True to its real-world inspiration, Newman/Haas Racing provides brilliant moments of racing euphoria separated by vast stretches of relative monotony. In their quest for realism, the designers have succeeded only too well, creating a game that is sure to please hard-core Indy Car fans but that may soon have casual gamers heading for the exits.
Newman/Haas presents racing in its purest form - no power-ups, shortcuts, or weapons here - and playing it requires equal parts patience, skill, and raw endurance. Those looking for an authentic Indy Car experience are in luck, as this is a game of remarkable depth and customizability. It offers a mind-boggling array of options - digital or analog control, single- or dual-player racing, four levels of difficulty, eleven tracks, 16 drivers, and a partridge in the pit stop. OK, I'm kidding about the last item, but it's obvious that Psygnosis doesn't think Indy Car racing is a laughing matter, and it's gone to great lengths to make Newman/Haas as realistic as possible.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the ability to customize one's car - you can select your transmission type, front and rear wing heights, tire pressure and compound, gearing and spring settings, and more. (Sure, you can just as easily ignore all these choices and just race the damn car, but who knows what competitive advantage you might be missing?) There are so many options that it's easy to spend as much time tweaking and testing your car as you actually do racing it. Factor in how long the races in Newman/Haas can be (try 20 minutes or so just for a standard qualifying round), and it's safe to say that any Indy Car fan willing to explore this game fully will be doing so for many hours indeed.
But will they be having fun? The answer is probably yes, because underneath all of the simulation components, Newman/Haas is a reasonably solid racing game. True, the graphics aren't going to win any awards - pop-up is pervasive, the texture-mapping primitive, and the frame rate somewhat inconsistent - but this is par for the course for "real world" racing sims. The sound effects also leave something to be desired - the in-game commentary is as repetitive as it is irrelevant, and the whine of the engines is tinny at times.
But it's the controls that make Newman/Haas worth playing. They have a certain tightness and responsiveness to them that makes navigating the track a real joy, especially when using the manual shift option. Combine this with the challenging track layouts, which with the exception of a couple of oval courses demand respect and reward careful study, and you've got the potential for some serious racing excitement.
And, at least occasionally, Newman/Haas delivers on that promise. Couple your finely honed racing skills with in-depth knowledge of the track - downshifting at just the right instant, taking the perfect angle on a curve, or turboing ahead of your opponent as the finish line approaches - and you'll experience a moment of genuine exhilaration.
But unfortunately, these moments are simply too few and far between. All the options in the world can't change the fact that at its core Indy Car racing is all about driving around in circles, often for hours on end. Newman/Haas' various modes - which include single races, four-race "challenges", or complete ten-race championship circuits - lend some measure of approachability for casual gamers, but we still think Indy Car racing is very much an acquired taste, one that will not appeal to most arcade-style racing fans.
Indy Car devotees have probably logged off and bought Newman/Haas already, but for the rest of us, a qualifying lap on the rental track is definitely recommended.