EA Sports' NASCAR Thunder series recently received its annual update on the three main console platforms, and the 2003 edition of the popular stock car racing simulation featured a number of enhancements on and additions to the previous version. For the first time, EA Sports is also bringing NASCAR Thunder to the PC this year. Since the game was all but identical on the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox, you might assume that the PC version would simply be another retread. Strangely, this isn't the case. The PC version of NASCAR Thunder 2003 is seriously stripped down compared with its console cousins, and it doesn't have enough PC-specific features to make up for what boils down to a sparse and unentertaining racing experience.
The NASCAR Thunder series has always leaned more toward simulation racing than arcade-style action, and the PC version of 2003 upholds this tradition. The gameplay isn't geared toward simply hitting the gas and flying wildly around the track. Instead, you need to pay careful attention to acceleration and braking as you take the turns of each of the game's 24 Winston Cup tracks. Your racing experience in NASCAR Thunder 2003 is affected by a vast number of factors--every part of your car can be tweaked to affect handling and performance on the racetrack. The customization options are perhaps a bit overabundant, and only the most serious gearheads will be able to fully exploit them to seriously improve their car. Most players will probably opt to accept the defaults and get on with the race. The actual control in the game is fairly responsive with a gamepad, but unless you have analog control, you'll find yourself tapping your car back and forth into position, which will often cause you to spin out or bump other cars if you overcompensate for a bad turn. As with just about any racing game on the PC, a steering wheel is the optimal control solution, but a run-of-the-mill gamepad will generally be sufficient.
When you start up NASCAR Thunder 2003, you're greeted with a brief menu that displays your racing options: quick race, testing, season, and multiplayer. Quick race is exactly what it sounds like--you pick a driver and car, choose a track, qualify for a starting position, and then run the race. Testing lets you pair any car and track to simply run around the loop for as long as you want to help you try to improve your finishing times. The real core of the game is in the season mode, in which you must qualify for and then run an entire season of Winston Cup races, accumulating points and vying for the championship. Unfortunately, there's really not a whole lot in the season mode that you don't get already with a quick race. The qualifying and racing are more or less identical. The season mode simply strings a lot of races together in sequence and keeps track of your standing throughout. Finally, the multiplayer mode lets you race against other players on the Internet or on a LAN. But with a limit of just 16 players, you won't be able to approach the number of competitors in a real NASCAR race. The multiplayer mode is also a bit strange because it lets you join a race that's already in progress, which rather defeats the purpose of racing to begin with.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of NASCAR Thunder 2003 on the PC is the fact it has so few features and game modes when compared with the console versions. Those games have a much richer list of game modes and side options, such as a career mode that lets you manage your driver's sponsorship, race team, and races over 20 seasons; tutorials on each track led by actual NASCAR drivers; playable racing scenarios from Winston Cup history; and an accessible create-a-car interface. It seems that these options wouldn't have been hard to include in the PC version of the game, but they're not here, leaving PC gamers with little to fill in the gaps besides a lackluster multiplayer mode. The console versions' extra features would really have been a nice addition to flesh out what is otherwise a pretty empty game.
The graphics and sounds in NASCAR Thunder 2003 are also a letdown compared with those of the console versions. Graphically, the game produces mixed results. The cars are nicely detailed and textured, but the track and surrounding environment graphics are incredibly bland and flat by comparison. Fortunately, this keeps the game's frame rate fairly consistent, even when there are 40 or more drivers racing around the track at once, though if you have a fancy 3D graphics card, NASCAR Thunder 2003 definitely won't give it a workout. The game also doesn't compare to its console brethren in the sound department, since the voice samples are much fewer in number and of lower quality here. Just about all you'll hear during a race is the roar of the engines, because the sparse radio chatter of your team tends to get drowned out.
NASCAR Thunder 2003 on the PC lacks most of the features and polish of its console counterparts. This is EA Sports' first attempt at bringing its NASCAR franchise to the PC, so you might expect a few minor bumps in the road, so to speak. Unfortunately, the game is a pale shadow of what is available for the current consoles, so if you also own even one of the three consoles, you'd be much better off getting the console version. If all you have is a PC, your choices are more limited, but unless you're absolutely desperate for a NASCAR game to play on your PC and you've already played through Sierra's far superior NASCAR Racing Season 2002, you may be better off waiting until next year.