For the last few years, the NASCAR series under EA's watch has transitioned from incorporating major improvements to focusing on more subtle, yet poignant changes. This year, however, EA seems content to leave the NASCAR series on cruise control. Instead of improving online play or cleaning up the dated graphics, EA Tiburon has made a number of small changes, none of which do much to improve the way the game plays or looks. As a result, NASCAR 07 feels like little more than a patched version of NASCAR 06.
If you're looking to take a quick spin, you can choose from a single race or take the updated Dodge challenges, which are scenarios from the 2005 season introduced in video interviews by the drivers who were involved. These short, enjoyable challenges include holding off charging drivers, avoiding wrecks, or changing history by winning a race you should have lost. The pseudotraining mode from NASCAR 06--speedzone--has been dropped altogether. Both the season mode, where you participate in a season of any length, and chase for the cup, which is the last 10 races of the season, are back and largely unchanged.
The bulk of NASCAR's gameplay is found in the career mode, known as "fight to the top". Here, you start as an unknown driver and work your way up from the modified series to Craftsmen trucks, NBS (Busch), and eventually Nextel. The concept is solid, but even after all these years, the execution is lackluster. Imagine being forced to play a season of high school, college, and NFL Europe football before getting to play as an NFL team in Madden. If you'd rather not start at the very bottom, a short series of challenges has been added, letting you sign with a higher class of cars if you are able to achieve specific lap times. This certainly makes the process of making it to the big time less tedious, but it's still time consuming, and unless you're a series veteran, it's tough to start out driving anything better than a truck.
Other issues diminish the lasting value of the fight to the top mode when you're doing anything other than racing. If you decide not to qualify or participate in a race, you can skip ahead, but you'll finish last, since only races in the season mode can be simulated for some odd reason. This makes driving in two series at once extremely cumbersome and time consuming. You can purchase and manage your own team, hire drivers, and even set merchandise prices, but your options are limited. The autograph minigame is dreadful, as is the fantasy racing game, and your agent, Ace Moneymaker, constantly harasses you with unimportant, repetitive phone calls.
On the track, very little has changed. To boost realism, each driver has been given a rating based on how they perform on different types of tracks, but since nobody is rated lower than a C-, the difference in performance from one driver to the next is minimal. An adrenaline meter fills and boosts your skills when you perform well on the track. When you make a mistake, points are taken away, but the effects are subtle, never affecting you in any major way. Skill points are awarded after the race is over, and they can be used to unlock items such as paint schemes, cars, and tracks. You can "invest" these points (this is EA's sanitized way of saying "wager") during the season mode, but the process isn't explained very well and the points are easy to lose.
The controls, while a touch more forgiving, feel almost identical to last year. They're still too sensitive, making it tough to keep your line when you're racing in a pack. If you do get loose in a turn and accidentally bump another car, you'll be sure to pay for your mistake. The other drivers don't take kindly to swapping paint and will go out of their way to keep you from passing, often blatantly slamming into you to spin you out. You can try and make good on the track by letting others draft and even apologizing into the headset when you bump someone, but with the controls so touchy, you'll almost always end up the villain.
The total team control concept that was introduced in NASCAR 06 is back and virtually unaltered. You can give your teammates commands via the right analog stick or verbally with a headset. In theory, this allows for a more realistic racing experience, as you can call for a teammate to block for you, let you draft, or move up in the pack alongside you. In reality, it's of limited use in short races, your teammates often don't understand your verbal commands, and even when they do, they often refuse to follow them. The only worthwhile aspect of the team control is taking over a teammate's car during longer races to improve the overall performance of the team in the fight to the top.
One of the game's biggest flaws is that the default settings aren't especially friendly to beginners. The instruction manual is totally inadequate and the in-game documentation is not much better. Default lap times, be they for pole position or the Allstate challenge, are very challenging, and even on the rookie setting, the driver artificial intelligence can be relentless. To make the action more realistic, the default options include realistic fuel usage, tire wear, car damage, and yellow flags, thereby making pit strategy more important than ever. Unfortunately for newcomers, the game doesn't do a good job of explaining exactly what good pit strategy is. When your first few pit stops are spent accruing penalties for speeding in the poorly marked pit area, making unnecessary changes, and losing your position on the track, you'll probably just turn them off.
Despite being released seven months into the 2006 season, NASCAR's driver roster is significantly out of date. Cover driver Elliot Sadler is driving his old M&M's car, and Jeremy Mayfield, who has been fired, is still on his old team. Of the 35 Nextel Cup drivers in the game, Carl Edwards, who finished third in 2005, is nowhere to be found, and rookie Clint Bowyer, who is currently 18th in the points standings, is only available in the NBS series. Other notable drivers that are absent include Ken Schrader, Travis Kvapil, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, and Bill Elliott. Car and driver customization options are very limited, so creating your favorite ride isn't really an option if your favorite driver isn't here.
Multiplayer is yet another area that received almost no attention this year. Only two people can play via split-screen, and system link is not supported. Online play is strictly bare bones, letting just four people race at once, though you can round out the field with computer-controlled drivers. Even with minimal lag, it's difficult to race human opponents side-by-side, as the battle for position often ends with one person spinning the other out. The ESPN ticker brings you real-time scoring updates while you're online and leaderboards will track the top performers, but these were not yet active when we tested the online component.
The visuals already looked dated last year, and they're showing their age even more this year. The car models look nice, particularly during replays when you can check out the scrapes and dents. To give the game a greater sense of speed, a blurring effect has been used on the side of the screen. While not entirely realistic, it does give off the appearance that you're going pretty fast, and it's done tastefully enough to not be a distraction. Outside of some slightly improved lighting, the tracks look almost exactly the same. They are merely average when viewed in progressive scan on the Xbox, but on the PlayStation 2, which supports widescreen but not 480p, they look downright poor. Road courses are made more difficult because it's often impossible to make out where the next turn is, either because it hasn't yet been drawn in or because everything on the horizon is so blurry. The frame rate is a bit steadier this year, but the PlayStation 2 version still tends to chug when coming back from a caution. Additionally, the smoke and lens flare look better on the Xbox.
NASCAR 07's audio, like much of the game, is virtually unchanged. The Xbox version supports the custom-soundtrack feature, but the in-game music isn't half bad. Inoffensive Southern rock tunes play during menus, but once on the track, the only noise you'll hear is the sound of racing. The car engines sound realistic and particularly powerful when racing in a pack. Your crew chief is in constant contact, informing you of what's happening on the track, but you can gain a lot of information by just listening to your car. Your tires will squeal as they lose their grip, and you can even use the sound of the wind rushing by as an indicator of when you're drafting.
Whether or not EA Tiburon simply mailed it in this year is open to debate, but regardless of how or why it happened, the game is disappointing. NASCAR 07 is by no means a bad game, but the lack of compelling new features makes it tough to recommend if you already own NASCAR 06.