NASCAR 08 Hands-On

We kick the tires and take the car of tomorrow for a ride in our hands-on preview of NASCAR 08.

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Fans of EA's NASCAR series didn't have much to get excited about with last year's NASCAR 07. Sure, the game was good, but after seeing what the power of the Xbox 360 could do for EA's other sports franchises, it was hard to wait another year to see what the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 could do for the NASCAR series. The wait isn't over yet--NASCAR 08 isn't due in stores until this summer--but to help tide you over, we recently spent some hands-on time with the game at a recent press event at EA's Tiburon studios.

One of this year's biggest additions to both real-life NASCAR and NASCAR 08 is the introduction of the "car of tomorrow." After the accident at Daytona that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr., NASCAR made improving the safety of its drivers a key focus. One of the things born out of this increased emphasis on safety is the car of tomorrow, which is a new car design that is being introduced on select tracks this year. The car of tomorrow will keep drivers safe in a number of ways. There's a greater amount of headroom in the car and the side windows are bigger and thereby easier to exit in an emergency. The car's aerodynamics have also been altered. The spoiler on the back of the car has been replaced with a wing, and the addition of a splitter to the front of the car will increase the size of the air flow around the vehicle, making it easier to pass down low and hopefully break up the tight-knit packs you see on super speedways. Many fans love the possibility for carnage that close-quarters racing presents, but it's a recipe for disaster, and NASCAR is hoping that the increased passing opportunities will keep the races plenty exciting. You'll be able to drive the car of tomorrow on any track in the game, but if you want to stick to realism, you can choose to drive it only during the races that it's slated to appear in this year.

We spent a few minutes with the car of tomorrow in the game, which isn't enough to render a true verdict on how it handles, but it did seem to stick to the track a little better and there were plenty of passing opportunities. All of the cars seemed to handle a bit better this year, and they weren't quite as susceptible to slight twitches of the analog stick, which made it easier to race in a pack. If racing with an analog stick isn't your bag, the game supports Microsoft's driving wheel and the new Logitech wheel, and on the PS3, you can even steer by tilting the Sixaxis.

The car of tomorrow isn't the only car making its debut this year--Toyota joins the fray for the first time here. Hopefully the car maker's success on the virtual track will be better than what has transpired in real life thus far. The National series (aka "Busch series") as well as the truck series return this year as well, so there are plenty of different cars to drive on the game's 22 tracks--each of which has gotten a makeover. The greatest change is at the Las Vegas track, where there are new banked turns, but each course has more detail and is more accurate than ever. There's also a new day-to-night transition, and during some races the sun will set, blinding drivers in certain turns and casting shadows over the track in others. If the sun doesn't get you, the improved smoke and dirt effects will do their best to obscure your vision, which makes accidents even more difficult to avoid. Actually, not all smoke is bad. Thanks to new postrace celebrations you can burn rubber to your heart's content to celebrate a victory.

If you do happen to swap some paint you'll notice new and improved damage modeling, and you can really get a closer look at the damage with the game's new, more dynamic replays, which EA hopes will be yet another way to better capture the excitement of NASCAR. We wrecked a few times (on purpose, of course) and were able to witness our car flip, spin, and basically fall apart from a number of cool camera angles. Wrecking a lot also gave us the opportunity to get yelled at by Jimmy Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, who recorded new dialogue for the game.

Running individual races with 43 cars on the track (and 16 human opponents online) is fun, but what about depth? Don't worry, NASCAR 08 has you covered with "The Chase." Rather than placing you on the lowest rung of the racing ladder and making you slowly work your way up, the chase gives you the opportunity to join the NASCAR circuit much quicker, while still giving newcomers the experience they need to be competitive on the track. You'll start by participating in a series of license tests where you'll learn about drafting, bump drafting, slingshot passing, apex turns, and more. In one challenge we had to draft three cars, another had us pass five vehicles, and we saw another that focused on getting in and out of pit row as quickly as possible. As you gain licenses you'll earn a contract and get to take over someone's ride and hopefully finish in the top 12 so that you can race for the cup.

The license tests aren't the only new feature to help new players learn the game. The Vehicle Telemetry Visor (VTV) is a HUD similar to a fighter pilot's. You can toggle the VTV overlay on and see the draft effect of the car in front of you, monitor tire wear, fuel and oil pressure, speed, position, lap time, and more. There's also a circular display in the center of the screen that helps you see the banking of the track. It was a bit difficult to gather all of the information available to you while racing and the center part of the HUD was a bit distracting, but the information presented was certainly valuable. If you're not happy with your car's performance on the track, you can take advantage of the game's 40 different tuning options. You can change springs, shocks, gear ratios, and air pressure, move weight around, and more. If you're having trouble finding a good setting, or you have one that you think is great, the game will let you share settings with other users online.

It has been a long time coming, but the long wait for NASCAR to finally appear on the PS3 and Xbox 360 is almost over. PlayStation 2 owners will also be able to join in the fun as well, but as of this writing, those are the only systems on which the game is slated to appear. The build we played was early and the graphics had yet to receive their final bit of polish, but the game played well and it appears that EA Tiburon is establishing a solid base for the future of the series. We'll have more on NASCAR 08 as its summer release date approaches.

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