Given Newman/Haas Racing's video-game heritage, it's not surprising that it doesn't offer the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink physics modeling found in games like Grand Prix II and Grand Prix Legends. But no one ever said that a racing game couldn't be fun if it didn't have a physics model that would make NASA proud. Newman/Haas almost makes up for its deficiencies in the realism department by offering a great lineup of licenses, beautifully rendered cars, and a game engine that creates a jaw-dropping sensation of speed and acceleration.
You'll notice, however, that I said almost. Thanks to a host of poor design decisions and perhaps the most absurd interface ever seen in a racing game, Newman/Haas Racing manages to be only a briefly amusing diversion, instead of what it could have been: a thrilling arcade-style racer with a veneer of authenticity.
You play vicariously as one of 16 real-life CART racers - kinda fun, but it means there's no way to see your own name listed among racing's elite at the end of a race. You'll find a lot of stars from CART here - Andretti, Fittipaldi, Pruett, Herta, Zanardi, Luyendyk, De Ferran, and Vasser, to name some of the most notable - and for each, you can read their highly detailed bios that cover every career milestone. There's also quite a bit of in-depth history for each of the game's eleven tracks. Newman/Haas Racing shines brightest in the way it convincingly creates the sensation of incredible acceleration and maximum speeds. A CART racing car can go from zero to 100 and back to zero again in something like four seconds; in most games the only way you know that is by watching the speedometer, but in Newman/Haas you actually believe it's happening. The Direct3D car graphics are first-rate - definitely on a par with anything I've seen in a racing sim recently - and the terrain and trackside graphics are more than good enough to set the scene for some serious IndyCar action.
Unfortunately, Newman/Haas starts earning penalties before you can even get out of the pits. One of the biggest snafus is the game's interface, an incredibly unwieldy affair that probably works just fine on a PlayStation but is a mini-nightmare for gamers using a joystick, gamepad, or a pedal-and-wheel combo - and that covers most of the people playing racing sims on the PC. The problem is that this is a half-baked conversion of a PlayStation game, and no effort was made to make it user-friendly on the PC. Everything's OK before you start a practice session, but getting back to the main menu is a labyrinthine process of keystrokes and button presses that'll have you pounding your desk in frustration. Simply put, it's harder to exit a race in progress than it is to grab the pole position. In a move stemming from either cheapness, laziness, or a complete misunderstanding of the PC racing-sim market, Studio 33 designed Newman/Haas with no option to reconfigure the inputs on your game peripherals. And don't think you can get around it by programming the buttons on your wheel-and-pedal combo; once you choose the analog device to activate your pedals, certain functions (like shifting gears) can no longer be handled with keystrokes, and choosing keyboard commands deactivates the input from wheels and pedals. Acceptable? I say not.
After you toss out obvious stuff like driving aids and transmission type, the car setup options are rather limited - you can adjust wings, choose tire type and adjust pressure, determine fuel load, change the stagger, and set the springs. That's pretty skimpy compared with full-blown sims like Grand Prix Legends or Grand Prix II. What's more, you've got only minimal control over the options that are available. You must pick generic settings like low, medium, or high downforce, for instance, rather than setting the wings at precisely the angle you want. And unlike most racing sims, you can have only one car setup saved at a time. But the most maddening thing about setting up your car is that the only way to get to the garage is from the main menu. Start a race of any type, and you're all set to practice as much as you like - but if you find you want to adjust something after a few laps, you've got to exit completely, all the way out to the main menu, and that means starting (and exiting) from the practice, qualifying, and the actual race. This isn't just unrealistic, it's downright silly - like taking a walk around the block to get to the other side of your house. Things don't get a whole lot better out on the track. There's no option to turn on a racing line, and a miniature track map that's superimposed on the left of the screen is more of a hindrance than a help. The racing commentary is sometimes completely out of synch, with the announcer raving about how fast you're going when you're crawling along after hitting a wall. Speaking of hitting walls, I'll bet you didn't know that CART cars automatically pop into first gear when they brush up against a wall, did you? Or that you have an out-of-body experience whenever another car tags you - you see your vehicle from an overhead rear view for a good two or three seconds. Sadly, this is the way things work in Newman/Haas Racing.
Even with all the flaws, Newman/Haas can be fun, if you're a beginner and haven't tried any other racing games. But for seasoned gamers looking for an exciting combination of realism and action, this is definitely not the place to begin the quest.