Some gamers will view Andretti Racing as a Need for Speed loaded with real race cars and fancied up with a few brushstrokes of realism, while others will see it as a dumbed-down amalgam of NASCAR 2, CART Racing, and CART Precision Racing. The funny thing is that both opinions are pretty much on the money - and how much you enjoy EA Sports' latest racing game depends on which camp you belong to.
You don't have to be a CART or NASCAR expert to see that Andretti Racing exists in something of a fantasy world, one where realism has been given a cursory nod and the emphasis is on high-octane, thrill-a-minute action. Looking for authentic tracks? Only four of Andretti's tracks are licensed. Real drivers? As far as I could make out, only ten of the game's 30 drivers have real-life Indy or NASCAR counterparts - and three of them are Andrettis (surprise, surprise!). Car setup? Despite the fact that the Andretti Racing manual quotes Bill Taylor as saying "most races are won or lost in the garage," there are only six setup rudimentary options available: automatic/manual transmission, hard/soft tires, front wing, rear wing, gear ratios, and fuel load. Weather? Well, the box says something about "adjusting weather conditions," but in all my outings I never saw a single raindrop.
The lack of detailed track information and driver biographies in Andretti Racing is somewhat disappointing - especially compared to the stellar job Terminal Reality and Microsoft did in those departments with CART Precision Racing. And the "Racing School" - nine videos featuring Mario, Michael, and Jeff Andretti - is essentially worthless. The section on car setup, for example, features Michael Andretti explaining that setups are different for ovals and road courses because ovals are all left turns - but he doesn't tell you which setup options are involved or how they should be configured. That might be because there aren't any options for configuring camber and stagger, the two most important settings (in addition to gear ratio) for improving performance on ovals. And Jeff Andretti's rambling discourses on drafting, passing, and negotiating turns only serve to prove that he's much better at driving than giving oral instructions.
So it's a given that Andretti Racing won't appeal to racing fans who prize realism above all else. But guess what? There are a lot of casual racing fans - and plenty of action gamers, too - who wouldn't care if they were battling Geoff Bodine or Jethro Bodine for the pole position so long as the action is intense, challenging, and fun. And while serious racing fans will turn up their noses at Andretti Racing's admittedly sparse setup options, this minimalist approach does have its upside: You won't have to spend hours in the garage to get the car to stay on the track (though the absence of an option to save setups means you've got to adjust those settings for each race).
In fact, it's because things are so straightforward that Andretti Racing is such a blast. Whether you race a stock or Indy car in a 24-lap exhibition race or crank up the race length to twice the normal length for a career outing, you can expect to finish even the longest races in under half an hour (that includes qualifying). Control is crisp and satisfying with both a Per4mer Turbo Wheel and a Microsoft SideWinder 3D Pro (Andretti also supports force feedback devices). This was one of the few racing games I've played this year where I managed to stay on the track during all laps of my first qualifying attempt. Sure, that might be because the car physics are on the forgiving side, but all I know is that it's a lot more fun to jump into a racing game and be competitive than to constantly wipe out and wonder where you went wrong.
But don't be fooled into thinking that because Andretti Racing's a little lenient on the handling side that it's also a pushover in the competition department. There are four or five guys on each circuit who are definite losers, but the top dogs - all the real-life Indy Car drivers, for instance - are considerably tougher to defeat, especially when you consider the brevity of each race. Thankfully, you never get the impression that they're totally unbeatable; you only feel that with enough practice you'll find a way to hang with and eventually beat them.
Considering the bang-up job Electronic Arts has done with the graphics in games like Moto Racer and Need for Speed II, I was expecting just a tad more from Andretti Racing in the looks department. The cars, tracks, and immediate trackside objects are impressive enough if you've got a supported 3D video card, but even with hardware support you'll spot plenty of 2D objects in the background scenery (any trees you spot will look especially crummy). That's almost nit-picking, though, since most gamers will be focused on the track and not the Toronto skyline. And Andretti blows CART Precision Racing away in the frames-per-second department when all the graphics goodies are activated (at least on my system), though it still can't match the performance of the Rendition-ready version of IndyCar II that came with my Total Canopus 3D.
A couple of minor features are strangely absent from Andretti Racing: There's no way to see a race-ending crash in instant replay (the race ends immediately), you can't view replays from the cockpit of a competitor's car, and there aren't any options for setting weather conditions or even the strength of your opponents.
Andretti features all the usual multiplayer modes - modem, serial, and IPX network play are supported - but I was a little perturbed that Internet play wasn't supported with the shipping version. After getting crushed repeatedly in CART Precision Racing on the Internet Gaming Zone, Andretti Racing had me psyched for some Net racing with an arcade flair - but instead all I got was an option to play on Mplayer that hasn't yet been activated.
It would be easy to slag Andretti Racing because it doesn't boast the features of racing sims like NASCAR 2 and CART Precision Racing, but that would be comparing apples and oranges. This is a game, not a sim, and as long as you're OK with that concept then you should get a real kick out of Andretti Racing.