After the debacle that was EA Sports' NASCAR Revolution, a lot of racing fans probably decided to write the company off altogether as far as serious simulations were concerned. But suddenly it looked as if EA had turned things around: first they gave us the excellent Sports Car GT, then followed it up with the outstanding Superbike 2000 and Mobil 1 British Rally Championship, the best rally game yet to hit American shores. Three realistic, well-crafted sims in a row were more than enough to convince some gamers (including myself) that NASCAR 2000 would come roaring past the green flag and at least give Papyrus' NASCAR Racing series its first real competition since its inception. But while NASCAR 2000 doesn't quite have the horses to make a serious run at grabbing the prize from NASCAR Racing 3, it's still an alternative for gamers more interested in down-and-dirty stock-car action than in perfect realism.
To their credit, EA Sports and developer Stormfront Studios fixed all the glaring flaws that kept NASCAR 2000's predecessor NASCAR Revolution from delivering action that was anywhere near good as the game's graphics. The computer no longer wrests control of your car at the start of races, only to hand you the wheel 20 seconds later. There's no longer a problem with botched computer-driver artificial intelligence when the yellow flag is out. NASCAR 2000 has 28 races on 18 NASCAR tracks, and while it doesn't approach NASCAR Racing 3's comprehensive Winston Cup and Busch circuits, it closely reflects the 2000 Winston Cup schedule. The game's 40 NASCAR drivers comprise 33 current drivers and seven legends like Petty, Yarborough, and Allison - and the legends aren't hidden features, as in NASCAR Revolution. You can opt to have the legendary drivers race during single-race weekends or during the championship seasons, and you can modify that schedule just about any way you like. You can choose set combos of short tracks, speedways, superspeedways, road courses, or five different fantasy-road courses, or you can mix and match any of the available tracks as you wish.
The driving skills of the computer-controlled racers have also been improved considerably since NASCAR Revolution. The drivers in NASCAR 2000 actually behave much like their real-life counterparts: Jeff Gordon will sneak up and tap you softly enough to avoid getting reprimanded, but hard enough to pass you or send you spinning; and the Intimidator definitely lives up to his nickname. You'll still see the occasional ramming incident, and drivers who performed poorly in the qualifying round may suddenly blow by you when the actual race starts. Unless you've honed your skills to perfection in NASCAR Racing 3, then you'll find that NASCAR 2000's drivers are anything but patsies - and even if you think they are, you could turn the difficulty up to 110% for a serious challenge. NASCAR 2000's car physics are a bit forgiving; you can hold turns much easier than in NASCAR Racing 3, but it makes the game more accessible to new players compared with the more realistic NASCAR Racing 3.
NASCAR fans hungry for squealing rubber and roaring engines might be tempted to try the game's quick-race mode, in which you play as a random NASCAR driver on a random NASCAR track using the default game settings - but it's really not worth wasting your time. The game's settings apparently can only be changed on each track rather than globally, and they default to an automatic transmission and the rookie-difficulty setting, such that even newbies will find themselves passing cars in steady succession. About the only barrier between you and taking the checkered flag is the abbreviated number of laps. There's also a "race against the king" feature that lets you go one-on-one against Richard Petty, but you'd need a pretty strong imagination to picture a virtual version of the sideburned speedster sitting behind the wheel.
NASCAR 2000's car setup options are about as robust as you could hope for, and they feature a considerably improved interface for adjusting tire pressure, the wedge, shocks, weight distribution, camber, spoiler angle, fuel capacity, and steering lock. The manual provides much-appreciated detail, not only regarding the garage setup sections, but also for every other feature and option in the game. However, there's no mention made of there being a limiter that prevents you from down-shifting when doing so might blow your engine, which initially led me to believe the game wasn't recognizing the input from my Microsoft force-feedback wheel.NASCAR 2000 also boasts the best graphics to date for a stock-car sim: Crank all the detail settings to high, and you'll see cars that look as if they should be seen racing on a TV screen instead of a computer monitor. Tracks and scenery also look first-rate, as does the slick TV-style presentation before races, featuring holdovers Bob and Benny from NASCAR Revolution. The pair also provides commentary throughout each race, but while the commentary's improved over NASCAR Revolution, some of it is still misguided. Benny Parsons might say "He's right where he wants to be at this point in the race" as you struggle along at the back of the pack with ten laps to go. You also get advice from a spotter who tells you when cars are nearby and makes suggestions for pit stops.
Even though you won't find yourself struggling along at the back of the pack in every race, you still may find it odd that your qualifying times will fluctuate so much depending on the circuit. At Bristol on the veteran difficulty setting, I constantly qualified in the top five - but at Rockingham I found myself finishing last every time, while at Martinsville and several super speedways I invariably finished in the high-middle of the pack.
My experience with qualifying-time discrepancies might simply reflect my preference for shorter tracks, but what's also strange was that qualifying times for pole-sitters almost always seemed to be faster with the difficulty set lower rather than higher. It was somewhat disturbing to break the world-record qualifying time at Martinsville, only to find myself in the 29th spot because the pole-sitter had beaten that record by 2.33 seconds - a jump of over ten percent. However, on the vast majority of tracks, the pole-sitter's qualifying times fell right in line with last year's performances.
Yet what's probably the biggest stumbling block to NASCAR 2000's success is the poor frame rate you get in the cockpit view. The game runs like a flash from the bumper or hood view, but the frame rate takes a pretty drastic hit when you jump into the cockpit and turn the mirror on (which appears as a single piece of glass on the far right, rather than as tri-partitioned, center-mounted mirrors). In addition, the game doesn't look nearly as good in Direct3D as it does under Glide: The track and car textures become grainy and blocky, which is unfortunate for anyone who'd rather stick with a revved-up TNT2 instead of an old Voodoo2. The game did run smoothly enough to be enjoyable at the medium-detail setting in 640x480 resolution using a Voodoo2 card, but that was using a 450MHz machine with plenty of RAM.
NASCAR 2000 also features improved multiplayer features over its predecessor. You can connect to EA Sports' NASCAR Racing Online service straight from the game's interface, and online races run smoothly, provided that the host has a good, fast Internet connection. Then again that's to be expected, since you're limited to only four human opponents per race, which is a far cry from the large fields you can race against NASCAR Racing 3.
NASCAR 2000 has some other shortcomings - at very high resolutions, the cars sometimes look like they're not making contact with the track, and the inability to save a race weekend is annoying - but the racing action's good enough to make you overlook them. If you can invest the time to get the game looking good and running smoothly on your system, then NASCAR 2000's worth it.