All racing games are not created equal. Many now feature incredibly detailed car models, realistic sound effects, and numerous famous race circuits from all over the world. World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars, on the other hand, features heavily aliased vehicles, sound effects that don't do the engines justice, and just a dozen oval circuits confined to US soil. You shouldn't immediately dismiss this budget racer though, because it also boasts good vehicle handling, a reasonably deep Career mode, online play for up to eight people, and believable AI opposition.
Fortunately for World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars, all oval circuits are also not created equal. Far from it. Sure, racing on any of them involves a lot of turning left, but where the dozen featured tracks are concerned, the similarities pretty much end there. Some are wide enough for four cars to run alongside each other during rolling starts; others can manage only two. Some corners are banked; others are almost completely flat. Some are enclosed by walls; others have room for you to run off the track. Some use surfaces that afford you a lot of traction; others can feel like you're racing on ice. You get the idea. The point is that this seemingly very limited track selection shouldn't be a reason that you avoid this budget-priced racer. And nor should its presentation.
World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars isn't a good-looking game. In fact, it's so ugly at times that you might feel inclined to check that you haven't inadvertently traveled back in time, or at least that you have it running at the correct resolution. Furthermore, the frame rate is occasionally unstable, and unlocking an achievement with your console's notifications turned on invariably causes the game to freeze for a few seconds. The visuals become less jarring as you spend more time with the game, though, in part because this type of racing requires so much concentration that you cease paying attention to them.
As in real World of Outlaws sprint events, every race gets under way with a rolling start. Up to 24 cars snake around the track either two or four abreast waiting for the green light, and when it comes on, the potential for both collisions and overtaking opportunities is pretty high. The starts are made unnecessarily tricky by the AI in control of your vehicle prior to the green light, which insists on weaving from side to side at all times. The idea is presumably that the drivers are trying to keep their tires warm, but the result is that when you're unceremoniously handed control of your car at the start, it's almost never pointing in the straight line that you need it to be. It takes only a second to straighten yourself out and slam down on the accelerator, but when complete laps are being run in well under 20 seconds, every one of those seconds counts.
Taking part in your first race can be a very unforgiving experience. With their slanted roof- and hood-mounted wings, and different-sized rear tires (the right is significantly wider than the left), sprint cars are probably unlike any car that you've ever driven before--even in a video game. Even keeping them moving forward in a straight line can be challenging on some surfaces when you're driving at speed, and getting them around corners while maintaining that speed is practically an art form. Turn in too sharply, and there's a good chance you're going to spin around and end up facing the wrong way, but fail to turn sharply enough, and you can look forward to hitting either a wall or a run-off area. Even without opponents on the track many of the circuits are deceptively challenging, and while practice clearly pays off in time, mastering one oval certainly doesn't mean you've mastered them all.
Though you're afforded only a handful of practice laps before you start competing during a typical race day, a good--but not easy--way to improve your performance on any given track is to tune your car for it. In the game's garage you can play around with a number of settings that have a noticeable effect on how your car handles, including the respective sizes of your rear wheels, tire types, ride height, wing adjustments, and more. Concise explanations do a good job of letting you know what each of these settings does, but it's a shame that you're given only one opportunity to test them before competitions get under way. In the lengthy Career mode--which incorporates no fewer than 40 race days in addition to other challenges and head-to-head events--you also have the option to purchase upgrades for your car that, at times, can make winning races much easier than it should be. You might even find that challenges designed to test whether it takes you three, six, or nine laps to reach first position can be completed before you're out of the first corner. Career mode doesn't stay this easy for very long, though; it just gets easier anytime you unlock and purchase a significant new upgrade and then gradually becomes more challenging while you wait for the next one.
Despite their occasional inability to keep up with the pace in Career mode, the AI drivers in World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars are definitely one of its greatest strengths. They're not always as fast as you, but their driving is believable, and when 24 of you are racing around one of the smaller ovals simultaneously, you feel like you're surrounded by opponents who are both competitive and occasionally unpredictable. Since racers inevitably end up lapping each other in all but the shortest of events, icons are intelligently used to indicate the race leader, the driver one race position in front of you (not necessarily the guy immediately in front of you on the track), and guys who are aggressive toward you as a result of earlier collisions. Accidents happen in sprint car races, and it's not uncommon for races to be put on hold after crashes so that wrecks can be cleared while the remaining drivers form an orderly line behind the leader. AI drivers crash into each other more often than they crash into you, but you never feel like the drivers are unaware of each other, and if you're driving erratically yourself, the AI opponents often swerve to avoid you. Vehicle damage is handled in a limited fashion. The effects on your car are often more apparent in how it looks than in how it handles, but the impact on performance is incentive enough to drive with some care--especially if you're competing in one of the longer 30- or 40-lap races.
On those long race you can't fail to notice the mud that builds up on your screen anytime you're positioned directly behind an opponent. The dirt can significantly obscure your view which is why you have a number of tear-offs that you can use to clear the screen the same way that real race drivers use them on their visors. You get enough tear-offs to use one every couple of laps, but if you spend a prolonged period of time racing amongst a pack you might feel the need to use two on a single lap. Another interesting and initially subtle thing about long races is that the track never looks the same twice from lap to lap. Your tires leave tracks in the dirt that stick around for the entire race, and on some circuits the effect can be quite dramatic after 30 laps of 24 cars all making their mark. The lighting changes as well, sometimes giving the appearance that the air is filled with dust or adding well-defined shadows to the cars as if the sun has emerged from behind a cloud. Again, World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars isn't a good-looking game, but touches like these are indicative of how much care clearly went into some areas of its development.
Sadly, online play is not one of those areas. Up to eight players can race simultaneously, but there's no option to race alongside AI opponents, and even games with only three or four players suffer from lag on occasion. When you're hosting a race, the only options you have are to set the lobby to public or private, choose one of the dozen tracks, and opt for a short, regular, or long race. And when you're attempting to join a race, things don't get any better. There's a quick match option that does a good job of getting you into the first available lobby, but even if you choose the custom match option and peruse the available lobbies, there's no way to know if the host is running regular races or some of the other multiplayer modes until you actually join it. Not that you're likely to be looking for any of the other modes after you've tried them out once or twice. Hot Spot is a King-of-the-Hill-style game in which the "hill" (a small column of light) moves as soon as someone scores a point by touching it. Hot Spot Delivery is the same, except that to score a point you have to hit two hills in succession. Tag is, well…tag. And Bomb Tag is like tag, but with a bomb that's set to go off either 30 seconds or one minute after the start of the game. None of these games are much fun, regardless of which of the five arenas you choose to play them in, and that's in part because they call for more precision than the game's controls afford you.
Despite its very obvious shortcomings, World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars is a racing game that does racing well. Its presentation and controls make a terrible first impression, but as you master the latter, you become less concerned with the former. There's some enjoyable and challenging racing to be had here, and while your eyes might hate you for buying it, the $20 price tag means your wallet won't.