NASCAR Racing 4 Preview

We test drive the latest game in Sierra's venerable NASCAR Racing series.

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The NASCAR Racing series from Papyrus is one of the most highly regarded racing franchises on the PC. The development team at Papyrus has always made significant improvements to each game in the venerable series, and NASCAR 4 is certainly no exception. NASCAR 4's engine is being completely revamped to support the latest 3D graphics card features, and it certainly shows. Car models feature specular lighting and faint reflective effects, which highlight the edges of the car as it rotates in the options menu and as it races on the track. Smaller details, such as an actual driver model in the arcade chase camera angle, are also visible. Even roof flaps, which pop up to prevent your car from getting airborne during a spin, are clearly visible in the game. Likewise, team sponsor logos are crisp and immediately identifiable on each of the cars. Like previous versions of NASCAR Racing, NASCAR 4 will feature extensive damage models for each of the cars, and because the physics engine has also been revamped, the damage will have a greater effect on your car.

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Because the build we played was early, there was a noticeable amount of trackside detail missing. Only one member of the pit crew was present, there were no fans in the stands, and the field was virtually devoid of any peripheral objects. Only a few trees currently populate the outside area of the track. However, the two demonstration tracks, Michigan and Dover, were both accurately re-created with turns and straightaways modeled after their real-life counterparts. Fans of the series will appreciate that NASCAR 4's new engine allows for a complete straightaway into the pit lane; before, the entryway was still slightly angled. If you're familiar with actual NASCAR tracks, chances are you won't be disappointed with the amount of attention Papyrus has paid to the game's courses and the amount of extra detail the development team plans to include.

Getting a closer look at all of that detail shouldn't be too difficult. Papyrus will include a replay mode that will give you an opportunity to look at every single aspect of your race. The game's replays are great for checking out the car models and details from several different angles and are even better for judging your performance during any given race. If you make a mistake during a race that causes you to spin out or slam into the wall, and you're not quite sure why, you can use one of NASCAR Racing 4's 13 replay cameras to dissect the race and learn where you made your mistakes. After finding out what you did wrong, you can jot down some notes within the game itself so that the next time you race you'll remember what to do on a specific turn or what to do while you're in the pack.

Before the Race

The NASCAR Racing series has always appealed to the devoted racing fan because of the games' realism and the level of customization available. While this is still the case with NASCAR Racing 4, the development team is making an effort to make sure that this year's version won't simply cater to the racing enthusiast but will also cater to the casual racing fan who may be more accustomed to arcade-style racing. To help out racing novices and to give a refresher to people familiar with racing mechanics, NASCAR Racing 4's menu system will have overlays that will give you additional information on any item on the menu with a simple click of the mouse. If you want to know more about the spoiler or what kind of effect it has on your car, simply right-click on it with your mouse, and a window will appear explaining what the spoiler does. The same applies to any of the visual adjustments you can make to the graphics engine, so if you're not sure what draw distance is, for example, NASCAR Racing 4's menu will explain it to you. Of course, if you know just about everything there is to know about racing, you'll be able to turn this feature off.

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The amount of customization in NASCAR Racing 4 is staggering. Everything from visual aspects to gameplay can be adjusted in some manner. In fact, the engine is so scalable that Papyrus has said that NASCAR Racing 4 will be capable of running on a low-end Pentium II 266 with an 8MB video card at a decent frame rate, though much of the detail will be missing. But for those with middle- to high-range systems, there are plenty of features to adjust, and some can even be changed during the race. Draw distance dictates how far you can see into the horizon, and NASCAR Racing 4 will let you choose from three different settings before a race. But if you find that your system can handle a little more than what you selected before the race, you can change it in real time while you're racing. Other visual aspects, such as the rearview mirror, can also be turned off or on before and during a race. Like most games, NASCAR Racing 4 will support a wide range of resolutions and 16- and 32-bit color depth.

