Buckle up for a complete pro stock car racing experience in NASCAR Racing 2002 Season. Built on the critically praised physics engine of 2001's NASCAR Racing 4, this release offers the demanding driving challenges that fans of the series have come to expect while enhancing presentation with new soundtracks and replay features. No forgiving Sunday drive for arcade-style play, this release instead strives to a provide believable simulation of real-life NASCAR racing for true fans of the sport.
NASCAR 2002 astounds the eyes the first time you take to the track. The resolution in which the PC gamer played NASCAR 4 will probably be their choice in NASCAR 2002. Where NASCAR 4 hinted of a "cartoonish" look at that res, NASCAR 2002 sports a more realistic "organic" world. Everything from the car interiors to the track textures lures the senses into NASCAR 2002's alternate world. The car models dispel their polygonal construction even better than NASCAR 4. Furthermore, the luster of their respective paint jobs should put an end to the aftermarket mods applied to the cars of N4 to "bring them up to snuff" in this regard. The icing on the cake is the exquisitely rendered reflections, particularly in Direct 3D.
The venues themselves benefit from the graphical upgrade. Not only are more trackside objects included, but they are also rendered in higher detail than years past. Watkins Glen and Sears Point are particularly noteworthy. The additional objects not only provide additional braking and acceleration cues, they yield some pleasing eye candy to soak in when you're not in contact with other cars. Even the skies are more compelling in NASCAR 2002, portraying a greater variety of atmospheric conditions. Direct 3D T&L yields sharper looking graphics, more dazzling lighting, and spiffier reflections.
If there were one wish that I could have granted for the NASCAR Racing series, it would be to have what I call a "dynamic" camera in the cockpit. By that I mean one that would mimic the head movements of a driver were he really in the car. For example if you were heading into a turn, the camera would actually pan slightly into the direction of the turn just as the head would in real life. This would eliminate some of the blind spots the current rigid camera imposes and make for less hazardous racing. It would also give the game a significant bump in its reality cues.
Perhaps the best enhancement to be found in NASCAR 2002 is the audio. It is light years ahead of previous installments in the series. Sound is very important to a stock car driver in real life, but perhaps more so to a simulation driver. Why? A force feedback steering wheel can't tactically communicate all the forces at work on the car, and certainly nothing else in the interface equation can. If it's properly implemented, the audio can communicate information concerning the traction of the tires, the status of your engine, and the disposition of other cars around you. NASCAR 2002 isn't the first in the series to do this, of course, but this one not only does it with a greater variety of audio effects (wind noise has been added for 2002, among others), it does so without the raspy and/or hissing distortion of its forerunners. You simply can't appreciate what this does for the overall racing experience until you've lived it!
Eliminating most of NASCAR 4's distortion problems is a major feather in NASCAR 2002's cap, but it's not the only one. The stock engine sounds in NASCAR 4 were virtual metaphors for what a real stock car engine sounds like. Yeah, they varied in pitch and sounded meaty, but they didn't sound enough like the real thing to suit me. I no longer have that reservation about NASCAR 2002 - these cars sound almost exactly like what you hear from an in car microphone during a Fox Network NASCAR race broadcast. I particularly like the barking, irregular reports coming from the exhaust as you lift off the accelerator. Additional suspension flexing effects combined with the new wind noise are the crowning jewels in NASCAR 2002's audio symphony!
NASCAR 2002's most under sung virtue is its revamped force feedback implementation. NASCAR 4's feedback seemed to be focused on steering resistance and centering forces. NASCAR 2002 not only models these basic forces more intricately (and accurately, I might add), it expands to include suspension and traction effects. Purists who scoffed at NASCAR 4's feedback will want to give this one another trial. Even after a month of racing, I find myself discovering another nuance to NASCAR 2002's force feedback. The feedback strength and linearity is fully scalable once again in via the control panel. I've found that I have to cut the feedback strength back by 15 to 20% over what I was using in NASCAR 4.
Papyrus opted for a complete makeover on the game's interface panels. Where NASCAR 4 used black as a background color, NASCAR 2002 uses royal blue. I prefer the former, but we're talking pure style choices here. Functionally, they are virtually the same. There is one interface change that does have a detrimental effect on the game - the world detail slider in the Graphics menu. You now have only three choices: low, medium, and high. This may not allow some users to tweak the image quality/performance ratio to the extent they desire.
All this talk of prettier graphics, richer sound, and purer interface wouldn't be worth much to most sim racers if the racing took a back seat. I'm pleased to report that it does not! While NASCAR 2002's improvements in the actual racing and driving model aren't as pronounced as the graphics and sound, they are apparent. The first thing I noticed was the slow speed handling. Stock cars aren't made to handle very well at slow speeds (20 - 50 MPH) and NASCAR 2002 models this accurately. It's much easier to spin a car if you're not careful with the accelerator. Wreck recovery will require even more diligence than before because of this.
