NASCAR ’15 Review: Black Flag
The most recent NASCAR game that I played prior to picking up NASCAR ’15 was EA Sports’ NASCAR 06: Total Team Control. Before and after playing that, I regularly played NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. NR2003 is over 12 years old at this point but it’s still considered the best NASCAR sim ever made and still has a fairly healthy community.
So when Dusenberry Martin Racing announced that they acquired the NASCAR license, I was pretty excited. Their leadership includes a veteran of those classic Papyrus Racing Games NASCAR games so I was hoping this would be a sign of good things to come from NASCAR ’15.
Then DMR mentioned that this year’s game was a carryover from previous license holders Eutechnyx who had already started development on NASCAR ’15 when they acquired the license. If you know the name Eutechnyx, you may recognize them as the developers of Ride to Hell: Retribution. Oh my.
Alright, let’s start with the good.
The graphics are okay. They’re in line with what you would expect from a last-generation game but the one advantage of a racing game is that they can look pretty good regardless of the age of the hardware. Granted, what I recall of modded NR2003 is about the same. The cars look good. The sparks off the cars when you bottom out look great. The ads around the track look just like you would see on Sunday. It’s not perfect but we’ll get to that in a second.
I was quite surprised by the setup options that were available. We’re talking racing sim level of parts to tweak on the car when fine tuning your car’s setup. For someone who likes to have a car that’s loose in but a little less loose (but not tight) middle-off, being able to get very technical with the setup is right up my alley.
The tracks all feel different from NR2003. When that game came out, NASCAR was really a low line series. It wasn’t until the famous Talladega BR Busch Series race that tracks with wider lines became a big deal in the community. NASCAR ’15 really encourages you to move around on the track because of tire wear, car handling and passing other cars. It feels like you have viable options to get around the tracks rather than riding the yellow line.
Another difference from NASCAR ’15 and NR2003 is that I’m feeling the track a lot better in NASCAR ’15. For example, I can tell where the tunnel is at some of the tracks because my car bottoms out or jumps when hitting the tunnel. I look at the likes of Atlanta, Texas and Charlotte which are all very similar tracks but I can feel the differences in banking, transitions and turn radii. I swear I ran the same setup for all three in NR2013.
To that point, you can definitely feel the car’s handling change as a run goes along. I’ll get more into the actual racing in a minute but racing on the long runs does show. This game has NASCAR’s knockout qualifying format that doesn’t allow tire changes so you can see the lap times slow as you reach the late stages. Similarly, you can see the speeds fall off during long runs so you can see the difference between old and fresh tires. It seems like a little thing but it’s really important in terms of realism.
Unfortunately for DMR, the work Eutechnyx did for NASCAR ’15 left a lot of issues that will need to be fixed ahead of next year’s game.
Since I mentioned the number of setup options available above, I’m going to lead with the fact that it’s not all good news. The tool tips are so amazingly vague that you don’t really know what to do with most of the settings at your fingertips. I remembered a few different tricks from NR2003 that seemed to work but the tool tips provided just gave you a high level overview of what the page (suspension, tires, weights) of the setup did.
In NR2003, you held your mouse over the setting and the game would tell you what each tweak at each corner would do to the handling. I seem to recall Project Wildfire (effectively a Papyrus mod team) setup guide that told you how to setup your car in the 126.96.36.199 patch. Even Project CARS (when it’s not crashing) has very detailed description of all settings in a setup page. While NASCAR ’15 is definitely not a sim, why would you have all these settings and leave everyone in the dark as to what to do?
I mentioned the graphics off the top as well. While the cars and even the walls looked good, the tarmac pattern is pretty clearly visible on the track. Pit crews are stiffly animated and none of them have sponsored uniforms or boxes. The crowd models don’t look very good. It’s all pixelated cardboard cutouts that are filling the grandstands for the whole weekend. Even NR2003 showed the crowd getting bigger over the course of the weekend.
