It's fall now and time once again for another round of yearly sports franchise updates. "Another year, another game," you might be saying, and often that's true. But in at least one case this year, that adage doesn't hold, and that case is EA Sports' NASCAR Thunder. The 2003 edition of Thunder improves in quite a few ways on last year's game, bringing the stock car racing fan a lot more than just some new cars with updated paint jobs. The improvements and additions found in NASCAR Thunder 2003 will prove interesting even to those still messing around with last year's game.
You'll notice right off the bat that NASCAR Thunder 2003 comes fully loaded with gameplay modes, options, bells, and whistles. You can get your feet wet with the quick race mode, which allows up to four players to choose drivers, cars, and tracks for a brief trip around the loop without any extra hassles. Quick race is fine for making some practice runs, but simulation-minded racing fans will find the real meat of Thunder in the season and career modes. Season has you and up to three others selecting a driver and car and taking on a full season of Winston Cup racing. The sole objective in the season mode is to acquire enough points to become the season champion. In this mode you can control variables like number of races and race length, but you won't be doing anything outside the actual races themselves--it's straight from one race to the next. Playing one season isn't a big time investment, depending on your options, as you can finish one in a couple of hours.
Career is the real long-term game mode in NASCAR Thunder 2003. Imagine playing the season mode 20 times back to back, throw in a whole lot of extra customization and strategy options, and you've got a good idea of what career is about. Whereas season has you picking from a stable of existing drivers, with preset sponsors and race teams, Career makes you construct everything from the ground up. In addition to customizing the look of your car (which can also be done in season mode), you'll pick all of the sponsors for your car, your pit crew, and the driver and you'll sign short-term contracts with them based on the money offered. You'll also hire every member of your race team based on their salaries and qualifications. Once you've got your car, sponsors, and crew assembled, you can embark on a 20-year career in Winston Cup racing. There's no end to the options in career mode, giving you a lot to do besides just run your races. You can have your team working R&D on new enhancements for your car while you cut better deals with more lucrative sponsors based on your performance. In fact, you don't even have to run the races themselves--the game will simulate the results for you, if you're only interested in the statistical aspect of your racing career. Career is definitely where hard-core racing fans will spend the most time in Thunder 2003.
New this year to the franchise are the lightning challenge and thunder license game modes. Lightning challenge presents you with a group of actual racing scenarios from Winston Cup history and drops you into the hot seat to complete the task at hand. Each of these scenarios is set up exactly like it happened in real life, giving you the chance to relive glory, and in some cases, change history. Thunder license lets you pick a personal racing coach from a list of NASCAR drivers, all of whom contributed voice samples to the game. Then you hit a track of your choice and let the driver you've picked coach you to faster times on that track. Each track has three time goals to complete. By finishing these challenges you can earn thunder plates, which are simply custom license plates. Earning enough thunder plates will let you unlock new drivers, cars, and such. These new game modes are a good nod to variety, and they'll give you something to do when you've tired of simply racing the regular modes.
The actual racing itself in NASCAR Thunder 2003 is a pretty complicated affair. If you've never played a NASCAR game before, you'll gain new respect for the drivers who participate in the real sport as you try futilely to make it around a turn without eating the wall. After enough practice, you'll realize that running a smooth race depends on a delicate interplay between acceleration and braking. In short, there's a lot more skill required here than it might look like on the surface. During a race you also have ratings for your damage, tire wear, and fuel, meaning you'll have to strategically decide when it's best to hit the pits for repairs. The drivers are aggressive, even at the lowest difficulty setting, so you'll have a lot on your hands at all times. Racing in Thunder 2003 can be difficult and frustrating at times, but once you get the hang of it, it's gratifying to see your standing constantly increasing.
The graphics in NASCAR Thunder 2003 are somewhat improved over last year's version. Primarily, the frame rate has gotten better, which will probably be a selling point to anyone who remembers the 2002 version and its problems rendering lots of cars at once. This year's Thunder doesn't have any serious frame rate issues, even with the whole pack onscreen at once. The car models are finely detailed, with nice textures, reflections, and real-time lighting. Unfortunately, the visuals overall are a bit lower resolution and muddier than those found in the Xbox and GameCube versions. The graphics aren't bad, per se, but they don't stand out next to those of the other two games. In terms of sound, Thunder 2003 is pretty good. The race announcers are perfectly serviceable, and the radio chat from your team is actually pretty helpful in the middle of the race, as they advise you about your distance from the lead, cars about to pass you, and other such pertinent info. Unfortunately, all of this can be lost in the roar of the engines and the screech of clashing metal, so you'll most likely have to fine-tune the volume settings to make the voices audible. Other than this minor issue, the sounds in the game are quite good, with the possible exception of the repetitive nu-rock soundtrack that plays during the menus.
To sum up, NASCAR Thunder 2003 is a fine update to EA Sports' popular stock car racing franchise. It does pretty much everything a yearly sports update needs to do to be a success: It improves on features that previously were lacking, and it brings some new additions into the mix as well. PlayStation 2-owning NASCAR fans, even those who played last year's game, will be doing themselves a favor by checking out Thunder 2003.