NASCAR Thunder 2003 brings all the action of Winston Cup Racing to the PC. Vehicle performance has been changed to be more realistic: tire performance depends on wear and tear, the handling and suspension has been changed, and the collision physics have been tweaked as well. Drivers prepare their cars for each race by adjusting flares, rear spoiler angles, gears, suspension, the anti-roll bar, and tire pressure. Multiplayer options include head-to-head competition for up to 16 players over a LAN or the Internet. Six new infield courses, a 1950's Daytona Beach track, and one Super Speedway Course have been included along with 23 Winston Cup tracks. Animations include pre-race fly-bys, driver celebrations, trophy presentations, and fireworks displays.
PC version of the game has been inexplicably watered down from the console versions, with many of the most interesting features removed. While the console versions (created by a different developer) include all sorts of colorful and interesting game modes, this PC version is a very straightforward, formulaic racing game. That wouldn't be so bad if it didn't have the unenviable task of competing against one of the most prestigious racing series in recent years, Papyrus' superb NASCAR Racing. Basically, this hobbled version of NASCAR Thunder 2003 doesn't stand a chance against the competition.
On the bright side, NASCAR Thunder 2003 does offer the sorts of basic features you'd expect from a licensed NASCAR title. You get the real-world cars and drivers, including the late Dale Earnhardt. You can race on twenty-four tracks and enter multiple real-world races on each one, like the MBNA America 500 and Napa 500 at Atlanta, for example.
NASCAR Thunder 2003 also features the core gameplay modes you'd expect from a sim-style racer. You can enter quick races or compete in a full season, with each race featuring multiple sessions: practice, qualifying, happy hour, and the actual race. You can also take your car out for testing sessions to experiment with different setups. You can race online, too, though the gameplay can get choppy, and you can only compete against fifteen other players. Compare that Papyrus' NASCAR Racing series, which lets you compete online among a full field of more than 40 racers.
Oddly (and unfortunately), NASCAR Thunder 2003 lacks the modes that helped set the console versions of the game apart. Gone is the extensive and deep career mode with the sponsorships, crew management, and R&D. Gone are the "lightning mode" challenges that let you relive historic racing moments, introduced by the actual drivers that were involved. Gone too are the tutorials narrated by the pros, and gone are the car creation options.
On the bright side, at least some of the features that you do get are handled nicely. The car setup options are extensive, letting you tweak tire pressure, camber, caster, toe, suspension settings, brake bias, and a lot more. Just as importantly, NASCAR Thunder 2003 features a welcome "Easy Tweak Setup" screen that lets you quickly alter downforce, balance, suspension, and gearing using single straightforward sliders. A simple click on the downforce slider, for example, lets you easily choose between more speed or more grip.
This extra accessibility is one area where NASCAR Thunder 2003 generally tops NASCAR Racing. NASCAR Thunder 2003's manual is generally superior, too, with more numerous and useful tips for both on-track tactics and off-track tweaking. It's also nice that the manual features a statistical rundown of all the tracks on one convenient page, detailing the distance, shape, banking, lap totals, and pit road speed for each.
That's all well and good, but the racing itself leaves way too much to be desired, particularly for a game that bills itself as a serious sim. The physics modeling isn't anywhere near as subtle, sophisticated, or challenging as that in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. Here, you can often get away with things real drivers can't, like mashing on the accelerator or brakes. The physics modeling is frustratingly inconsistent: sometimes you have to work to make the car spin, but other times it will fly out of control when you make the slightest slip-up. On top of that, the modeling will sometimes draw outright laughs. You can clip the rear corner of another car, and it will fly forward so hard that it looks like a kid just hurled a tiny Matchbox car against a wall. Meanwhile, your spotter will tell you that your own car is just fine. (Your spotter isn't very helpful overall, for that matter, offering most warnings too late.)
While NASCAR Thunder 2003 does try to model some important little track details, like surface bumps, the tracks themselves can look downright wrong. Daytona is so narrow that it looks more like a bicycle path than the real racetrack. At least you do get a good sense of speed as you race. Your AI competitors, though, leave something to be desired: they can drive quite competently at times but other times act implausibly, magically catching up to you and zipping past with no apparent cause.
Unfortunately, a host of other problems and oddities mars the on-track action. The force feedback feels rather exaggerated, and the interface is clumsy, requiring you to cycle through multiple pop-up windows to get vital information. When a race is over, you'll find that the replay feature is simplistic and highlights the way the cars tend to jerk around the track.
At least the game's audio generally sounds pretty good, with convincing engine roars and crunching metal sounds when you bang into a wall. As for NASCAR Thunder 2003's visuals, you can find PS2 racing games that look more attractive than this (that's not a good thing) that's not a good thin, never mind the stunning visuals of NASCAR Racing. With NASCAR Thunder 2003, you'll have to contend with bland or downright ugly trackside scenery, some blocky 3D models, pop-up, draw-in, and pixelated images. The image in the rear-view mirror looks downright wrong: it looks like you're viewing the action from bumper level, and the cars seem to float across the track behind you. At least the cars look good from the outside -- though only when viewed up close -- and you should be able to achieve a decent frame rate easily, which can't always be said for the Papyrus games.
Since Papyrus' NASCAR Racing run is ending with the 2003 version, that pretty much leaves the PC NASCAR market in EA's hands for now. If NASCAR Thunder 2003 is any indication, that doesn't bode well for PC gamers who love serious racing sims. NASCAR Thunder 2003 has a few strengths that the franchise can hopefully build on, but for now, with its extensive list of problems and missing features, it simply can't compete.
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NASCAR Thunder 2004, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, NASCAR Racing 2002 Season, NASCAR Racing 4, NASCAR Heat, NASCAR Revolution SE, NASCAR Racing 3, NASCAR Road Racing
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