect of being a driver, it will also affect your experience of the track. As you become increasingly respected, drivers will actually yield to you when you go to pass--just as they do for NASCAR's big names in real life. Of course, respect is a two-way street, so if you're constantly running into other drivers they're going to be less inclined to make things easier for you.
Speaking of running into drivers, the folks at EA Tiburon are trying to make swapping paint a less frustrating experience than in the past. Bumping other cars is inevitable, especially when racing three-wide, but this year's game will have so-called "friendlier bumps." Rather than causing you to spin and wind up in last place or even completely out of a race, minor bumps will have less of an effect. If you do spin out, you should at least end up pointing the right way on the track, which will certainly help you get back into the thick of things much faster. In our brief hands-on time with the game we experienced several instances where a bump that would have spun us out last year only resulted in a loss of speed this year, and we were able to stay on the track. Another way the developer promises to make NASCAR 09 less frustrating is by toning down the aggressiveness of the artificial intelligence a bit. AI-controlled drivers aren't going to be pushovers by any means, but they won't go out of their way to cut across traffic just to knock you into a wall, either.
NASCAR 09's presentation will also benefit from another year of development. The team has recorded audio from actual cars driving at speed and chopped it up based on RPMs. Now your car will sound like the real deal regardless of speed. Based on what we heard, cars are much throatier and have a really powerful sound to them. Since build of the game we were playing was pre-alpha it was impossible to accurately judge the graphics, but EA reps did say they will be using more antialiasing to smooth the tracks. Improved HDR lighting will help bring more contrast when it comes to driving in and out of shadows, too.
EA wasn't ready to spill the beans on everything about the game, but that didn't stop us from asking. NASCAR 08 was extremely limited when it came to customizing your own car's appearance, but this year things will be different. We were told to expect some "really cool things with paint schemes," for instance. There still won't be any online leagues or teams, but 09's 12-player online play should benefit from the addition of matchmaking servers. This will help take some of the load off of the player hosting the game and hopefully result in smoother racing. Your career mode rep will follow you online, which should make it easier to get matched up with players of a similar skill level.
The best news of all for NASCAR fans is that they won't have long to wait. NASCAR 09 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will ship to stores on June 10, almost six weeks earlier than last year's game. But there's still more to learn about NASCAR 09 before then, so be sure to check back for updates.