Most of your time in this game will probably be spent racing the AI so I think that’s worth talking about. One thing I kept noticing in career mode was how much more grip the AI seemed to have. However, that could have been how it manifested itself.
Since I like to drive a loose race car, keeping it under control on cold tires can be a bit difficult so there’s a bit of sliding up the track that I do on starts. The AI cars are able to accelerate into the hole that I left nearly every time and hold their line without a problem. It would seem that the AI have some serious grip and serious aggression. When they shot for that gap, I’d either run into them as I came back down or hit the car up high as I tried an evasive maneuver. So I had to sit through quite a few cautions.
That might be the biggest problem with racing the AI. They’re like magnets to any gaps that you leave open and it causes a hell of a lot of problems. There is also the amazing way they magnet to your back bumper even if you’ve opened a gap. Running the Coke 600, I was putting in some pretty good laps because I was catching the cars ahead of me at a good clip. Somehow, the cars behind me that I blew by were able to catch me up again but not make much ground ahead of me after passing me. It didn’t make any sense how they could nearly instantly go from slower than me to faster and then slower again. Of course, I wouldn’t have ended up at the back of the pack if I wasn’t dumped after coming up off the bottom by about three-quarters of a lane and getting dumped as a result.
I’m not sure that I ever saw the AI wreck among themselves in a race. They would wreck when I was around, though. There’s a difference between having the steely nerves of a race driver and having a death wish. The lack of the latter means that you’re not going to willingly stay three or four-wide early in a race or on a track where three-wide racing is near impossible which ends up causing a wreck as you bail out. Late in races, you don’t have to worry about divebomb passes because the AI will just give you the old chrome horn. I lost a top five in Martinsville that way.
It’s not just the racing on-track that I find odd but who I’m racing on-track odd. I’ve seen some of the backmarkers running up in the top five and top ten when they would be extremely fortunate to crack the top 20 in an actual race. One race, I actually started on the front row alongside pole sitter Bobby Labonte in the #32. That’s a man whose best years are well over ten years behind him racing for a team that is third-last in owners’ points among teams that have attempted to qualify for every race this year. That doesn’t include running around at the back with your should-be championship contenders. So there is some realism that needs to be looked at.
The big difference between NASCAR games of years past and NASCAR today is that NASCAR itself has fantastic stats tracking. They collect all sorts of data from races and assign driver ratings for every track and race. You would think that this data would be synthesized to create driver ratings for each track and/or track type but it occasionally seems very random how the standings of a race pan out. If a race has a long enough run, the field generally sorts itself out to a logical order but that’s occasionally hard to come by.
I also noticed that the AI difficulty can be very all over the place. I can trounce the field on road courses and flat ovals at 60% but struggle on plate tracks at 40% even if I have the fastest car in qualifying. On intermediates, 45% is about right for me if the race is somewhat clean but going to 50% is signing away any hope of a Top 30. That 5% on intermediates is what kills me. It shouldn’t be a big deal but I find that’s like flipping from medium to hard for one tick on a 20-point scale.
Every time I review a racing game, I bring up the real-time AI difficulty adapting that NR2003 had but that was the best springback logic in racing games and that game is 12 years old. If we could have that in NASCAR ’16, it would be a godsend. I might be willing to settle for a more consistent AI difficulty scale, an auto setting that adapts to your speed on that track (like NR2003) and smarter AI too. Just give me some settings that prevent the game from being a blowout either way.
Recently, NASCAR has been tweaking the aero formula in the Sprint Cup Series to encourage closer racing and more passing. The idea was to make the cars less aero-sensitive so that they can run up to each without aero-push from following other cars taking downforce off the front of the cars and making it hard to catch and pass.
If only NASCAR could borrow the aerodynamics from NASCAR ’15. Then all of Sprint Cup’s problems would be solved. Aero-push doesn’t exist in NASCAR ’15. In fact, I’m not sure that any of the standard rules of aerodynamics apply to this game.
