NASCAR Thunder returns to home computers with all 23 authentic Winston Cup venues and 11 new fantasy tracks. The Career mode features a redesigned interface as players strive to develop relationships with sponsors, crews, and research teams during a span of 20 years. Aggressive drivers will no longer be tolerated in the game, with computer opponents aiming for retaliation if players cut them off or brush against them during the heat of the race. The consequences of wrecks are also more apparent in this version, as errant cars flip, ricochet, and bounce back into the field of play before bursting into flames.
Returning game modes include the NASCAR Thunder Speed Zone, where players practice their technique in a series of mini-games testing skills such as passing, drafting, holding, and more. Also available is the Lightning Challenge hosted by Michael Waltrip, which features a new lineup of 40 challenges taken from the 2002 season with authentic radio calls of each race as recorded by the Motor Racing Network. Thunder License features video tips from various NASCAR professionals on how to approach each of the 23 real-life tracks featured in the game.
NASCAR Racing series by Papyrus became a legend in its own time, thanks to its nuanced physics modeling, close attention to detail, and gorgeous presentation. Sadly, the series has come to an end, though it went out with a bang earlier this year with the superb NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. For now, Electronic Arts is the only game in town where NASCAR sims on the PC are concerned. Its last PC NASCAR game, NASCAR Thunder 2003, left a lot to be desired, but it's taken a huge step in the right direction with the NASCAR Thunder 2004, creating an exciting racing sim.
Like the last NASCAR Thunder game, the new 2004 edition has two developers: EA Tiburon developed the console versions, while Image Space has created the PC version. One of the many problems with the PC version of NASCAR Thunder 2003 was that it lacked a lot of the interesting features found in the console versions. This time around, that gap has closed some. It's true that the PC version of NASCAR Thunder 2004 lacks the tutorials taught by the real pros, the "Lightning Challenge" events hosted by driver Michael Waltrip, and the AI grudges and alliances system found in the console versions. However, the PC version does offer a deep career mode this time around. You start out as a rookie, choose your car's manufacturer and color scheme, and then move on to tough business of acquiring sponsors, supervising team R&D, and building cars while trying to win a season's worth of races. This all adds a neat strategic element to the game.
If the career mode sounds like too much work, you can also take part in racing seasons where your only concern is the racing itself. If you simply want to jump right into some quick action, you can compete in single races on any of the current NASCAR circuits (though not all the fantasy tracks found in the console versions of the game). You'll also find a practice mode, where you can head out onto the track alone to familiarize yourself with the raceways and test your car setups. You can race online, too, though we had some problems with lag, warping, and disconnects; plus, you can only compete against fifteen other players instead of a full field with 40+ players. On the bright side, all the game modes are highly configurable: You can choose which sessions you'll drive (all of them or just qualifying and the actual race, for example) and set the race length, weather, AI ability and aggression, and more.
NASCAR Thunder 2004 boasts a new, much-improved physics engine to better model car handling, tire wear, and collisions. It doesn't seem to quite match the magnificent subtlety of NASCAR Racing 2003 Season's physics, but it does provide you with some really challenging, immersive racing. On TV, NASCAR racing might not look like much to the uninitiated viewer -- just a bunch of guys driving in circles -- but in reality, NASCAR drivers need enormous skill and finesse to keep all that horsepower under control. The slightest bumps in the road and the varied transitions between corners and straightaways require great skill to navigate at 190 mph while other cars ride mere feet away. The slightest slip-up and you'll at best lose time, at worst careen out of control. NASCAR Thunder 2004 does a great job re-creating these subtleties and making you feel like you're driving on the edge, barely taming a roaring beast of car.
Thanks to convincing force-feedback implementation, subtle sounds of tires slipping or skidding and slight bobbing of your cockpit view, you get a real feel for the details of driving. Tough yet fallible AI drivers, and both simplified and advanced car setup options further enhance the realism and fun of the driving experience. A range of optional driver aids and AI skill sliders let you tone things down to create arcade-style gameplay, too. This is a very newbie-friendly game.
NASCAR Thunder 2004's sound effects do a fine job drawing you into the action, with roaring engines and screeching tires getting the adrenaline pumping. Better still, many of the game's visuals have been improved over the last edition. Models seem more detailed and textures look crisper. Where many of the track graphics of NASCAR Thunder 2003 were merely functional, many of them look downright pretty this time around. Visual details like skid marks on the track, shadows cast by trackside objects, and clouds of smoke from spinning tires further add to the immersion. The fact that we could usually keep a decent framerate with a full field of competitors and the graphics details cranked up says a lot, too. Still, there's some room for improvement: The crowds in the stands and the cars far out ahead of you often take on a distracting, shimmering look.
Other areas of the game, like the rather simple replay system, could also stand improvement. It's a shame the AI doesn't automatically adjust to your skill level and that you still don't get all the features found in the console versions of the game. Nevertheless, NASCAR Thunder 2004 does so many things right that it's hard to complain about and easy to love. It may not unseat NASCAR Racing 2003 Season as this year's premier PC NASCAR sim, but the NASCAR Thunder series is now right on the leader's tail.
People who downloaded NASCAR Thunder 2004 have also downloaded:
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, NASCAR Thunder 2003, NASCAR Racing 4, NASCAR Heat, Grand Prix 4, NASCAR Racing 2002 Season, NASCAR Racing 3, IndyCar Series
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