NASCAR Racing 2002 Season proves once again that Papyrus is one of the most faithful and knowledgeable purveyors of racing games on the planet.
It wasn't so very long ago that the only truly realistic PC racing games were Papyrus racing games. Times have changed, of course, and now several development houses and publishers have access to the concepts and programming know-how that turn run-of-the-mill arcade racers into deep and authentic portrayals of motor sports. Still, with just a single product, Papyrus Design Group continues to hold its own. The latest in its revered NASCAR series, NASCAR Racing 2002 Season, proves once again that Papyrus is one of the most faithful and knowledgeable purveyors of racing games on the planet. It also proves through a wide variety of new drivers' aids and tutorials that the hard-core Papyrus team has finally made the series more accessible to the many rookie and arcade-schooled drivers who once found the series prohibitively difficult. NASCAR 2002 is not the quantum leap ahead some might have expected, nor is it free of flaws, yet it is another winning installment of what clearly can be considered the standard-bearer of all racing simulations.
As expected, NASCAR 2002 is licensed to the hilt and is consequently equipped with all the venues, drivers, cars, paint schemes, and sponsors of the 2002 Winston Cup season. Perennial top finisher Dale Jarrett is here, as are Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton. Sizzling newcomer Tony Stewart brings his #20 Home Depot Pontiac, and four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon pilots his #24 DuPont Chevrolet. All the circuits from NASCAR 4 return for another go, including the high-speed monster known as Talladega and the confining accident scene that is Bristol.
Whereas NASCAR 4 offered 21 circuits, NASCAR 2002 delivers three more for an impressively grand total of 24. Included in the trio are the latest real-life Winston Cup additions of Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway, both of which are near-identical 1.5-mile low-banked tri-ovals that feel substantially more exciting during a race than they outwardly appear. Though Papyrus seemingly hasn't endowed either with more than just a basic allotment of peripheral scenery, it has once again managed to highlight the subtle track surface and banking variations that make these two new NASCAR circuits as different as they can possibly be.
Conversely, the third and final new track is pure fantasy. Presumably named after a certain soda pop of some renown, the Coca-Cola Superspeedway is undoubtedly where you'll want to head to determine just how fast your virtual car can go. Featuring two monstrous 36-degree banked corners and two massive straightaways, this imaginary and perfectly symmetrical facility asks only that you leave your accelerator matted, the brake pedal untouched, and remain aware of how weightless you're going to feel at such tremendous speeds. At Coca-Cola, a 240mph-plus top speed is not uncommon, nor is three-abreast racing, and there's a very real likelihood that if you do crash, your momentum will probably carry you for a half-mile or so until you eventually lurch to a stop. Certainly fans of reverse-track racing and head-on multiple-car collisions now have a new marquee venue in which to hone their craft and run up their destructive totals.
Yet it is the rookie driver, not the crash-happy renegade, who stands the most to gain from the latest NASCAR. Apart from the usual collection of drivers' aids such as automatic clutches, antilock brakes, traction control, simplified "arcade" mode, and unbreakable cars, NASCAR 2002 offers several important and helpful new perks. The most significant addition is undoubtedly the game's driving school component, a 10-lesson tutorial where newcomers will familiarize themselves with the essentials. Addressing such issues as rules, pitting, car tuning, general driving skills, and even graphics-performance maximization, the two-hour-plus driving school is a wonderful primer that is clearly not a last-minute throw-in. Unfortunately, though all the lessons are fully narrated and definitely informative, they are not interactive like those that accompany Electronic Arts' slick F1 series.
NASCAR 2002 is also the very first NASCAR sim to offer complete tours of each and every facility. Narrated by stock-car legend Darrell Waltrip, this is a particularly interesting place to turn for both a general indoctrination and for guidance when certain circuits or sections of circuits seem troubling. Rookie drivers will also appreciate NASCAR's new optimum-driving-line graphical overlay, a colored on-track display that changes color to reflect braking and cautionary zones and is positioned to indicate the ideal car placement. And certainly anyone who drives with a keyboard will immediately take advantage of NASCAR's new digital steering-assistance function, which graduates and tempers the usually violent responses that typically accompany non-analog keyboard control.
Veteran NASCAR aficionados may not be so easily impressed. Though the game does sport several interesting new wrinkles that will impress the hard-core driver and enhance what was already an exceptional experience, it is far from an entirely revamped product, nor does it totally clear up the few trouble spots of past editions. Frame rate, for example, continues to be a problem. On the test system, which includes normally capable components such as an Athlon XP 1600+ processor, a GeForce2 GTS 64MB video card, and 512MB RAM, we were hard pressed to maintain a smooth-flowing display in traffic unless we first reduced several detail levels and dropped the resolution from the preferable 1024x768 to 800x600. It is disappointing that NASCAR once again forces you to choose between performance and appearance.