Say it ain't so! Having revolutionized PC vehicular competition and proven definitively that a truly authentic computerized driving experience is entirely within reach, the most dominant racing series of the last decade is headed for that great oval in the sky. Though designer Papyrus Racing Games may return to the PC at a later date with a new driving game, it has officially ended the run of its flagship PC series, NASCAR Racing. Fortunately, it hasn't done so without one last hurrah. Papyrus's latest game, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, makes a great finale for the world's foremost stock car racing series.
Those familiar with NASCAR Racing will feel immediately comfortable with the latest game. Once again, Papyrus has focused on NASCAR's premier series, the Winston Cup, and the developer has gone to great lengths to bring the full flavor of the Cup to your computer. In NASCAR Racing 2003, you'll find all 23 venues frequented by the pros, including the freshly renovated New Hampshire facility and the recently revamped two-mile road course formerly known as Sears Point and now named Infineon Raceway. As in real life, the game features night driving at several of the tracks, including the Bristol and Daytona circuits. It also offers one fantasy track, the extremely fast and crazily high-banked holdover from NASCAR Racing 2002 Season, Coca-Cola Superspeedway.
And fortunately, the latest NASCAR game doesn't skimp on drivers, cars, or teams, either. Though some of the Winston Cup's lesser-known part-time competitors don't make an appearance, all the big names are here, along with generally authentic colors and most sponsors other than alcohol and tobacco interests. In fact, those who say real-life NASCAR is simply a high-speed PR gimmick for its sponsors will quite likely have the same complaint here too. Whether you're sitting inside your car, monitoring the action from one of the game's many alternate viewpoints, or watching the proceedings afterward via the revised replay suite--which is now better than ever thanks to an improved control setup--you'll feel inundated by corporate signage and logos, but again, it's just like the real thing.
Like most of the previous NASCAR installments, NASCAR Racing 2003 doesn't take a huge leap forward. The truth is that Papyrus began with a superb foundation nearly 10 years ago--which in itself was made possible through earlier benchmarks such as 1988's amazing Indianapolis 500: The Simulation--and has continued to enhance and improve the formula with each new game.
NASCAR veterans will recognize the game's interfaces and general design. The opening menu looks similar to that of previous games, with the exception of a new backdrop and one important revision--the elimination of Darrell Waltrip's track tours, which were a nice addition for newcomers and a point of interest for veterans. However, NASCAR continues to offer its driving lessons mode, a 10-part sequence of tutorials first unveiled in NASCAR Racing 2002 Season. The comprehensive driving lessons cover a broad range of important topics, from general rules to pitting strategies, drafting instruction, and tire and fuel management, and they are therefore highly recommended to those who want to take the game and their racing to the next level.
Yet NASCAR Racing 2003 shines brightest on the track. Many have tried, but to date no other game has delivered the same level of authenticity; the same feeling that you are indeed in control of a large and very powerful stock car. And in NASCAR Racing 2003, that experience has been enhanced. If you play at the highest realism setting with all the driver's aids switched off, you'll find your car to be even more difficult to control than in previous games. And should you ever get into a position where a corner of your car lifts from the racing surface, you'll soon realize just how easy it is to get one of these things airborne, and cornering is also more challenging in NASCAR Racing 2003 than ever before. In fact, some beginners who try to play at the highest realism settings may get frustrated and simply give up.
Fortunately, rookies can always turn to the game's optional driver's aids. Though the first few NASCAR games were designed strictly for hard-core racing fans, the series now caters to both the expert and the newcomer. NASCAR Racing 2003 has optional features such as automatic transmissions, antilock brakes, traction control, invulnerable cars, and simplified "arcade" control to help beginners get started. The game even has a new set of incremental steering, acceleration, and braking adjustments to give you greater control over your input.
All these extra aids are a good thing, because rookies would have a very tough time keeping their vehicle running properly without them. Indeed, wrecking a stock car has never seemed easier. Now, tires will explode after just a few seconds of brake lockup. Vital components will expire or weaken after mild instances of contact. And as always, over-revved engines are potentially dead engines.
