NASCAR Thunder 2004
The veteran stock car franchise returns. Is there anything left besides the turns?
Dec 13, 2018 5:47 am
Sep 23, 2003 1:52 am
The most notable addition to the console versions is "Grudges and Alliances". The goal behind this feature is to finally deliver on the promise to make you feel like you're racing against flesh and blood human beings, and not just AI drones plod along in circles for the duration of the race. The other goal was to make more honest drivers out of all of us, by making us pay for using other drivers as bumper cushions for us to bounce off of instead of using discipline and skill to hold our racing lines.
Then there is Speedzone, the NFL Minicamp of NASCAR 2004. You get various tasks at different levels of difficulty to complete, such as blocking when you have the lead, passing cars cleanly for points (and losing points for contact), etc.
Coming back this year are Thunder Plates, Career Mode, Season Mode, and Lightning Challenges. Notably absent compared to its Playstation 2 counterpart is the online mode, directly attributable to the online cold war being waged between EA and Microsoft, to the detriment of gamers everywhere. On the other hand, you can use custom soundtracks from your XBox hard drive if you don't like the EA "Trax" provided.
For those who are expecting this title to break any new ground in realism for a console simulation, you won't find it here. In fact, every gripe I had with last year's physics engine is still there. The cars refuse to scrub off speed the way they should. In real life, the wall of air you're plowing through, the engine braking effects and of course tire scrub all conspire to bleed off your speed fairly quickly during cornering. Not here.
This means that instead of just lifting and feathering the throttle to get through the turns, you usually have to brake. In some cases you will have to REALLY squeeze it, or you'll rocket into the corner too fast, fail to bleed off speed, and push up the track either into another car or the unforgiving wall. Turning the driving aids off makes this even worse by making the car very prone to kicking you into massive oversteer, replete with tire smoke. This is aimed at arcade console racers, not sim-heads, so I can forgive the compromise on realism, but the way this title is implemented actually makes it much, much harder to drive smooth consistent laps using a standard XBox controller. If we're supposed to "race the track, not the pack" then why is it so much easier to throttle steer around the turns in the sim-heavy PC version than it is in the "arcade" console version? The quote above seems in many ways to apply more to the PC version than the console version as a result.
I believe that Infogrames' NASCAR Heat, though its XBox version is a couple of years old now, will retain its reputation as being the most realistic of the console stock car titles. When you go to the Thunder Plates section to do a lead-follow instructional session on a track, you'll find that the track guide narrated by Richard Petty does not quite match the colors of the racing line that show you whether and when to brake or accelerate. This serves to illustrate the gulf between the techniques used in a 'real' NASCAR simulation (or real-life NASCAR) and the techniques used here for a particular track.
After spending a fair amount of time tweaking my car's setup to behave more realistically, I gave up and decided I would do some Thunder Plate challenges and just forget everything I know about the tracks from other simulations, and instead just do whatever was necessary to get the "Legends" plate for the best lap time. At all but the restrictor plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega), you will need varying degrees of braking and lifting, and in some cases momentarily coasting, to make the corners without sliding up the track.
The XBox controller works well with the trigger configuration or the optional configuration that lets you use the right analog stick for the gas and brake. Unfortunately, you cannot custom configure the controller on a button by button basis, so if you don't like, say, the shifter buttons, there's little you can do to change them. You get 4 canned configurations, and you have to make do with them.
If you liked the way the cars handled last year, you'll be fine with it this year. If you wanted something more akin to the simulation you'll find on the PC, you'll be disappointed. You'll find that once you hit the short tracks, just keeping your car on the correct racing line will occupy much of your focus, and it's very easy to slip up and cause a wreck as a result.
The season modes and career modes are what I expected based upon last year's version, but EA did make the improvement of supplying a reference of help for running a team and providing information necessary to make important management decisions. There are also more prompts to let you know when things have happened, and quick select buttons you can press to have the computer make some choices for you, such as what chassis and engine you should use for a given week.
That brings us to the "Grudges and Alliances" feature added this year. Each driver has a number, positive or negative, assigned to him which reflects his feelings towarsds you. I believe the range is from -100 to +100. When the value is positive, the driver is an "ally" of yours and will play nice on the track, willingly drafting with you, not moving over into you when you are alongside, etc. But beware your enemies! If you trade any paint with anyone on the track, regardless of whether you started it or not, you will see an image on the right of your screen showing the opponent and the new "score". Your crew chief will likely chime in with a comment to the effect that you can expect some payback later on.
The game will call out your enemies on the track as they move up behind you or are in the pack of cars ahead of you, just so you can be careful when you get near them. They will block you if you try to get around them, and if you get alongside of you and you've racked up more than 20 or so negative points with them, look out! They will swerve over and hit you. Hard. You'll be countersteering frantically to maintain control of your car while you put up a nice curtain of tire smoke for everyone else to drive through.
