Naysayers dismiss driving in a NASCAR game as simply "turning left," but series enthusiasts know that there's more to it than that. Driving with 42 others in a NASCAR race demands focus and precision, and when it's running on all cylinders, NASCAR 2011: The Game does a good job of simulating that tension. One tiny rub can be disastrous, so you must push ahead carefully, drafting behind drivers in front of you while being mindful of those that would take advantage of an opening. Alas, not all is well on these tracks. Online play is the most troubled aspect: leaderboards are hilariously broken, and the racing itself isn't far behind. Elsewhere, caution flags are slow to wave or simply never come. These and other flaws frequently hinder the game's authenticity, though that doesn't mean you won't have some fun, particularly if you stick to short races and avoid grueling multi-hour marathons. Just be prepared to encounter a number of fits and starts on your way to NASCAR glory.
Career mode offers the most mileage, dropping you in the shoes of a known NASCAR driver or one of your own making, and putting you through the paces, from Daytona to Homestead-Miami. Fans should note that as of this writing, the game is based on the 2010 schedule, so sponsors, car designs, the point system, and so on aren't necessarily current. An update is scheduled to bring these aspects of the game up to date, though that might be cold comfort to those expecting the 2011 season to be represented right out of the box. In any case, you take to the circuits one at a time and make your way through a 36-race season, including the road course races on Watkins-Glen International and Infineon Raceway. The mode is functional, but it's also dry and straightforward--no substitute for the impressive and extensive Fight to the Top modes in older NASCAR games. Even victory celebrations are subdued. Your driver dances about and breaks out the champagne while surrounded by fist-pumping fans, but this canned display gets old, and the roar of the crowd sounds more like a mild sigh.
Once qualification begins, NASCAR 2011's presentation picks up. You could nitpick the blurry crowd textures, but tracks and vehicles look good, and you aren't likely to notice the idiosyncrasies once the game is in motion. Light shines brightly off your hood, the rear-view mirror displays proper reflections, and the asphalt shows authentic-looking skid marks. Just the right amount of motion blur imbues a proper sense of speed, and as long as you're focused on the road and on the cars (as you should be), you probably won't notice cookie-cutter palm trees and such. Crashes are another matter. Fenders get dented and hoods fly off, but collisions that seem as if they should cause spectacular damage don't necessarily bring dramatic results. More consistent is the way NASCAR 2011 re-creates the roar and buzz of vehicles on the track, which is enough to instill excitement, but is never overwhelming. Doug Rice and Mark Garrow enthusiastically introduce each race, though your spotter is the only voice you hear behind the wheel. He's good company to have, even if his advice ("Clear on the inside") often comes too late. You may also tire of his limited number of lines; judging from his comments, NASCAR spotters drop an inordinate number of hot dogs on fans.
Outside of the career mode, you can take any car to any track for a one-off race, or compete in eliminator events in which you set the number of challengers. These modes hold no surprises, so it's up to NASCAR 2011's invitational events to provide some diversity, and they do a decent job of it. You unlock these as you progress through your career, and they come in a few varieties. Perhaps the most interesting are legends challenges, in which you must draft other drivers to unlock collectible coins. A satisfying whoosh and slight controller rumble make it enjoyable to draft, so an event focused on this mechanic is a good addition. Time trials, elimination events, and two-part gauntlet races round out the invitationals, some of which require particular skill. (It isn't easy to earn a gold medal on Infineon.) They also earn you extra NASCAR experience points (NXP), which unlock paint schemes and other rewards.
Behind the wheel, NASCAR 2011 makes a good first impression, and the driving model is smooth and consistent enough that it feels good to take to the track. NASCAR newcomers should be able to jump right in, and there are a number of driving assists to help them get used to the demands of circuit races. Such assists (braking, steering, wheel-spinning, and more) can be tweaked to various degrees, and you can feel their effects on the track when adjusting these settings. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty, you can customize individual tire pressure, brake bias, differential ratio, and so on. If you don't know your camber angle from your caster angle, you can simply choose a preset designed for the course at hand. Neophytes may also appreciate the proximity radar at the bottom of the screen, which shows you any vehicles in the immediate vicinity.
