When I first heard about NIRA Intense Import Drag Racing, I was pretty jazzed. After all, it was created by Bethesda, which gave us Burnout - one of the best (and one of the few) drag-racing simulations ever for the PC. And I naturally assumed that Bethesda would have used the time between Burnout (which was later renamed Hot Rod Championship Drag Racing) and NIRA Intense Import Drag Racing to rectify everything that had kept Hot Rod from being a Grade A product - like providing native Windows support, making the manual more user-friendly, improving the interface, and beefing up the game's VCR features.
However, it turns out that NIRA Intense Import Drag Racing is little more than an add-on pack for Hot Rod Championship Drag Racing designed to run as a stand-alone product. I'm thankful that Bethesda at least kept the sticker price low ($19.95), but the bottom line is that everything that had kept Hot Rod from introducing drag racing to the gaming masses is still alive and kicking in this latest incarnation.
The only real difference between NIRA and Hot Rod are the cars. Instead of rails, funny cars, and souped-up stock cars, you get to drag race imported cars like a Mitsubishi Eclipse, Toyota Supra, Honda CRX, Acura Integra, BMW M3, Porsche 911, and a couple of cars that were apparently taken from NIRA teams. It's beyond me why someone would want to race these cars on a drag strip - it seems as though they'd all be better suited to a type of racing that would take greater advantage of their handling capabilities - but apparently some people are into it or there wouldn't be an NIRA in the first place. There are only ten cars total in NIRA, but as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for; on the upside, there are 20 tracks featured in the game, a few of which were sites of 1998 NIRA events.
Some modifications have been made to the Hot Rod game engine to reflect the sort of setup options made available by these types of cars. Just as in the first Bethesda drag-racing game, the number of ways you can tweak your car's performance is vast to the point of being overwhelming to all but the most savvy mechanics and drivers. To be fair, the manual does touch on all the bases, but no attempt at all has been made to make the manual more accessible: The instructions have the same turgid prose and reams of complicated information that almost made me comatose back when I played Hot Rod.
Where NIRA really shines is out on the track, and while figuring out the complexities of drag-racing rules and coming up with that perfect engine and chassis setup can take a while, you'll be rewarded with some extremely intense action against some very strong computer opponents. But you'll eventually get the itch to race against human opponents. Unfortunately, the fact that this game isn't Windows 95-native means the only way to find competition on the Internet is on that old workhorse, Kali. Bethesda is throwing support behind the Simulated Hot Rod Association, and there's even a Kali site specifically for SHRA. However, it's still disappointing that a racing sim released in 1999 doesn't offer the option for direct TCP/IP connections; instead, it asks you to spend an additional $20 for a gaming network whose reason for existence passed with the arrival of DirectX's multiplayer support.
Other areas that remain unimproved include the game's flaky control setup and limited VCR functions. I lost count of the number of times I assigned important functions to a joystick button (the game only recognizes four-button controllers, by the way) only to enter a race and find that it may or may not work. Watching replays is pretty fun, but it'd be a lot more exciting if you could hear the sounds of the engines or rotate, pan, and zoom the view for the best angle of a major crash.
I learned to live with all of these same annoyances in Hot Rod and wound up enjoying the game enough to give it a fairly high score. And of course there's something to be said for the NIRA's low price tag and the fact that you can race import cars. But if you're just a casual drag-racing fan, you're better off picking up a copy of the original Hot Rod Championship or waiting on Bethesda's upcoming IHRA Drag Racing.