A lot of people are calling NASCAR 3 the best NASCAR simulation ever, but considering that Papyrus' series of NASCAR games has never had much in the way of competition, that seemingly grandiose praise doesn't do this incredible simulation justice. So let me set the record straight: Besides being the best NASCAR sim ever, it could very well be the best racing simulation ever.
This game's got it all: action that's hotter than fried chicken just hauled out of a Frydaddy, animations cooler than a bottle of brew pulled from a tub of ice, and bump-and-grind racing that's tastier than a paper bag full of greasy pork rinds. If my editors would let me, I'd confine my review to six simple words: Buy it, and buy it now.
It's not often I see a game where just about everything has been done to perfection, but this is one of them, so I'll start by mentioning the scarce few (and minor) gripes I had. Fans of the NASCAR Racing series have been clamoring for better support for Internet play, and Papyrus has obliged by incorporating a feature that lets you seamlessly connect to a WON.net server from within the game. That's great, because it means you don't have to load a memory-hungry web browser to play - especially important since this game will gladly use every resource at its disposal.
The problem, though, is that ever-present issue of latency, and it's one that's exacerbated by the fact that the numbers here (numbers as in ping times) don't stack up with what you're seeing onscreen. Join a game where your ping time is allegedly 130 milliseconds with a dial-up connection, and you'll joyously jump into the fray only to find that cars appear and disappear, causing drivers to slam into each other through no fault of their own. The point is moot if you host a game, but if you do so, be sure to feel pity for the guys who are running into these problems.
After many attempts at driving on WON.net, I finally resigned myself to the fact that there's just no way to ensure the experience is going to be smooth from start to finish, especially for users with dial-up connections. The good news is that pretty soon a lot of us - even me, in the NASCAR heartland of North Carolina, a mere 40 minutes from Richard Petty's birthplace - will have cable modems, and "latency" will be a mere footnote in some dictionary of obsolete technological terminology.
About the only other thing missing from NASCAR Racing 3 is the full lineup of NASCAR drivers and the licenses to use the names "Winston Cup" and "Busch Grand Nationals." How important is that to me? Not very. It's just as well that my daughter doesn't see an ad for cigarettes or beer when she moseys into my office while I'm racing, and you can bet your bottom dollar there'll be downloads created by users that'll give you the whole NASCAR lineup anyway.
Everything else about the game has been seasoned to perfection. The graphical effects - especially skid marks, smoke from tires, the "line" on the track, and lighting effects - are staggering in their realism and add immensely to the overall racing experience. Then there's the issue of force feedback, which developer Papyrus omitted from its last effort (Grand Prix Legends) because it would have been gratuitous and unrealistic: In short, they didn't want to do it if they couldn't do it right. And brother, did they ever use the time between Grand Prix Legends and NASCAR 3 to get it right! Take my word for it - this game has the best implementation of force-feedback effects ever. And if you don't think it's strong enough, you can tweak it to suit your perception of how it's supposed to feel. In fact, there's a ton of stuff you can edit to make the game run right for you.
You want tracks? How about the most tracks ever served up in a single game - all the circuits of the Winston Cup and Busch Grand National Series, including the famous Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis? You want to customize a car or driver? Have at it - just use the built-in paint program or a third-party utility to create your own custom car, or import your own image into a new driver setup. Want to find the best setups for each track? Then fire up the WONSWAP utility that comes with the game, which points you directly to a trading ground of car setup configurations for quick and easy download. Not quite up to running against the big boys? Then ease down the opponent's strength settings to as low as 80 percent (or as high as 125 percent, if you're feeling special) - a feature that the highly difficult Grand Prix Legends sorely lacked. From car setup to appearance to performance, it looks like the guys at Papyrus have actually managed to implement every single valid suggestion they've received during the years they've been putting out the NASCAR games.
But what makes NASCAR Racing 3 so incredibly special is the racing, and words aren't really adequate to describe just how this game puts you into the driver's seat. Perhaps the closest I can come to elaborating on this game's excellence is to relate a phone call I had with a fellow NASCAR nut who's also been a fan of the Papyrus series since its inception. I rang him up and started raving about what a mind-blowing experience each race was, until finally, at a loss for words, I just said, "All I know for sure is that it just feels like real racing." Only a second or two elapsed before he replied with a chuckle: "What you really mean is that it feels just like real racing." Preach on, brother, and I'll see you out on the track.