Regardless, the driving hits the right notes, rewarding you when sticking close to a proper racing line and requiring you to draft and pick up speed so that you might slingshot ahead. The game assigns you a rival in each race, and beating him (or her) gives you a little extra incentive to drive well, though this is a far cry from NASCAR Thunder 2004's involved rivalry/alliance system. In NASCAR 2011, the track is your greatest rival; scraping the wall might throw you out of your rhythm, while a misconceived attempt to slide into an opening might lead to disaster. Assuming you're racing more than a few laps and have turned on tire wear and damage, you also need to pay mind to your fuel gauge and vehicle condition. This affects your efficacy on the course, and in long races, you need to make a pit stop when necessary to replace tires and fuel up.
Given a little time, NASCAR 2011's flaws become readily apparent. One of the first issues you may encounter is the inconsistency of caution flags. Minor contact between two AI cars in the rear can trigger an immediate yellow flag, but if you are involved in a 15-car pileup, the flag might never fly. On such an occasion, you might use NASCAR 2011's rewind feature to turn back the clock and try again, though you get only limited chances per race. Or you might continue on, though going from the front of the pack to the rear is frustrating in any race, whether it's a five-lap quickie or a 400-mile marathon. Such tests of endurance highlight other issues, many of them related to the AI. Drivers exiting the pit drive directly into the pack without thought and tend to bunch up and slow down too much around certain turns. The AI performs better on certain tracks than others. For example, on medium difficulty (and sometimes even on hard), it isn't that challenging to grab pole position for most courses and then lead the pack for the majority of the race, even if you hit the wall every so often. On the other hand, you could maintain a good line and top speeds on Daytona and still not qualify in the top 10.
Off the track, there are a couple of features to keep you occupied, paint customization being at the top of the list. NASCAR 09 let you create custom designs in a paint program like Photoshop and upload them to an online locker; now, you need to do all of your cosmetic configuration in-game. Fortunately, the in-game tools are robust, though to gain access to every sponsor logo, you need to unlock them by meeting certain criteria. Otherwise, you get a huge selection of basic shapes, flags, flames, comical faces, and much more right off the bat. Imaginative players will enjoy creating their own decals using these tools, though you don't have to be an artist to customize a vehicle that would look at home on the NASCAR circuit.
It's a pity that there is no easy way to share your paint schemes with others in the manner of Forza Motorsport 3, though PlayStation 3 owners have already devised a clever workaround for this drawback. That isn't the only area in which the PlayStation 3 release gets the upper hand, however. While both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions let you edit and save race highlights, PS3 players can upload those videos (as long as they are under a minute in length) to YouTube directly from the game. Unfortunately, the uploaded videos are uneven, often resulting in choppy video and audio, even when you select the "medium" quality setting. And neither platform offers a direct way to upload and share the photos you can take. (Though again, enterprising PS3 owners have come up with a clever alternative.)
If you want to leave behind the inconsistencies of the offline AI, you can head online and seek friendly competition there, though you're more likely to find irritation than inspiration. A simple glance at the leaderboards is the first indication that trouble is just around the bend: most of them show record lap times of just a few seconds, or even zero. Once you've entered a race, the problems become even more apparent. All too often, you might be frozen in place, unable to race, while the few racers able to move intentionally zip about, crashing into the paralyzed competitors. It is difficult, but not impossible, to enter a smooth race, though public matches are plagued by players intent on spoiling the fun with intentional crashes and other such shenanigans. Your best bet is to hook up with friends. Presuming a lag-free race, racing with like-minded individuals is enjoyable as you focus on maintaining the line while swapping positions and slingshotting forward after some effective drafting.
For Sprint Cup fans, NASCAR 2011 is the only game in town, and the more forgiving of you will enjoy your time behind the wheel. The basic racing feels good and is customizable enough that you should find a sweet spot that suits your level of racing expertise. When the game finds its groove, it delivers a good sense of enjoyable tension that rewards smart, controlled driving. Unfortunately, the more deeply you dig, the deeper the hole NASCAR 2011 digs itself into. There's a lot of room for this series to improve, and developer Eutechnyx need only look to the superior NASCAR games of previous generations for proper inspiration.