EA Sports' NASCAR 2000 was a runaway success, featuring speedy visuals and an insane level of realism. From its draft meter, car damage, and interactive pit stops to its emphasis on statistics and role playing, NASCAR 2000 had it all. This year, EA Sports is back with NASCAR 2001, and it's attempting to top last year's release with even more drivers, more statistics, and greater challenge. However, it has also revamped the graphics engine and tweaked the game's physics. As such, the million dollar question focuses on whether NASCAR 2001 is better, the same, or worse than last year's release. Without giving too much away, it's not worse.
Similar to last year's game, NASCAR 2001 leaps out of the starting gate with a ton of features and options. From the main menu, you can choose a quick race, a single-player season, or a two-player season. The quick race mode lets you play as any of the game's 39 actual NASCAR drivers on any of the game's 34 real tracks, such as Daytona Motor Speedway and Talladega. Appealing to the role player in all of us, the game lets you take the wheel of a 200mph racing machine as Dale Jarret, Kyle Petty, Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and others. If that's not sufficient, you can also create your own driver. Adding depth to the game, the season modes give you the pleasure of participating in a stats-laden yearlong driving competition. Within the season modes, you can choose from a full season, half season, a road course challenge, a speedway shootout, or a short-track challenge. There are three difficulty levels to choose from, ranging from the barely challenging AI of the rookie setting to the legend setting, in which cars routinely hog the road, form wolf packs, and generally make the course a killing field. In addition to allowing you to vary car settings such as fuel load, tire type, and shocks, NASCAR 2001 also lets you toggle car damage, adjust the race length, and select between in-race music or ongoing analyst commentary.
NASCAR 2001's statistical offerings are on the lower end of copious. The game tracks overall statistics in 17 categories, ranging from starts and poles to top-five finishes and average speed. There are also per race and end of race statistics tracked in 12 categories, including start position, number of lead changes, and margin of victory. Adding to the above cadre of number counting, the game also tracks leader board stats in ten more categories, including most wins, most championships, and win percentage. All of the above is in addition to ongoing season standings and midyear milestones. In short, NASCAR 2001 whips the llama's bottom when it comes to stat tracking.
As far as gameplay goes, NASCAR 2001 backs up its plentiful options with a solid game of racing. Courses are designed based upon their real-world counterparts, and they feature enough sharp corners and banks to make things interesting. For example, there's a sharp bank in the second turn at North Carolina that's tricky as all get out because it'll throw your car into the wall if you're traveling too high on the racing line. The car control itself is standard: push the X button to accelerate, the square button to brake, and hit the circle button when you wish to switch views. The actual driving is a healthy mixture of simulation- and arcade-style racing, although the balance definitely depends on the difficulty you choose and whether or not you've enabled car damage. At its easiest, NASCAR 2001 plays a lot like Ridge Racer - it is unforgiving when it comes to turns, but it doesn't overly penalize you for nudging the wall. At its most difficult, you'll have to spend a great deal of time braking and controlling your speed, keeping in mind that the game could break your car to bits as opponent vehicles push you into the wall or onto the grass. Last year's release definitely tended toward the simulation end of the scale, so it's nice to see EA Sports taking care of the casual gamer this time around. As such, NASCAR 2001 is a game for all audiences, whether you're a hard-core fan or a happy-go-lucky video game driving nut.
In keeping with the game's overall quality, NASCAR 2001's visuals are largely excellent. The game's menus and interface are well designed, ensuring that confusion is minimal and getting to the race itself takes mere seconds. Should you need to, you can check out a 3D rendition of the course you're about to race, scaling and rotating its polygonal goodness while checking out its speed, distance, and bank statistics. There are even prerace FMV snippets and postrace flybys. The actual racing visuals are a mixture of crisp roadways, object-plentiful sidelines, and realistic car detailing, with some grainy crowd textures and slowdown thrown in for good measure. Last year's game emphasized an overall level of depth and detail that sometimes made oncoming turns difficult to see, whereas NASCAR 2001 strips on-track color depth and refinement to the minimum to provide a plain yet visible course. There are still plenty of landmarks, stands, buildings, and light standards on the game's sidelines, though. NASCAR 2001's rebalancing of visuals in favor of clarity of detail is a matter of subjective preference, and it doesn't ultimately hinder the game. Oddly, though, this year's cars have sponsorship logos and team names but lack any semblance of windshield environment mapping or light reflection. Last year's title at least had a little bit of glimmer from sunlight! All in all, NASCAR 2001's graphical showing is just as good as that of NASCAR 2000, just in different ways. The game is certainly inviting and easy to see, and that's what matters most.
Surprisingly, when compared with the game's otherwise solid showing, NASCAR 2001's audio offers two choices, neither of which is ultimately satisfying. You can choose either background music or announcer commentary, but not both. The game's music selection, featuring country and rock selections from such acts as Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Widespread Panic, fits the game well with its uplifting backbeats. The in-game commentary, on the other hand, bites. Sure, the guy tells you where the other racers are and how you're doing, but his comments lack variety and emotion. Even worse, there are periods, sometimes over 20 seconds or more, where he's just not saying anything at all. If only it were possible to have music and commentary, then the situation might be more bearable. Thankfully, the game's stock engine noises and crash effects, while not terribly diverse, are faithful renditions of what you'd see on a Saturday NASCAR telecast. A pit crew radio rounds out the game's audio features, offering up such key phrases as "They judge on how you finish, not how you start" and "Try a different line." Intelligent your pit crew isn't, but it's light years ahead of the race announcer.
Despite the haphazard audio, NASCAR 2001 is definitely a game that's worth owning. Its gameplay is accessible to racing fans of all ages and backgrounds, while its statistics and options provide a lot of replay value. Although the graphical experience emphasizes clarity over extravagance, even the game's graphical palette exudes quality. EA Sports took a risk in revamping the successful formula of last year's release, and despite a few gripes, it has succeeded in delivering a true update as opposed to a blatant rehash. Sure, it's no Gran Turismo, but NASCAR 2001's diverse variety enables it to appeal to a wider audience, whether you're a veteran of the series, a simulation fan, or a newcomer to the genre.