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For racing fans who aren't quite familiar with the customization of cars, NASCAR Racing 4's customization menus, or the garage as it's called, can be a little overwhelming at first, even with the help of overlays. Any kind of adjustment you could possibly think of making to a NASCAR vehicle can be done in NASCAR Racing 4. Tires, suspension, weight distribution, and even the angle of the spoiler can all be adjusted in some fashion, but be careful, as all changes made to your vehicle will have a noticeable impact on the way your car performs during a race. Certainly, fans familiar with the series will love that they'll be able to customize so many parts of the car, but casual fans may want to steer clear of the garage if they're not sure which parts do what, or they don't want to take the time to learn. Getting a closer look at all of that detail shouldn't be too difficult. Papyrus will include a replay mode that will give you an opportunity to look at every single aspect of your race. The game's replays are great for checking out the car models and details from several different angles and are even better for judging your performance during any given race. If you make a mistake during a race that causes you to spin out or slam into the wall, and you're not quite sure why, you can use one of NASCAR Racing 4's 13 replay cameras to dissect the race and learn where you made your mistakes. After finding out what you did wrong, you can jot down some notes within the game itself so that the next time you race you'll remember what to do on a specific turn or what to do while you're in the pack.

Start Your Engines

In an effort to appeal to a much wider audience, NASCAR Racing 4 offers both an arcade mode and a simulation mode. The arcade mode essentially serves as your training wheels for NASCAR Racing. It gives you an opportunity to become familiar with how a car performs during a race, and it gives you an opportunity to learn the tracks and learn how to deal with aggressive and passive opponents. The simulation mode takes a much more serious approach by letting you take on an entire NASCAR season, where customization and strategy are the only things that can help you win a race. In either mode, keeping your foot on the gas and hoping that you'll place high isn't going to yield great results.

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If there is one thing neither mode can really prepare you for, it's driving with the assists off. NASCAR Racing 4 gives you the option to drive with assists on or off. When they're on it's difficult for you to lose control of your car even if you're deliberately trying to spin out. If you've grown accustomed to driving with assists on, prepare to be frustrated if you turn them off, because you will more than likely spin out of control during the entire race. Even after you've regained control of your car and started to drive in the right direction, it's still incredibly hard to maintain stability. But at the same time, it's an incredible challenge for novice drivers to overcome and an incredibly realistic experience for veteran drivers.

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What makes spinning out of control and other accidents possible? Not only has Papyrus completely revamped NASCAR Racing 4's graphics engine, but it has also revamped the physics engine. Instead of a model that offers only one point of reference, NASCAR Racing 4's physics model is based off of four points - two points on the front of the car and two on the back - to accurately simulate the adhesion level that each of your car's four wheels has with the track. Every aspect of your car's handling is affected in some way by this four-point system, which results in an incredibly realistic racing experience. Driving techniques such as drafting - where one car pulls up behind another and then slingshots past the front car - are significantly enhanced by the new engine, thanks to this four-point system. Collisions with the wall and with other cars have a profound impact on car performance, as they can force you to compensate for the damage or to pull into the pit. Putting too much wear on your tires can cause you to have a tire blow, and Papyrus said it has made an effort to make the tire blows as realistic as possible in terms of where and when they occur. Even weather can impact racing physics with hot and cold conditions.

Conclusion

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If any series has come to symbolize NASCAR racing, it's Papyrus' NASCAR Racing series. From the very first game to the latest in the series, NASCAR Racing was developed to appeal to casual racing fans who occasionally watch NASCAR or just enjoy the racing experience and hard-core fans who know the ins and outs of the sport. NASCAR Racing 4 continues that tradition but offers enormous leaps over previous games in terms of both visual detail and realism. Also, this year's game features one very important item that has been lacking since the series' inception: the Daytona USA license. Fans of Sierra's NASCAR Racing series will finally be able to race on the historic Daytona circuit in Florida, a track that has eluded many racing games on the PC because of a previous exclusive licensing deal with Sega.

For these reasons, NASCAR Racing 4 will probably be one of the most realistic and complete racing experiences on the PC. In addition to the main features, there are many secondary features that make the game enjoyable. For example, radio chatter between the driver and the pit will tell you when a car is coming up high or low or whether there's a caution out on the track. While driving, you're able to look to your left and right to see if any opponent plans to challenge you, and you have the ability to tell the pit crew what you want done to your car before you enter the pit. There are also plenty of gauges so you can keep an eye on the performance of your car, and there are multiple windows that give you valuable race information such as position, lap, and lap time.

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Whether it's the arcade mode, the simulation mode, or the multiplayer mode, NASCAR Racing 4 has something to offer every kind of racing fan. If you're not interested in realistic driving conditions and only prefer worrying about placing first, then the arcade mode is a perfect opportunity to test your racing skills. If you're a gearhead who likes to customize different parts of the car and you prefer a more realistic experience overall, then the simulation mode is for you. The variety of modes, the revamped graphics and physics engine, and the addition of the Daytona license all point to NASCAR Racing 4 taking the checkered flag when it's released early next year.

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