There's no question that with all of the new features, NASCAR 09 is an improvement over previous installments in the series. The gameplay hasn't received much attention, but better presentation, the ability to completely customize your ride, and other minor enhancements make this a game that should please most fans of the sport.
Jeff Gordon's involvement can be seen consistently throughout the game--he's not just the guy on the cover. What makes his involvement unique is that Gordon essentially acts as a pit-crew chief to help users navigate through all of the different stages that a driver must take to reach the winner's podium. The onscreen addition of the four-time Cup champ improves the presentation and results in a better overall experience. However, he's not the only driver to have an impact on the game. EA has finally worked out a deal to add Carl Edwards and his #99 car to the roster. The rest of the field remains the same as a year ago.
Although some may prefer to get right down to racing with the Race Now mode, many will be intrigued by the improved Career mode. After you set up your new driver information, it's off to the garage to explore the robust new customization options. You start by selecting and designing your own number, and then lay down a base color for the body of your car. Racing stripes, waves, flames, and sponsorship decals are just some of the graphics that you can use to pimp your ride, though many of the sponsors won't be available until you earn them. As if that weren't enough, you can design your own graphics in an image-editing program (such as Adobe Photoshop) and upload them to an online locker to make them available in-game. This impressive depth of customization makes NASCAR 09 a much more engaging experience.
Upon completing the design of your car, you'll be asked to sign with a sponsor. Each sponsor has a set of expectations that must be met to improve your reputation and, ultimately, move up to bigger sponsorship opportunities. Unfortunately, though it may be cool to raise your reputation and gain bigger sponsors, it actually does very little for you other than boost your ego. The real key to improving your skills in NASCAR 09 is to complete as many of the 77 different Sprint Driver Challenges as possible. The first challenge asks you to complete a lap without going under 150 mph and to avoid going off the track or hitting the wall. Another interesting challenge is to finish ahead of a specific driver within a certain time frame. These challenges are actually more fun than the races themselves because they are shorter and more intense. By completing the different challenges, you'll earn performance points that can be used to improve your car's performance. The challenge mode's variety is one of NASCAR 09's strengths.
Before each race, you can tinker with every aspect of your car's suspension, aerodynamics, tires, drivetrain, and even weight distribution if desired. For those of you who aren't full-time mechanics, you have the option of choosing between a basic rookie setup and a veteran setup, which immensely simplifies the process of setting up your car. Nevertheless, you probably won't have to mess with your car's setup if you're playing on rookie or veteran levels. Qualifying for a race is uninteresting and too easy on either setting. It's possible to drive through the grass or even scrape the walls and yet still grab the pole. Obviously, the first position is desirable to any driver, but starting first often feels like you're racing the track alone because you rarely ever see any other cars. In fact, the hardest part of winning a race may be staying awake for the remaining laps after you've taken the lead.
Fortunately, if competition is lacking on the rookie and veteran settings, you can step it up another notch to legend difficulty. This makes qualifying and finishing first much more challenging and rewarding. If you start the race toward the back, it may take you 50 laps just to get up front. You can also turn damage and collisions off as well as set the flag rules to full to further increase the difficulty. Computer-controlled drivers aren't noticeably more aggressive on this setting, but they are much faster and more precise when making turns. You may have to work a bit to find the settings that fit for you, but NASCAR 09 provides a level of competition for all users.
There are five different camera options when driving. The in-car perspective delivers the most exciting driving experience; every turn seems to be magnified and demands your utmost attention. NASCAR 09 offers two different driving styles in the game to go along with the different viewing options: normal and pro. Normal is the easier of the two styles in that it lets you be a little less precise when taking turns. Conversely, the pro driving style requires a more experienced driver with steadier hands to be successful. To master the driving controls, it certainly takes some precision behind the wheel at first. The slightest wrong move and you'll slam into the wall if you're not quick enough to correct. Despite the sensitivity of the controls, they're accurate. When racing at almost 200mph, the stakes are high and your every turn must be precise, and the controls reflect this. However, it's really not that difficult to remain on the road and become the pack leader once you've adjusted to the game. Overall, the computer AI is definitely not as aggressive this time around. Drivers will still attempt to fight for position, but it's nothing like the road rage exhibited in the past.
NASCAR 09's graphics are adequate but the crashes could use some work. The problem is that you rarely get huge collisions that result in cars flipping end over end. Most crashes result in one driver bumping another and spinning out of control until the yellow flag comes out. It's more realistic that huge crashes don't happen that often, but it would no doubt add to the excitement of the game. The graphics aren't stellar, but they still look pretty good considering the number of cars onscreen at any given time. All of the tracks are the same from a year ago and look nice, but it's difficult to notice any major graphical flaws when you're consistently driving more than 170 mph.
Online play was difficult last year, and it hasn't gotten much better this season. EA has changed the number of allowed drivers in each race from 11 to 14. The change to 14 is nice, but that just means that there are now three more drivers who can bring out the yellow flag by being reckless. Fortunately, users can turn off yellow flags and collisions when racing in both ranked and unranked matches. Keep in mind that you may have to wait a while for a race to start, though. Sometimes the process of getting a race started will actually take longer than the race itself. However, once you actually do get online, you may find that there are some advantages. For starters, when the yellow flags aren't coming out, there's a lot more action during the race because so many drivers are fighting for position. Furthermore, the lag doesn't seem to be a problem, despite so many drivers playing at once. NASCAR 09's online play also includes the ability to share paint schemes with other users. This cool and unique feature is another attempt to pull the NASCAR community a little bit closer together. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game played the same both online and offline.
The sounds within NASCAR 09 are a great complement to the game. The noise from all the crowds and the engines sounds lifelike throughout the game. Additionally, the spotter does a solid job of helping you navigate through the field by consistently letting you know if there's an opposing driver running down low or up high. The music on the soundtrack has a nice mix of hard-rock tunes featuring such bands as POD and AFI to help set the mood on race day.
The bottom line is that NASCAR 09 is a good racer but doesn't provide the same level of excitement as the real thing. Regardless, it's at least a small improvement over last year's game in nearly every way. If you're willing to spend the time adjusting some of the settings, you'll find NASCAR 09 to be a fun and challenging game.