From the outside looking in, NASCAR and the video games inspired by the sport are just a bunch of people turning left. But stick yourself in the middle of a pack of 43 cars, all fighting for position in a crowded field, and you can immediately appreciate the kind of skill it takes to find success in this kind of oval racing. For years now, EA Sports has been working to find a balance between re-creating the intense racing action of the actual NASCAR racing events and appealing to the broad NASCAR crowd, some of whom might not be ready for going wheel to wheel with the likes of Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
Enter NASCAR 09, EA's latest oval-racing game, and one that's looking--at least based on our limited hands-on time with the game--to come closer to finding that balance than previous games in the series. The crux of that balanced approach will be the two handling settings you can choose from in the game: normal and pro. With normal handling, your car will feel more rigid and stable when coming into contact with opponent cars, and it will have more grip in the corners. That isn't to say you won't be able to send your car crashing into the wall, but for the most part, the car will be a bit less squirrely than in the past. On the pro setting, the cars will behave more realistically in the corners, will be more liable to spin after contact, and will seemingly be more dependant on the setup you choose as you're turning laps.
During our hands-on time with NASCAR 09, we took laps on a couple of different tracks--Atlanta Motor Speedway and Infineon Raceway. Though each oval course has its own characteristics, the Atlanta race we ran felt like a pretty good representation of what to expect from the oval racing in the game. Producers on hand were quick to point out the improved AI that is aimed at creating a better racing experience for NASCAR newcomers and veterans alike. As they explained, cars will better race in packs together, and for racing rookies, it will be easier to catch up to the pack if you fall behind.
Your reputation as a driver will also affect how cars will behave toward you on the track. If you increase your rep, drivers with a lower reputation will be much more apt to get out of your way if you come storming up behind them on the track. At the same time, your reputation (which is represented by a point total) is always changing, based on how you perform during career races and in the various challenges. If you have a bad stretch of races, your rep might decrease significantly, and it will be up to you to once again gain that rep back by working harder on the track or tackling challenges. While you can gain rep by winning races, you can earn additional reputation point modifiers by dialing down the assists in the game.
While the AI improvements weren't immediately apparent in the oval racing, once we hit the road course at Infineon, there were some good things of note. After qualifying 19th on the grid, we found ourselves in a tight race to the first corner. We managed to cut someone off, and not only did that AI-controlled driver hold on to his car, but we noticed some pretty canny braking by the AI. In previous NASCAR entries, it wasn't uncommon to have opponents slam you from behind, and we're cautiously optimistic about that being a thing of the past in NASCAR 09.
There will be plenty to do in NASCAR 09, including a full career mode, quick race, online support, and a mode called Sprint Driver Challenge. Similar to the Tiger Challenge in EA's Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, this mode will have you competing in a series of events that will test your skills on a variety of track types and in various situations. A map of challenges will be laid out, and you'll be able to make your way through the map, picking your events from multiple available paths. Event types are varied; for example, a speed-trap event will challenge you to maintain a certain level of speed around a track. One particularly fun event has you trying to avoid cars as they pile up in a wreck, with tire smoke billowing all around you as you weave your way through the mess. Once you complete a certain number of challenges, you'll go up against real NASCAR drivers the oval racing equivalent of boss battles; we saw one where you had to finish ahead of Casey Mears in a two-lap race at Daytona while avoiding contact with the walls and other cars.
Finding success on the track will reward you performance points for your car, which you can spend on your ride to give you enhanced performance on any of the track types found in the game (speedway, super speedway, short track, and road course). Within each of these track types, you can spend your points on things like engine, chassis, aero, and durability improvements. Note that these performance points are separate from the tuning elements on your car. The strategy with performance points will be in deciding which points to use when, and you'll want to always keep your calendar handy to know which events you have coming up so you can spend your performance points wisely. In addition, certain types of contracts you sign in your career will sometimes award you with additional performance points.
Online racing should be a feature that keeps NASCAR 09 players coming back for more after the game is released. The game will support up to 14 drivers online and will also have an improved leaderboard system that's dubbed "Own the Track." Here, you'll find a map of the US denoting every track found on the NASCAR calendar, followed by icons denoting which tracks you "own" and which ones are owned by your friends. That ownership is based on a variety of factors, including overall miles driven, best lap time, average lap time, LPI (laps per incident), average finish, and opponents beaten. As if owning a track over your buddy isn't insult enough, you'll also be able to create a taunt to further rub his face in it. In addition, your overall reputation score will also affect matchmaking when you're looking for races online.
NASCAR 09 will also feature some key improvements over last year's effort, including (mercifully) the ability to skip through yellow flags after accidents. As big fans of car customization, we're curious to see what EA has in store in that area, and we'll be bringing you all the latest details on this and more for NASCAR 09 in the near future.