EA Sports rides the not-so-thin line between arcade-style racing and straight-up simulation with NASCAR 98. With 17 tracks, 24 authentic drivers from the real-life NASCAR circuit, a Lynard Skynard-infused soundtrack, and tons of car customization options, it seems true enough to life. In the gameplay department, however, it doesn't demand the life-changing time commitment of the more realism-intensive racing sims like the PlayStation's Formula 1 Championship Edition.
All the options are there: adjust downforce, oversteer, gear ratios, and tire pressure. Unlike lots of racing sims that leave the regular Joe guessing at the effects of all these adjustments, NASCAR 98 features a convenient line graph in the corner of the car setup screen that shows the net results of your tweaks, broken into top speed acceleration, handling, and pit distance. Arcade, Simulation, and Custom modes allow for adjustments to drafting effect, opponent strength, steering assist, and your own total horsepower, as percentages of the "real-life" statistics.
Handling is pretty smooth in NASCAR 98. It certainly didn't take more than 15 minutes to feel comfortable taking the curves at high speeds. Even in Simulation mode, with the most extreme car setups, control remained essentially the same. Sure, handling was difficult with downforce set to zero, but it never became nearly as difficult as the more realistic racers are right out of the box. Some will think this is a good thing. You can make subtle adjustments to match your car's performance with the individual needs of any given track and then just go. However, more die-hard racing sim enthusiasts and rocket scientists may immediately wave the red flag and pull themselves out of the race. Collision detection is also more than generous, making you more likely to just cross your fingers and speed right into a congested pack of cars careening around a tight turn.
And those congested packs of cars look great. Sometimes, 15 or more cars are onscreen at once, with almost no pop-up or slowdown. In all, the graphics are concise and clear, with any pop-up resigned to the more insignificant elements on the side of the track or in the distance. Multiple views are available, including one from inside the cabin. There are dozens of different collision animations - including an awesome double-twisting front flip - most of which are appropriate to the impacts that caused them.
NASCAR 98 supports many analog controllers. We tried it with the Sega Arcade Racer and had about as steady control of the vehicle as you would in a hydroplaning van on black ice with four bald tires. Seriously, the wheel had far too much play to ever be useful. Steering didn't engage until the wheel was rotating about 30 degrees. Once it engaged, it oversteered. Hardly the subtlety of control required to whiz through tight turns, inches away from the competition.
NASCAR 98 looks and plays great, but it's in something of a predicament. People looking for just any old arcade-style racer might want to pass this up in favor of something simpler, like Daytona Championship, or weirder, like Sonic R. Serious sim fans should steer clear of this one and curse their unlucky stars that the demanding and shrewdly realistic Formula One CE didn't come out for the Saturn. However, no other racer with this level of customization is quite as good as this one in the "drive right on through the competition" department.