NASCAR video games are among the subgenres that have benefited the most from our current transition to the powerful 128-bit platforms. It used to be that 20 to 30 cars would often hopelessly bog down frame rates, subsequently hindering the gameplay in previous-generation NASCAR games. But, with NASCAR Thunder 2002, Electronic Arts effectively showcases the Xbox powerhouse, as 43 cars race side-by-side with limited frame rate issues. Complementing the generally smooth frame rates are some of the most striking car models and lighting effects seen in a NASCAR game to date. In addition to its beautiful visuals, flawless presentation, and extensive stats tracking, the game is also highly playable. Sure, it doesn't simulate the sport of stock car racing as well as other NASCAR products on the market, but it is simply fun to play for both NASCAR fans and casual game players alike.
Electronic Arts has proven time and again that it knows the ins and outs of presentation in its sports games. The game opens with an image of Dale Earnhardt's black number "3" and then slowly transitions into race footage, as Lynard Skynard's "Sweet Home Alabama" blares in the background. The game will instantly get you revved up for NASCAR racing. That intensity in presentation is maintained throughout the course of the game, as prior to every race, TV-style camera work and a two-man announcing team will take you through the starting grid. NASCAR buffs will also find themselves lost in the depths of the game's extensive stats tracking system. Thunder 2002 keeps track of driver stats and season standings in 16 different categories. You can look up finish positions, winnings, laps led, earnings, and averages.
In the game's career and season modes, it also keeps track of sponsorships, which is a first for EA's NASCAR series. In both modes of play, the objective is to win eight season championships over the course of 20 years, but there are rather significant differences between these two modes. In season mode, you race as a NASCAR pro, and all the cars in the game are at about the same performance level. However, in career mode, you create your own driver and car, select a primary and secondary sponsor, and go racing to make a name for yourself in the world of NASCAR. The more you win, the more money you earn, and those earnings can in turn be used to upgrade your car and racing team. New sponsors will approach you from time to time if you're successful, and you'll also have the opportunity to replace retiring drivers from high-profile racing teams. Both modes of play are quite extensive, complete with the official races, including the Daytona 500, Watkins Glenn, and Electronic Arts' own EA Sports 500 at Talladega. This type of attention to detail extends to the actual gameplay.
The gameplay in NASCAR Thunder 2002 isn't rooted in uncompromising simulation like some competing products. In fact, the way you're able to go from last to first in a matter of a few laps is highly unrealistic. However, the existing gameplay system is quite intuitive and fun, and it will appeal to racing fans who aren't particularly interested in the rigid simulation aspects of NASCAR racing. The most prominent of Thunder's gameplay features is the draft meter, which clearly lets you know if you're riding a slipstream. You can make lengthy runs through the field by drafting behind two or more cars, and passing is generally a breeze when using the draft meter. This makes for rather interesting and tight-quarters racing, as the AI drivers will attempt to do the same.
The handling of the high-power stock cars is spot-on, as the loose handling will let you maintain your racing lines without overcorrecting. To further aid in maintaining proper lines through turns, the game gives you the option to use a cleverly implemented stability control system. When diving into turns, the stability control kicks in, slowing the car down and maintaining its attitude. The system clicks off when coming out of turns, letting you accelerate into straightaways. Using stability control, you will also get a great feel of the centrifugal force that will pull your car toward the wall when coming out of turns, and the system, although used in other racing games, works extremely well for NASCAR racing. Naturally, a variety of options such as CPU difficulty, damage, handling, and other performance features can be customized.
Where NASCAR Thunder 2002 truly separates itself from the competition is in its visuals--it is simply the most visually stunning NASCAR game to date. The car models are absolutely immaculate, with true-to-life paint textures, real-time reflections and lighting, and realistic subtleties such as impeccably modeled wheel wells and headlight covers. Unlike the PlayStation 2 version, the Xbox game uses full-screen antialiasing, which smoothes out the round edges of the stock cars. However, get into a crash and those smooth lines will be quickly mangled, as the game shows visual damage, displaying details like fenders flying and smoke bellowing out of busted radiators. The tracks, although not as technically realistic as those in Infogrames' NASCAR Heat 2002, are visually appealing, complete with plenty of trackside geometry and a variety of advanced graphical effects. For example, when racing in the twilight, the sun will sink further and further below the horizon with each subsequent lap. You'll roll out of the last turn and see the bright orange glare of the setting sun casting a gleam of brilliant light over the track and the shining car chassis. Although the game deals quite well with frame rate issues, this is a NASCAR game, and even the Xbox hardware isn't able to fully stave off frame rate drops. Still, the slowdown issues don't hinder the gameplay, as with many other NASCAR products.
The audio in Thunder 2002 is a mixed bag. Although the engine noises are rather meaty, they aren't profoundly loud like in actual stock cars. Go to a real-life NASCAR race and you'll hear over 110 decibels of bellowing engine sounds. Unfortunately, to date, no NASCAR game has been able to truly capture that aural experience. Additionally, Thunder is missing any type of crowd noise. Still, the game does feature a solid announcing team, and the spotters and crew chief have a variety of comments and commands.
Although the gameplay in NASCAR Thunder 2002 isn't quite as realistic as that of competing products, it is still a lot of fun. The game's top-notch presentation and extensive stats tracking should appeal to hard-core fans of stock car racing, while its forgiving controls and excellent drafting system will help endear it to casual fans of the motor sport. NASCAR Thunder 2002 on the Xbox is the most visually appealing stock car racing game on the market, and its gameplay will appeal to a wide range of racing fans.