The first problem with the aero is the aforementioned lack of aero-push and aero-loose condition. The second problem is that the draft works like it does on a restrictor plate track. You get a big tow in the draft of another car while that lead car gets a big boost from air being taken off its spoiler. You don’t really see that effect on non-plate tracks but you do in NASCAR ’15.
So what results from no aero detriment to close racing and that draft boost to the lead car is that it has effectively created pack racing on every track. So you’re constantly wadded up with the rest of the field and nobody can really get by each other. You can’t use the draft to get by anyone because it benefits those being chased as much as the chaser. You can’t break out from the pack to move past anyone because it’s just like plate racing and that gap you leave closes up fast and you just go backwards.
The only chance you really have to pass anyone and stay ahead is picking them off as cars start falling off the back of the pack. The tire wear is the factor that I think causes the pack to break up over a long run (not that they happen often as mentioned). So when cars run in small groups of up to five, it’s a lot easier to start your pass in turns 1 and 2, run on the bottom of the backstraight, dive them inside of T3 and block through with a slide job in T4. With one car, it’s just a case of powering by the other car.
Look, I get that this is a video game so a few liberties need to be taken to allow racing to happen. I’m sure that people don’t want to be stuck in line because of aerodynamics and a parade result from that. However, putting everyone in short track and/or restrictor plate pack racing is completely unrealistic. Turning down the draft boost for the lead car would be the simplest solution. That makes the trailing car faster and without aero-push, it should open up more opportunity for passing. Granted, opening up aero-loose as an alternative to the bump-and-run if what was debuted at Kentucky becomes the 2016 Sprint Cup aero package is a good alternative.
There aren’t too many game breaking bugs. I’ve had photo mode crash the game on occasion. When making pit stops, the car body will disappear just leaving the chassis. The restart order doesn’t seem to reflect the order exiting the pit lane under caution. At Martinsville, the AI will hit the water barrels protecting the old backstraight pit wall. And when they exit the pit lane without hitting the wall, they’ll pull from the apron to the backstretch wall with complete disregard for human life. Mind you, they’ll phase right through other cars when that happens so it’s no harm, no foul.
One of the funny things that I’m finding in playing career mode is who is and isn’t in the field. For example, Sam Hornish isn’t in my career races and is seldom in quick races. The #7 car is in each race but it’s the XFINITY Series car of Regan Smith, not the Tommy Baldwin Racing car of Alex Bowman as it is in the Cup series. The #33 car is always Ty Dillon rather than the Circle Sport car. Matt DiBenedetto in the #83, Landon Cassill in the #40 and Brendan Gaughan’s (or whoever it is now’s) #62 are all missing. Part time rides like #21 Ryan Blaney, #25 Chase Elliot and #66 Michael Waltrip run the whole season.
I know that it’s a bit much to expect that a game gets all of the tiny teams and part-time efforts but not many games are about series that have a lot of one-off efforts (apart from the one or two Le Mans games that have been made). It would be a nice change to see 45 cars turn up for practice in career mode and have qualifying mean something just to change things up from the usual.
I guess that I’ve omitted the biggest plus of this game until right now. NASCAR ’15 was released for only $20. It’s as if DMR admitted that this is a season update with some new paint schemes, drivers and a little bit of polish but not much more so they priced it to reflect that. So for $20, it’s priced perfectly and better value for money than many other racing games or annualized franchises.
At the end of the day, I can’t evaluate this game against other entries in the franchise. As a standalone effort, regardless of price, it’s well behind most of its peers in almost every way. There’s a lot of room for improvement with the NASCAR franchise but at least it sounds like the new guys will actually care about this game. They’ve probably amassed a laundry list of things to work on so hopefully they get to work and improve the game rather than complain about the complainers.
Still, it’s probably better than Ride to Hell: Retribution.
NASCAR ’15 was played on Windows PC but is also available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The review code for this game was provided by Dusenberry Martin Racing (DMi). Your impressions of the game may change depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you think that rubbing is racing.