Yet Papyrus has not addressed some of NASCAR's minor problems, one of which is the quirky behavior of its AI drivers. When beginning a race, for instance, your computer-controlled peers inhumanly and robotically adhere to their two-abreast formation for a minute or more. Worse still, when they drive through a high-speed turn, they never seem to experience car control problems. Though they'll realistically drop their speed, they do not exhibit understeer, nor do their cars force them unintentionally high on the track. They do not waver, they do not fail to shift gears at appropriate times, and they only rarely collide with one another. In short, while you're madly struggling to manage your car, they never seem compelled to fight with theirs.
Otherwise, NASCAR's AI drivers are actually very impressive. They'll usually recognize your position on the track and react to any foolish moves by performing fast but believable collision-avoidance maneuvers. They'll seize opportunities to move past you, while making every effort to keep clear of you. And they'll consistently and unflinchingly adhere to the difficulty level you have selected.
Unless of course you've chosen one of NASCAR Racing 2003's new features, "adaptive AI," known more commonly as "rubber-band AI." With this option selected, the artificial intelligence attempts to match its performance with yours, so if you're driving poorly, your opponents decelerate to match your speed. Even if you select the most extreme 110 percent difficulty level, the other guys will modify their pace within the first three or four laps. This feature works far better here than it does in other games, where the AI goes to ridiculous lengths to adjust its speed, sometimes coming to a complete stop if you've been involved in a collision, and fortunately, you can toggle it on and off.
Traditionally, one of the great benefits of the NASCAR Racing series has been its enthusiastic multiplayer following, and that shouldn't change for the latest edition. NASCAR Racing 2003 delivers a sophisticated online multiplayer experience that takes into account every aspect of a racing weekend, supports up to 42 players per event, and is wholly accessible from within the game. We entered several races via Sierra's dedicated servers and had a ton of fun. Although we experienced a few instances of warping, the action was generally fluid and the racing extremely tight.
Graphically, NASCAR Racing 2003 offers several welcome new additions, the most obvious of which is the series' first depiction of sun glare. At midday, it'll temporarily blind you. In twilight at the Lowe's and Richmond events, it produces a soft, orange glow that seemingly spreads across the surrounding scenery. NASCAR Racing 2003 also has plenty of lens flare and shadow effects that help make the game look great. Papyrus has also added airborne objects, such as airplanes and blimps, to the sky, though these are rendered in 2D and tend to look strange from certain angles. However, NASCAR Racing 2003 has a new feature that looks great--cumulative windshield debris, which builds up over the course of a race and eventually forms a very realistic-looking layer of grime. And NASCAR Racing 2003's highly detailed cockpit is the best around.
Unfortunately, the game's exterior scenery looks a bit dated. Distant objects appear jumpy and sparkly and in bad need of antialiasing, and most trackside elements are strictly 2D. However, you'll probably be too busy paying attention to the track to notice. As you might expect from the series, NASCAR Racing 2003's automobiles are gorgeously detailed replicas of their real-life counterparts that belch smoke and bend and mutilate wonderfully in head-on collisions. Track surfaces are gritty and constructed to convey an astonishing sense of speed.
For the most part, NASCAR Racing 2003 sounds as good as it looks. Few racing games have effectively captured the guttural growl of these big-motor machines, but Papyrus mastered the art a long time ago and continues to do a great job. NASCAR Racing 2003's engines roar convincingly, but they don't obscure important sound effects such as tire squeals, gear shifts, and crashing body parts. You may occasionally encounter instances of car-to-car contact that don't create a corresponding sound, or occasions where the game's audio will drop out momentarily, but these occasions will be rare, if you experience them at all.
In retrospect, the NASCAR Racing series as a whole has quite likely done more to advance the art of computerized racing simulations than any other title to date. Papyrus stuck to its guns throughout and continued to deliver an extremely challenging and impressively realistic experience right through to the end, while at the same time gradually opening the game up to newcomers. Though NASCAR Racing 2003 Season isn't quite a revolutionary game, it is nevertheless a worthy finale for the series.