Without a doubt, the best driving game released in 2001 was Sierra and Papyrus' NASCAR Racing 4, the latest installment in a series that has been pleasing racing fans for nearly a decade. The game walked away with our driving game of the year award and was named one of our top 10 games of 2001, and even though it was released very early in the year, it is still being enjoyed by armchair drivers everywhere. But with a sequel already in the works, Papyrus isn't wasting any time in following up on its exemplary racing sim. Logically dubbed NASCAR Racing 2002 Season, this game will improve upon NASCAR Racing 4 by using enhanced graphics, incorporating the latest roster of teams, and including a number of changes. To get more insight into all these new improvements and additions, we sat down with Papyrus producer Tom Faiano.
GameSpot: Traditionally, there has always been a two- to three-year gap between releases of successive NASCAR Racing games. Are you aiming at EA Sports and its model of releasing annual versions of sports games with NASCAR Racing 2002 Season?
Tom Faiano: Well, NASCAR is a seasonal sport, and any game that models it as closely as ours certainly lends itself to an annual "face-lift," if you will (add the current season's teams, drivers, paint jobs, venues, and so on). But to just do that isn't really enough. NASCAR Winston Cup racing hasn't changed too fundamentally since our series started in 1994, so the challenge becomes finding ways to keep things fresh for the hard-core players while still increasing the game's overall accessibility.
GS: What are some of the major changes that fans of the series can expect to find in 2002 Season?
TF: Let's see. We've included all-new drivers, teams, and paint schemes for the 2002 season; added the two newest NASCAR tracks (Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway) and one original track (a three-mile oval with no restrictor plate); and we've improved the sound and graphics. We've also added a new mode called driving lessons to teach novices the fundamentals of driving and racing, and a set of track tours (narrated by NASCAR champ Darrell Waltrip) that go into greater detail about the finer points of driving each circuit in the game. There's also a new replay editor that lets you add your own graphics, sound, and other effects to your saved replays. The driving lessons and track tours that ship with the game were created with the game's replay editor. There are two new driving aids (digital steering assistance and the ideal racing line), as well as improved features for multiplayer server administrators (grief players can now be more effectively dealt with--NASCAR Racing 4 had some issues in this area).
GS: NASCAR Racing 4's engine produced some amazing graphics, and yet you just said that you've improved upon those visuals in NASCAR Racing 2002 Season. Can you talk about some of these visual enhancements?
TF: We've doubled the resolution of the car skins and many of the track surface textures. Since we're using DirectX texture compression (at about 4:1), we end up using only a little more than half as much texture memory as NASCAR Racing 4. Folks running the game in Direct3D should notice crisper textures. We've also increased the detail of the car models. OpenGL is included as well, but it does not benefit from texture compression.
GS: Have you made any changes to the physics model from NASCAR 4?
TF: We made some major adjustments to our damage model. It is now easier to get damaged, and there is increased aero drag when driving a damaged car. Engines can be damaged a lot more easily in collisions, and tires wear more quickly when using high amounts of camber and/or very high tire pressures.
We've changed our restrictor plate model to match the changes NASCAR made for 2002, and we made a few other small tweaks as well--improved the camber thrust calculation, engines can now backfire, and we now display roll couple information (a very useful tidbit for the savvy setup guru).
GS: Elaborate on that a little. Some of the issues that people had with NASCAR 4's physics were the lack of engine fires during collisions and detached car parts that didn't interact with their surroundings. Does this new physics model address those two issues, specifically?
TF: We ourselves haven't heard any complaints about lack of engine fires during collisions (lack of engine damage, yes). Personally, I don't think engine fires add much to the game, and the implementation I've seen in some other NASCAR games has been, frankly, overblown and tasteless (I mean, when was the last time you saw a stock car completely immolated?). And while we'd certainly like to treat car parts and other debris as collision objects, that just didn't make the cut this time.
GS: Will you be bringing back the instant restart feature?
TF: Yes. We have added the ability to restart a session or jump forward or backward chronologically to any session of a race weekend without having to unload and reload the track. Server bosses and administrators can access this feature in online races too (this has already proven to be a godsend during some of our multiplayer beta testing).
GS: NASCAR Racing 4 had perhaps the widest appeal of all your previous racing games. Will NASCAR Racing 2002 Season be aimed toward the hard-core crowd, or are you still trying to make it as accessible as possible?
TF: Well, we need to please players of all levels of interest, skill, and experience--otherwise, we're sunk. I think that novice players will find this version to be the most accessible yet. The driving lessons and track tours were designed to introduce new players gradually (the key word here) to the finer points of racing. Our guys really busted their butts to script the lessons in such a way that each one builds upon the previous one. Collectively, they cover pretty much everything you need to know to learn to drive the game well. Of course, you still have to practice, practice, practice to get really good, but at least you'll have an idea of what terms like "trailing throttle oversteer" mean before you start. Additionally, you can now view your throttle and brake inputs in instant replays, and this can become a powerful diagnostic tool when viewed in conjunction with the preferred racing line.
The more hard-core fans should appreciate the new replay editor (racing leagues especially) and the subtle improvements we've made to the physics (again, see above), AI, and multiplayer server administration. Historically, online racing has been very susceptible to grief players. In NASCAR Racing 4, it was effectively impossible to ban a troublesome player from your race server--all such transactions were performed by player handle/ID, and it was very easy to just create a new user ID to get around this. In NASCAR Racing 2002 Season, all such operations are performed on the basis of a unique ID that is tied to each player's CD key. Much more effective.
And everyone obviously benefits from any improvements to the graphics and sound. We're particularly proud of the work we did with the sound. We're using a lot more samples than before, and everything just sounds a lot beefier. I don't know, it's hard to quantify--just turn it up and listen.
GS: Let's digress for a second. Dale Earnhardt's untimely death happened right after the release of NASCAR Racing 4. Is he going to be in the sequel in one form or another? Will there be any kind of in-game tribute to him?
TF: No, Dale Earnhardt will not be in this or any future version of the NASCAR Racing series--it just wouldn't be appropriate. We have added a small tribute to him in the credits of the game.
GS: Now that NASCAR Racing 2002 Season is nearly complete, are you starting work on NASCAR Racing 5? Can you give us any hints about your next project?
TF: Hints about our next project? Hmm, let me think--I see motors and wheels and...that's all I've got.
GS: Motors and wheels? Obviously a role-playing game. Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
TF: Buy our game! Seriously, we put a lot of work into this puppy and we think that we've provided plenty of features to please both old and new fans alike.
GS: Thanks a lot, Tom.