In marketing, there is a general rule of thumb: "If you can't improve upon something, copy it." That's exactly what EA Sports has done with NASCAR Thunder 2002 for the PlayStation, which is a near duplicate of last year's NASCAR 2001. In terms of visuals, audio, overall features, and general gameplay, the two games are nearly indistinguishable. Upon closer inspection, however, a number of unfortunate gameplay adjustments overshadow the few welcome additions found in this year's release.
On the positive side, the game includes all 23 actual NASCAR Winston Cup Series tracks, from Daytona to Sears Point, and even that atrocious course in Laconia, New Hampshire. Thirteen fantasy courses fill out the terrain, giving the player 36 venues with which to race day or night. A healthy stable of 36 actual drivers are at your disposal, while the create-a-driver feature enables you to insert custom drivers (or old favorites) into the rotation. The single-player race and career modes offer full- and half-season challenges, a road course challenge, a speedway shootout, and a short track competition. Most races include practice, qualifying, and happy hour events as well. New to NASCAR Thunder 2002, the thunder cards system lets you earn trading cards during races (or in 30 special challenges) to unlock new tracks and a ton of vehicle power-ups. The career mode is also slightly different from the one in NASCAR 2001, as you can follow a single driver through multiple seasons--a sort of NASCAR franchise mode.
In keeping with EA's typical NASCAR design, NASCAR Thunder 2002 features adjustable difficulty levels and damage ratios. General handling varies from driver to driver, but car handling is also adjustable in 10 categories. For statistics buffs, the game tracks roughly 30 different driver stats across its various gameplay modes.
Despite the fact that it bears a few new features, NASCAR Thunder 2002 isn't an improvement upon NASCAR 2001 in terms of basic gameplay. The controls themselves are standard: X to accelerate, square to brake, the R buttons to shift, and everything else to toggle views and heads-up displays. Actual driving is somewhere between friendly and frustrating. Plowing down straightaways and making minor adjustments feel appropriately heavy, but whenever you attempt more advanced driving, steering response goes out the window. Too fast, too slow--always unpredictable. The implementation of drifting is weak as well. If you adjust tuning options in the garage, you can finagle decent performance, but nothing so fluid as in NASCAR 2001 or the PlayStation 2 version of NASCAR Thunder 2002. To top it off, computer AI is frustratingly intolerant. CPU opponents not only blow past you on the slightest nudge, but also remain far out in front regardless of the difficulty level. In an unmodified vehicle, you stand little chance of making a top five finish in most races. Thus, the thunder card system isn't simply an optional scavenger hunt, but a required task. While this may extend the game's life span, it's sure to frustrate NASCAR fans who just want a pure racing experience.
To the senses, NASCAR Thunder 2002 is a mirror image of NASCAR 2001. Both games use the same menus and onscreen heads-up displays. Prerace and postrace flybys are also similar. In-game graphics are biased toward visibility as opposed to flash, although the presence of multiple lens flares and reflections is welcome. NASCAR Thunder 2002 is just as grainy and choppy as the previous effort, but an increase in smoke and particle effects diverts attention from these flaws somewhat. Similarities continue into the auditory realm, where once again you must choose between pit/radio commentary or a musical soundtrack--but not both. The music this year is painfully generic and isn't taken from big-name artists, so the best choice is to go with the stoic commentary.
Frankly, if you already own NASCAR 2001, there isn't much reason to get NASCAR Thunder 2002. The updated roster, extra tracks, and added thunder card elements are nice endowments, but the overall driving experience is muddled enough to frustrate diehards and casual players alike. For first-timers, the game will require familiarity with handling adjustments and ample acquisition of thunder cards--a significant time investment indeed.