Electronic Arts' NASCAR for the PlayStation Portable marks the first time the series has gone portable. Not quite NASCAR 07, yet sporting more features than 06, NASCAR holds up well on the PSP. A full field of 43 cars, a variety of events, and the ability to save midrace are just some of the things that make NASCAR an enjoyable game.
If you're looking to take a quick spin, you can choose from a single race or try one of the Dodge challenges, which are scenarios from the 2005 season introduced in video interviews by the drivers who were involved. These short, enjoyable challenges include holding off charging drivers, avoiding wrecks, or changing history by winning a race you should have lost. In addition to the Dodge Challenges, Speedzone is a pseudotraining mode where you practice blocking and passing, is a simple yet fun way to learn the basics. Both the season mode, where you participate in a season of any length, and chase for the cup, which is the last 10 races of the season, are included as well.
The bulk of NASCAR's gameplay is found in the career mode, known as "fight to the top." Here, you start as an unknown driver and work your way up from the modified series to Craftsmen trucks, NBS (Busch), and eventually Nextel. The concept is solid, but the execution is lackluster, and making it all the way to the Nextel series is tedious. Imagine being forced to play a football season in high school, college, and NFL Europe before getting to play as an NFL team in Madden. That's what it's like here. The Allstate qualifiers that let you start your career at a higher class in NASCAR 07 are nowhere to be found in the PSP game.
Other issues diminish the lasting value of the fight-to-the-top mode when you're doing anything other than racing. If you decide not to qualify or participate in a race, you can skip ahead, but you'll finish last since for some reason only races in the season mode can be simulated. This makes driving in two series at once extremely cumbersome and time consuming. You can purchase and manage your own team, hire drivers, and even set merchandise prices, but your options are limited. The autograph minigame is dreadful, as is the fantasy racing game, and your agent, Ace Moneymaker, constantly harasses you with unimportant, repetitive phone calls.
On the track, NASCAR feels remarkably like its console counterparts. Load times are quite reasonable, and they're infrequent, since once you load a track it stays in memory through practice, qualifying, and the actual race. The ability to save your game midrace has been included, which is nice not only when you don't have time to finish, but also when you want to save late in a race to ensure against a last-second loss. To boost realism, drivers have been given a rating based on how they perform on different types of tracks, but since nobody is rated lower than a C-, the difference in performance from one driver to the next is minimal. An adrenaline meter fills and boosts your skills when you perform well on the track. When you make a mistake, points are taken away, but the effects are subtle. One way in which these points do play a major role is that they can be used to rewind time. In a feature similar to one in Sega's demolition racing game Full Auto, you are able to rewind a few seconds of action with the press of a button, which lets you avoid a wreck or simply take a better line through a corner. This feature works as advertised, but because the rest of the game is fairly realistic, it feels out of place. Skill points are awarded after the race is over, and they can be used to unlock items such as paint schemes, cars, and tracks.
In multiplayer mode, up to four people can participate in a single race, a season, or dodge challenges. Neither infrastructure nor game sharing is supported, so everyone must be in the same place at the same time to play and must have a copy of the game. Should you manage to satisfy those requirements, you'll find that everything works well, though it's puzzling that there's no option to save your progress during a multiplayer season. You're also limited to racing against a field of 10 computer-controlled racers when playing with friends, which makes for some lonely races if you're way ahead or way behind the pack.
To compensate for the PSP's finicky analog stick, the controls are somewhat forgiving. However, they're still plenty sensitive, making it tough to keep your line when you're racing in a pack. Turning the driving assistance all the way up makes the controls more manageable, though doing so gives the game an arcade feel. If you do get loose in a turn and accidentally bump another car, you'll be sure to pay for your mistake. The other drivers don't take kindly to swapping paint and will go out of their way to keep you from passing, often blatantly slamming into you to spin you out. You can try to be a friendly driver, winning over the fans with your fair tactics, but because the controls are so touchy, you'll almost always end up the villain. The total team control concept that let you strategize with teammates in the console versions is nowhere to be found here, which is likely because the PSP doesn't have enough buttons.
One of the game's biggest flaws is that the default settings aren't friendly to beginners. The instruction manual is inadequate, and the in-game documentation is not much better. Preset lap times are very challenging, and even on the rookie setting, the driver artificial intelligence can be relentless. To make the action more realistic, the default options include realistic fuel usage, tire wear, car damage, and yellow flags, thereby making pit strategy more important than ever. Unfortunately for newcomers, the game doesn't do a good job of explaining what good pit strategy is. When your first few pit stops are spent accruing penalties for speeding in the poorly marked pit area, for making unnecessary changes, and for losing your position on the track, you'll probably just turn the pit options off.
Though NASCAR is being released seven months into the 2006 season, its driver roster is significantly out of date. Cover driver Elliot Sadler is driving his old M&M's car, and Jeremy Mayfield, who has been fired, is still on his old team. Of the 35 Nextel Cup drivers in the game, Carl Edwards, who finished third in 2005, is nowhere to be found, and rookie Clint Bowyer, who is currently 18th in the points standings, is available only in the NBS series. Other notable drivers who are absent include Ken Schrader, Travis Kvapil, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, and Bill Elliott. Car and driver customization options are limited, so creating your favorite ride isn't an option if your favorite driver isn't here.
Far and away, NASCAR's most impressive achievement is putting 43 cars on the track and maintaining a solid frame rate. You won't get the same sense of speed that you would on the consoles, and there's no motion blur, but the action is plenty fast. The car models look nice while racing, but they don't hold up to close scrutiny during replays. Six different camera views are available, including an in-cockpit view complete with grime that builds up on the windshield as the race wears on. Twenty-two Nextel series tracks are included, as are a few fantasy courses. None of them are particularly attractive, and it's obvious this is one area where concessions were made so that a full field of 43 cars could be used. Some of the textures are so poor that it's difficult to tell the difference between the track and the wall during night races.
As long as you're using headphones and not listening through the PSP's built-in speakers, NASCAR sounds the same on the PSP as it does on consoles. Inoffensive Southern rock tunes play during menus, but once you're on the track, the only thing you'll hear is the sound of racing. The car engines aren't as powerful as they are on consoles, but they sound realistic, especially when you're racing in a pack. Your crew chief is in constant contact, informing you of what's happening on the track, but you can gain a lot of information by listening to your car. Your tires will squeal as they lose their grip, and you can even use the sound of the wind rushing by as an indicator of when you're drafting.
NASCAR's first appearance on the PSP is a successful one. Other than inexplicably making the fight-to-the-top mode even more cumbersome and skimping on multiplayer, Electronic Arts did a nice job tuning the game for the system. It's packed with features and loses very little in the transition from console to PSP. That said, the PSP and console versions are so similar that there's no compelling reason to own both.