Secondly, I noticed that the cars tend to model oversteer a bit better than before. My speedway setups don't work as well in NASCAR 2002 because they are a bit pushy. I don't fault the game; I've always thought I was getting away with something with my N4 setups. This model will keep overly pushy setups from dominating the open setup races in multiplayer, or exploiting an advantage that the AI drivers don't pursue in offline races. The new driving model also adds a new dimension to road course racing. You aren't going to be able to get away with setups more befitting a Formula 1 car in NASCAR 2002. Ultimately, I think this will benefit road course racing in NASCAR 2002. Drivers will have to adapt to looser setups to run the same lap times they were achieving in NASCAR 4.
There are two popular myths being circulated about NASCAR 2002. One is that the car handling is easier and the other is that the cars are slower. Quite simply, neither of these is true. The proponents of these myths are super speedway racers, in general, and they are, in effect, faulting NASCAR 2002 for faithfully simulating the current season. Papyrus instituted the same rule changes in their simulation as NASCAR did in real-life. Yes, the cars are slower on the super speedways (and thereby "easier to handle"), but that's because they are hamstrung with the same restrictor plate limitations as the real life stock cars. The actual driving model is as accurate if not more so than NASCAR 4. If you don't believe it, try the new fantasy "Coca Cola Speedway" and see what happens to these same restrictor plateless cars at 235 MPH. I doubt too many will complain that they are too slow or too easy to handle!
NASCAR 4's weakest link was what seems to be final frontier for computer racing sims - computer driver AI. NASCAR 2002 does little to improve the state-of-the-art on this score. There's still a "hive" mentality that governs the behavior of the computer cars, in general. It starts with the pace lap where the drivers show about as independence as cupcakes on a conveyer belt. Little changes as the green flag drops; the cars maintain an unnaturally even spacing, but even more dispelling is the lack of jockeying for position. Only when they're making a major move (overtaking, blocking, or accident avoidance) will you see anything that conveys individual intelligence. Interestingly, they'll react differently to the human driver than their digital brethren. They seem to recognize the human driver as an intruder in the hive, and react to you more aggressively than the AI drivers. This is good, for were it not true, the offline races would be little more than a train ride.
The AI drivers' greatest attribute is their sense of accident avoidance. They don't discriminate, practicing this philosophy on both computer and human drivers. Yes, there will be computer vs. computer driver accidents, but they are no more frequent in the game than they are in real life. The short tracks seem to be their Achilles Heel, as they each have their own angles for hitting the apexes, and tend to be less accommodating of those who take a higher line.
Multiplayer racing is taken another level higher in NASCAR 2002. I've found the reliability of the connections on Sierra's multiplayer server to be very solid, by and large. Papyrus has expanded their options by offering both fixed and open setup loops. In a truly bold move, they've taken a stab at policing the action on their loops by anointing the first racer to enter the server as the "boss" of that server.
The boss has the authority to do everything from defining the next race on the open loops, to booting wreckers and other "undesirables" from the server. I questioned this move at first thinking that it would be giving carte blanche to a lot of megalomaniacs, but it has actually turned out quite well. I have yet to see a blatant abuse of this authority, and more often than not, the boss is too busy to racing to be preoccupied with doling out justice! Every now and then you'll get a boss who is dedicated to his or her task and civilized race results - it's quite refreshing to see.
Damage is usually a key factor in NASCAR racing. NASCAR 2002 makes another significant advance with its damage modeling. Not only is the graphical depiction of the damage more vivid, its complexity has expanded to reflect a wider variety of effects. The afflicted areas look less like missing or disturbed polygons, and more like crumpled or shredded sheet metal. What truly seals the deal is the way this visible damage translates into difficulty handling and sustaining the car. The aerodynamic effects of a deformed body are a bit more punitive than NASCAR 4, while suspension maladies translate into more proportional instability, particularly coming out of turns. The very same car that may have understeered coming out of turn 2 in your in the previous lap may very well oversteer in the next, following what seemed to be an inconsequential collision. Ultimately, this could prove to be a deterrent for over-aggressive racing in online races, as drivers have to weigh the risks a bit more seriously.
Papyrus added two new features to NASCAR 2002 that should not be overlooked: Driving Lessons and Track Tours. "Driving lessons" is actually a bit of a misnomer; there's a lot more to this feature than mere driving lessons. You'll get video lessons on car handling, race and pit tactics, and car setup. The track tours provide the viewer with some historical information about the track, followed by an instructional trip around the track, narrated by Darrell Waltrip. The tours are professionally delivered, educational, and could easily stand with the Driving Lessons on their own as a unique product. Novices would serve themselves well to view these tours before setting out on the track, but there's enough information to benefit even the most grizzled veteran.
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