NASCAR 08 Multiplayer Hands-On

We take to the speedways in our latest look at EA's upcoming NASCAR game, this time focusing on the multiplayer aspects.

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Regardless of whether or not you think NASCAR is a sport, as a video game the racing series has a lot going for it. After all, there are fewer tense virtual situations you can find yourself in than tightly packed in between a pair of stock cars while zooming through turns three and four at Talladega, where even the slightest miscalculation won't end just your day, but those of your racing compatriots as well. Hot on the heels of seeing the game at EA's recent Los Angeles press event, we checked out NASCAR 08's online multiplayer features during a recent multiplayer session at EA's headquarters.

Keeping your cool in the pack is one of the toughest parts of NASCAR racing.
Keeping your cool in the pack is one of the toughest parts of NASCAR racing.

As we mentioned in our previous look, NASCAR 08 will support online racing for up to 12 racers on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For our session on the 360, we had a mostly full field made up of press members, EA PR staff, game producers, and even a few players joining in from elsewhere. At full capacity, our races had nine or 10 cars in at any given time and, though this preview build still had a few bugs here and there, the performance was mostly smooth.

One of the things the development team behind NASCAR 08 has gotten right is a large number of options when setting up online races. The game seems to be aimed at everyone, from casual NASCAR fans who just want to get in a race and swap paint, to the hardcore nuts who obsess over things like PSI numbers and grill tape. When creating the race, you'll have plenty of options to choose from: series (Nextel Cup cars, Car of Tomorrow, even Craftsman Trucks), track (choosing from any race on the calendar), race length, wear factor (which will help determine how many pit stops you need to make). You'll also be able to set the number and strength of computer opponents you wish to race against--the game will automatically fill out the field to the maximum of 12 cars unless you specify otherwise. Additionally, there's damage, collisions, and flag rules. For the latter, you'll be able to choose between yellow flags, black flags (which will send unskilled drivers to the back of the pack should they continuously wreck), and full-race flag settings, or you can turn them off altogether.

Similarly, when looking for races to join, you'll be able to filter available races by a number of different criteria, such as series type, damage, collisions, and so on. As a result, if you enter a full-length race with all flag rules on, and realistic damage and tire wear, you're probably entering a race that will feature some experienced oval racers.

During our session, we tried a number of different races on every track type found in the game. We started at a super speedway, Daytona, before moving on to Phoenix International Raceway, with its one-mile lopsided oval. The differences between a super speedway like Daytona and a shorter track like Phoenix are immediately apparent. At Daytona and Talladega, you can simply mash the gas for the entire race; on smaller speedway courses, you're constantly looking to make up time in the turns through careful use of the gas and steering and, yes, even the brakes. Of course, the most difficult events in NASCAR 08 are the short tracks and road courses. We tried one apiece from these categories--the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway, and Northern California's Infineon Raceway.

There are three parts to online race events in NASCAR 08: practice, qualifying, and the actual race itself. The host of the race session can choose to skip any of these sections at any point, but to get a feel for the different tracks, we tried them all in each race event. Practice takes place with all cars on the track at the same time and, at a short track like Richmond, it can be a disaster, with cars quickly being reduced to twisted hunks of metal--though it did show off the extreme levels of damage the game's racing engine is boasting. From there, it's time to qualify--usually by taking two full laps of a course and counting your fastest lap. The difference is that though everyone is qualifying at the same time, you'll see only your car on the track during your qualifying run, a nice touch that helps keep the race moving. Qualifying results are updated in real time as you make your way through your laps.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way--online racing in NASCAR 08 is fast and demanding.
Lead, follow, or get out of the way--online racing in NASCAR 08 is fast and demanding.

One of the most tense moments in our session with NASCAR 08 were the traditional rolling starts, never more so than on the tight Richmond track. Heaven forbid you're stuck in the middle of the pack during a rolling start at a short track as it will most certainly end in disaster (or at least a yellow flag). On the more wide-open courses, of course, starts are easier just as long as you can keep your nerve in those first few corners before the field widens out a bit. Our road race at Infineon was our favorite of the bunch, not just because it mixed in right turns, but because we got a real chance to feel out the capabilities of the vehicles. These aren't quick-cornering F1 cars, these are relatively lumbering giants that take some coaxing to get around slow turns. Unlike in other racing games, braking in NASCAR stock cars is more of a suggestion than a command, so you'll want to jam on the brakes much earlier than you might otherwise in order to maximize your stopping power.

Though our online experience with the game was fun, serious race fans will want to stick to racing with their friends when it comes time to hit the track. The sheer number of knuckleheads who will likely be taking to the ovals during the first few weeks of this game's release might sour it for a few. For those who stick with it, however, there's a lot of fun to be had online in NASCAR 08.

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