UK-based developer Eutechnyx has found an unlikely home the last few years in the distinctly un-British sport of NASCAR, releasing sims for Activision and now Deep Silver (The last being last year’s NASCAR: The Game 2013). The games have reviewed solidly if not spectacularly, but have generally failed to ignite interest outside the sport’s enormous, fanatical and mostly US-based fanbase.
Don’t go expecting NASCAR 14 to change that. It’s the product of people who know their audience, know that they buy enough copies of these things to allow them to keep making them and have long given up any notion of appealing to the mainstream. NASCAR is a very… well… idiosyncratic form of motorsport even to those familiar with other motorsports, and as a NASCAR neophyte my experience with the game began with genuine curiosity, but was quickly dominated by frustration and confusion – and I somehow doubt “Confrustionating!!” is the kind of boxart quote that would help widen its appeal.
Situations like this are tough because it takes some time to work out whether you’re reacting to the sport in and of itself or the game, but I eventually got the impression that even with beginner’s blues put aside NASCAR 14 is an almost-solid rendition of an odd sport, with some worrying issues that bring it down on a technical level.
The game’s centrepiece is its career mode, which throws you in as a rookie with a fledgeling team, a weedy car and a paltry budget. As you accrue sponsors you raise money for pre-race upgrades (Essentially one-race ‘boosts’) and research and development to develop more permanent parts. Don’t expect to be researching anytime soon, however; you’re small fry in a car that makes any kind of decent placing all but impossible, and you need to earn your stripes running races and pleasing smaller (i.e. cheaper) sponsors before you can start pulling in the big bucks.
For the beginner this constitutes a literal crash course in NASCAR. With its large field of huge cars and narrow tracks, it’s a motorsport clearly built around facilitating vehicular argy-bargy at every moment, yet the second anything above a minor prang occurs there’s a stoppage, which in this game means a pause of apparent length before a replay kicks in, then a prompt giving you the option to visit the pits, then a stats screen then another pause of random length as you wait for the race to resume. Even when quitting out of each of these screens as quickly as possible you’re looking at at least 10 seconds of not racing, even more if you decide to pit in (Especially if you get the prompt at the other side of the track, as it will keep you coasting the whole distance before guiding you into the pit area). If this doesn’t sound particularly frustrating, bear in mind that the crash-happy AI will make this happen at least three to four times per race, even on the lowest lap settings, and usually when you’ve managed to claw your way up to a decent position.
In fact, losing ten to fifteen places in a matter of seconds is a common occurrence in NASCAR 14, especially in the early stages with your starting car having markedly poorer acceleration than the rest of the field. One scrape against the barrier is enough to send you careening to the back, and you’re so underpowered on starts that attempting the qualifying stage of a race is often futile: you’ll just end up being overtaken by a dozen cars in seconds, even if you’re in pole position (Which happens surprisingly often in the early stages considering the relative weakness of your car in race situations).
While these things improve if you can stick it long enough to start getting good money and research the major upgrades, it’s hard to imagine anyone but diehard NASCAR fans trudging that far, which leads us to the issue at the root of most of NASCAR 14‘s problems. It’s a game made for fans, with little thought given to newcomers aside from some basic difficulty options that don’t tell you a hell of a lot about the actual sport. Many of the best spots games retain the complexity that pleases fans yet keeps things accessible enough that outsiders can still enjoy it; great sports games should be able to make fans of its sport.
NASCAR 14, however, has no time for that candy-ass hand-holding. Why does the game keep stopping? Work it out yourself. What are all these cautions for? here, keep getting them until you put two and two together. This beginner-unfriendliness is at its most egregious when it comes to the tactics of the sport. It’s clear that NASCAR, for all its bluster about speed and ridiculously overpowered cars the size of Uganda, is at its core a tactical sport where positioning and taking advantage of split-second gaps take precedence over reckless overtaking, yet the game doesn’t bother teaching the player how to use these tactics to the full – an ever-present problem when the race is constantly stopping and restarting, meaning that the field never gets to thin out to any significant degree. In fact, the arcadey handling makes holding position with the pack a fiddly experience that often ends in you clipping another car and bringing on a mass overtake and caution or, more likely, the twitchy AI will shunt you into a spin without your help.
From what I understand of NASCAR, a big part of the sport is the ever-shifting driver and team alliances that have a huge influence on the on-track tactics; something that NASCAR 14 seems to bypass altogether. Strange, when rivals systems have been a regular feature in racing games for years and would be a perfect gateway to teaching new players the tactics of the sport (Or at least add a bit of personality to proceedings – and no, the V.O. redneck team owner who calls you ‘buddy’ every 2.4 seconds doesn’t count). Even a cursory look past the ‘all left turns’ myth about NASCAR reveals the potential for a tactical depth that could very well ensnare neophytes if the game was prepared to exploit it.
While the game is solid-looking while not particularly pretty, weird FPS drops are common while turning corners and the game suffered a few crashes in my time with it. It also has an unnerving tendency to arbitrarily throw you to the back of the pack, whether you caused the accident or not. I could never work out whether this is a bug or another obscure rule I was unwittingly breaching; given the game’s determination to not explain itself, either answer seems plausible.
You also get a multiplayer leagues system with solid if unspectacular online play, the option to do single races and a feature that allows you to recreate the week’s race in the real NASCAR season via paid DLC – this is reminiscent of FIFA, although that game handles its fixtures in-game. Again, hardcore fans will lap it up but for everyone else there’s no real reason to jump in. The game also includes a full livery editor for the first time in the series, useful not only for general customization but is also vital to ensure that sponsor logos are added to your car.
I’m willing to accept that my lack of knowledge of NASCAR coming in accounts for a certain amount of my confusion playing this game. However, as someone who jumped in willing to learn I found NASCAR 14 a fairly oppressive experience. While it has a fairly solid driving engine that conveys the mass of these cars pretty effectively, even fans may find that its slight arcadeyness seems at odds with the delicate manoeuvres required when negotiating the pack, and its lack of interest in educating newcomers neither promotes better driving, nor provides a lot of encouragement to learn it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars