Racing game experts at Papyrus steer their long-running NASCAR series towards the finish line with this 2003 release. Along with the challenging AI, believable physics, and real-life tracks, cars, and drivers for which the earlier NASCAR Racing games are known, this 2003 release boasts a number of new, fan-requested features and the most engulfing 3D graphics yet in the series.
With 23 NASCAR tracks, tutorials, driving aids, and online capability, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season is designed to be the developer's most complete, full-featured NASCAR game to date. The physics engine has been refined and enhanced under consultation with NASCAR team engineers. New graphics are designed to bring the racing world to life at an unprecedented level of detail, with an active pit row, helicopters and blimps, and even the accumulation of oil and dirt on the windscreens.
Due to changes in the rights to the license, this may be the developer's final official NASCAR game (at least for several years). Papyrus has devoted great effort towards making NASCAR Racing 2003 Season a fitting culmination to the critically-acclaimed series.
Some people mock NASCAR races as just a bunch of guys turning left for a few hours and there's some truth to that. But the bigger truth for race aficionados is that NASCAR is about dozens of cars crammed onto tiny tracks -- sometimes just half a mile long -- and blasting around them at nearly 200mph. Often, mere inches separate the cars, and mere fractions of a second separate daring maneuvers from horrifying crashes. Televised NASCAR races don't always do a good job of showing you the thrilling sense of speed, the ever-present danger, the subtleties of each track, and the nerves of steel required to smoothly navigate them. Papyrus' NASCAR Racing 2003 Season does all that and more, offering up thrilling racing action with the realism that hardcore fans crave.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to fans of serious racing sims, considering Papyrus' reputation in the field. Grand Prix Legends was one of the most demanding and rewarding racing sims in PC history, and it still enjoys a diehard fan base years after its release. Of course, Papyrus has also been wowing gamers for years with their NASCAR Racing series.
Despite the praise, awards, and sales that the NASCAR Racing series has enjoyed, NASCAR Racing 2003 will mark the series' premature end. Fortunately, Papyrus decided to take the high road and finish the series in style by including new features and enhancements, as well as all the core features you've come to expect.
NASCAR Racing 2003 is a licensed game, so you'll find the real-world drivers and 25 real-world tracks (including a handful of night race variants) and one fantasy track, the enormous "Coca-Cola Superspeedway." You'll be able to run practice sessions, single races, and full championship seasons. For each race, you can alter numerous settings, including the weather, number of laps, and number of competitors. You'll be able to run through a complete race weekend with a timed practice, qualifying session, happy hour, and the actual race, or just skip to the race itself.
NASCAR Racing 2003 includes numerous driver aids to help newbies get into the game. You'll be able to toggle traction control, anti-lock brakes, and automatic shifting, among other features. You can even opt for an all-out arcade mode with indestructible cars. And while you won't find the helpful track tours featured in NASCAR Racing 2002, you'll still get a number of very useful driving lessons.
You'll quickly find that NASCAR Racing 2003 is a highly detailed simulation, one of the most detailed and realistic ones to grace the PC. Papyrus partnered with Goodyear and Jasper Motorsports (Winston Cup team #77) to make the game's physics modeling even more realistic than in the past. Particularly when using a force feedback wheel/pedal setup, you'll be able to feel, see, and hear all the subtleties of NASCAR racing, from the slightest squeal of tires on the edge of their grip to the unique bumps and ruts in each track.
This is a sim where the slightest turn of the steering wheel or tap of the brakes can make a major difference. To help you get the most from your car and unique track conditions, you'll be able to tweak your car setup with a truly extensive set of options: compression, camber, caster, rebound, ride height, and numerous other configurable settings should make this game a gearhead's delight.
What's great about this level of detailed realism is that it usually doesn't make the game overwhelming, but rather makes it thrilling. You truly get the feel of having a 750-horsepower beast at your control, a beast that responds best to gentle nudges. If you stand on the brakes or mash the accelerator, you'll be spinning like a two-ton top before you know what happened. To drive the fastest laps, you'll need to constantly push your car to the very edge of control by make constant subtle adjustments. Since you'll always be racing on the brink, you can get a real adrenaline rush out of this sim, particularly during dramatic situations like roaring three-wide into a corner.
The fact that your AI competitors put up a serious fight makes the racing all that much more exciting. Papyrus producer Steve Myers has said that the AI in NASCAR Racing 2003 is "really is the best AI we have ever had in one of our products." In truth, the AI can be too competent, generally driving with unerring precision. Fortunately, you'll be able to adjust the AI difficultly level or allow the game to adjust it on the fly to match your performance and ensure that you have a good shot at winning.
You can also head online to play against a full field of 42 drivers. This can be an absolute blast because of both the high level of competition and the powerful sense of really being there, particularly if you run a full race weekend with practices and qualifying and stick to the cockpit view.
One of the amazing things about NASCAR Racing 2003 is that its graphics look even better than the outstanding visuals in NASCAR Racing 2002. If your rig has the horsepower to handle it, you're in for a visual treat here. The cars feature a high level of detail inside and out. As you race close behind a competitor, you'll be reminded to eat M&M's or dial 1-800-CALL-ATT, thanks to real-world sponsor logos plastered all over the cars. During a spin, you'll see the roof flaps pop up to keep the car from going airborne. You'll also be able to spot four distinctly different car models this time around.
Inside the cars, you'll find a wealth of detail that brings the game's cockpit view (one of five possible racing views) to life with a working rear-view mirror and dash instruments. The textures look so real that you can almost feel the steering wheel, window net, and roll cage tubing. New to this edition of the game is the way dirt and oil accumulate on your windshield as the race progresses. The effect looks convincing and can definitely affect visibility.
As nice as the cars look, it's the tracks and atmospheric effects that really shine. Every venue has been carefully modeled after its real-world counterpart, down to the smallest details of the grandstands, safety fences, loudspeakers, and other incidental scenery. The infield grass will often be mowed in neat little stripes; flags will flap in the breeze, letting you see which way the wind is blowing; and team war wagons and crews will line the length of pit road. Now blimps and planes will even soar overhead during a race, and trackside Jumbotrons will announce cautions in flashing yellow letters. The remarkably realistic track surfaces feature minutely grained textures, lengthy cracks, and a darkened main racing groove.
Well rendered dynamic lighting and shadow effects make this all seem that much more convincing, with reflections gliding across the cars as they round the track, for example. Thanks to a new solar glare feature, you can enter a corner and suddenly find the sun right in your face, with your windshield brilliantly lit up.
When you're blasting around the track in a pack of rival drivers, the massed engines sound wonderfully intense. Few racing games have done such a superb job of immersing you in the action through the engine sounds alone. More than any obvious sound effects, though, it's the subtleties of the audio that most impress. As you drive closer to the walls surrounding the track, the engine noise will increase as it echoes off the concrete. Subtle audio cues play a big role in your driving, too, providing vital feedback about how your car is handling. Before you can feel it, you'll often hear the slight whir of your tires beginning to slip as you roar through the corners.
Despite all its strengths, you could find small things to nitpick about in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, but that would be like complaining you didn't get a prize in your Cracker Jack box after you just won the lottery. About the only major problem you're likely to encounter is the framerate issue. But assuming you can get that sorted out, you're in for some thrilling racing. It's a black day for gaming when a superb, hardcore sim series like this is abandoned in its prime. There are way too few serious sims of any sort these days. On the bright side, the NASCAR Racing series ends it career with a resounding victory.
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