Over the last three decades, NASCAR racing has gone from being a Southern-fried specialty to the most popular motor sport in the United States. Three decades ago, fans had to tune in to their local radio station to hear live coverage of NASCAR events. Now, just about every single race is televised, and the big ones grab prestigious weekend spots on major broadcast networks. Today's NASCAR vehicles are engineering marvels that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Back then, racers like Petty, Yarborough, Isaac, Pearson, the Allisons, and others drove cars that were similar to the ones you could buy from a dealer. It's that simpler era that developer Papyrus sought to re-create in NASCAR Legends, and it's that very simplicity that makes the simulation both appealing and addictive - and downright fun to play.
NASCAR Legends is an homage to the 1970 NASCAR season. It features 42 NASCAR drivers, some legendary and others familiar only to the most grizzled fans of the sport. Fortunately, Papyrus has not only included informative online bios of all the racers, but also a detailed history of the entire NASCAR season, complete with anecdotes and comments from some of the drivers. A total of 49 events were run that year on more than two dozen tracks, 16 of which are featured in the game. Many of the omissions are lesser-known venues, and licensing issues have once again kept Papyrus from including Daytona.
It's a little disappointing that Hickory and the Smokey Mountain Speedway aren't in the game, but it still has excellent variety. If you felt like the short-track king after putting in top-notch performances at Bristol and Martinsville in NASCAR 3, then try your hand at Bowman Gray Stadium in Legends, which features a quarter-mile track that feels more like a circle than an oval. And then there's North Wilkesboro, whose distinct uphill-downhill design is just long enough (.625 miles) to let you get up to pretty serious speed. Aside from the chance to race against NASCAR luminaries, perhaps the best reason to consider NASCAR Legends is to tackle Riverside International Speedway, a nine-turn road course that's a change of pace from the land of left turns.
Anyone familiar with Papyrus' earlier NASCAR games won't be surprised that the tracks in Legends are rendered very accurately, but the car graphics seem just a bit flat compared with what you'll find in NASCAR 3. Perhaps it's because the cars - Plymouth Superbird, Dodge Daytona, Ford Torino, and Mercury Cycle - are so much bigger than their modern-day counterparts, or that they aren't plastered with sponsor ads from bumper to bumper.NASCAR Legends' sound effects are also initially disappointing. It's true that the cars back then didn't have the whiny scream of today's equivalents, but you'd expect a lot more rumbling than you'll hear coming from your speakers and subwoofer. Luckily, you can actually adjust the pitch to re-create that familiar earth-shaking sound, and with only a couple of adjustments, you should be hearing the throaty roar that was the hallmark of the old V-8s.
Papyrus used the NASCAR 3 physics engine for NASCAR Legends, which is a good thing because it provides enough realism to create a convincing experience but is just forgiving enough. Everything that made NASCAR 3 feel so authentic such as great smoke effects, persistent skid marks and crash effects, and superb force feedback support is in NASCAR Legends, only with much cooler cars. Winning races won't be easy, especially as you boost the skill level of the computer-controlled opponents. But something about driving a genuine stock car provides just enough of a mental comfort zone to make you feel that you can be a contender in every race - provided you're patient and pay close attention to how the huge beast you're driving behaves.
Driving classic cars brings with it an additional challenge that might come as a surprise to players accustomed to modern-day NASCAR sims: having to change tires. The bias-ply tires used back then make it easier to recover from skids or spins, but they also wear out considerably faster than today's radials. For serious racing fans who want to tackle full-length races, finding the right tire pressure and monitoring your tires' temperatures to get the longest life from each set will play a crucial role in your attempt to grab the checkered flag.
Car setup options were obviously less complex 30 years ago, but there's still a decent numbers of ways to modify your car's performance in NASCAR Legends: Tire pressure, gear ratios, camber, weight adjustment, wheel lock, and suspension can be quickly and easily adjusted from the familiar garage screen. And if you're unhappy with your car's appearance, you can use the paint-shop utility that ships with NASCAR Legends; it seems primitive compared with a standalone paint program, but it's got everything you need to make your ride look even better than it already is.
NASCAR Legends' Internet multiplayer mode is allegedly smoother than in NASCAR 3, but I couldn't tell the difference because there were so few people online in the NASCAR Legends arenas. However, hosting and joining games over WON.NET servers is a snap, so once NASCAR Legends garners a larger user base it should become a lot easier to get some multiplayer races going.
In spite of its great features, NASCAR Legends probably would have fared better as an add-on to NASCAR Racing 3. After all, most of the players who were hungry for a NASCAR game snatched up NASCAR 3 the second it hit shelves, and NASCAR 3 has a greater number of tracks anyway. Even so, NASCAR Legends is the only game for nostalgic NASCAR fans to turn to, and Sierra's decision to release NASCAR Legends and NASCAR Racing 3 so closely together is ultimately to the benefit of racing fans.