So now you know how to make enemies. How about making friends? When you come up behind another car close enough you'll see a message saying "Press A to draft". Do so and you'll hear a whoosh of wind noise followed by a kind of silence where the engine noises fade into the background somewhat. You're now in the guy's draft and you will close up on him fairly quickly. Quickly enough that you may be tempted to lift to avoid hitting him (also known as "bump drafting"). But you needn't worry about THAT much realism in this title. The game will automatically stop your forward progress within reason to keep you from hitting your drafting buddy. As you draft, you'll see that same image used to show your enemies turn green as you begin to accrue ally points. The better you draft, the faster the points rack up. I was a little bothered when some of my so-called allies still drove defensively against me when I tried to move inside of them, but I guess they are still trying to win their own race. At least they aren't clouting me with their car as I go past!
The one thing you will notice in a hurry is that it's much easier to make enemies than friends, and if you are in season or career mode, these guys have long memories. Make too many enemies, and you can expect your life to get worse from race to race. If you can hook up and draft some of your enemies and slowly and carefully turn them back into friends, life will go better for you. One thing I didn't like is that after enemies get their licks in on you, it doesn't seem to even things out. I would have figured once a guy had taken his shot, he would cool off a bit and stop trying to take me out. But that doesn't seem the case. However, if you don't have any run-ins with anyone, perhaps because you never meet them on the track, they seem to mellow out towards you on their own (time heals all wounds….)
The million dollar question is just how much this improves gameplay in this title. I would say that it makes a big difference. It's not a feature you can ignore, and you find yourself thinking about this added dimension to racing the entire time you are on the track. You will tend to be far more cautious in traffic. Just bumping someone up into a wall to get past them is not so appealing when you realize the guy is going to come back and take you out in a fit of revenge later on. It definitely keeps the whole "going around and around in circles" from being so monotonous, as every car you encounter is an opportunity to make a friend or an enemy.
Another new addition this year is the Speedzone challenge system. As mentioned above, this is remiscent of the mini-camp features in Madden. You might be asked to pass as many cars as you can within the last 2 laps of a race, with points being gained for each successful pass, and points lost for contact with other cars or damage to your car. Another challenge is trying to keep someone behind you. You might also just need to drive through a fantasy track, hitting checkpoint after checkpoint.
Naturally, all these accomplishments are tracked in the new EA Sports BIO system. When I booted up NASCAR for the first time, I got a couple of Thunder Plates, unlocking Dale Earnhardt's car, just because of the fact that I own Madden and NCAA this year. I assume that next time I fire up those titles, there will be some extra goodies unlocked to reward me for investing in multiple EA Sports titles, as well as for whatever accomplishments I should get that should warrant cross-title unlockables.
Going from the meat and potatoes of gameplay to the presentation of graphics and sound, the XBox version looks smoother and moves faster than the PS2 version, and definitely is pushed over the top with the HDTV progressive scan support, though it was disappointing not to have 720p (or 1080i!) support, but it still ticks along consistently even in widescreen. The cockpit view strikes me as positioning you too far back in the car, making you feel like you're looking down a dark tunnel to the window to the track. When you're sitting in a real car, you're barely even aware of the body work around you unless the thing you want to see is obstructed. I wish the camera was more customizable so you could push the view forward to a view more reminiscent of F355 Ferrari. After all, they give you an optional HUD that clones the gauges anyway, so if we're going to make a HUD, what does it matter if I can see the actual gauges on the dashboard or not?
The cars will sustain realistic looking, visible damage, and you can expect debris caution flags to fly when the bodywork of a car starts to fly off. You'll see a fair number of these debris cautions, as cars often won't pit even when they've got parts ready to fall off.
A fully animated pit crew will service your car, and you can expect to see occassional mistakes, such as the guy holding the gas can have difficulty hooking up to the car. Speeding in the pit lane will also add a nice 5 second delay to your stop as a stern-looking NASCAR official looks on. While these are going on, a PA announcer gives an energetic and believable play-by-play of the situation. Similarly, when you qualify, you can expect to hear the PA working the crowd up as much as possible while talking about you.
Your crew chief is generally helpful, letting you know when you are running low on fuel and what the drivers around you are doing. I'm not sure he's always 100% truthful when he tells you "You're faster than the leader", but I think he probably is when he says: "You're helping with the bodywork this week" after I've just scraped the side of the car agianst a wall.
The sound of the engines is much better than on the PC version I reviewed. When the cars all fire up their engines in pit lane, it sounds perfect. I can't think of a single complaint to level against the quality of the sound. However, I do have a gripe with the spotter. He's usually late in giving you the calls regarding traffic high or low. You need to develop a 6th sense for what's going on around you if you want to avoid wrecking. You can't just rely on your spotter to be accurate or timely. That definitely needs to be improved.
So, what's the final judgement on this title? As long as you don't come in expecting any serious realism in the driving model, there are many ways to play and enjoy this title. It has all the Winston Cup tracks and a bunch of really nice new fantasy tracks, which are oval-optimized road courses (banking, wide sweeping turns, etc). It has a career mode, a season mode, Thunder Plates, the Speedzone challenges, the real-life situation Lightning Challenges, customizable paint jobs, customizable soundtracks, tutorials and training videos, etc. In short, the game is simply PACKED with playing modes and features, all of which look and sound great. If you are unsure about whether you will enjoy driving this physics model and you didn't try out last year's physics, rent this one and see if you can deal with it. Once you grow accustomed to the driving model, you can truly dice with the AI and have fun, and the career mode will give you a long-term challenge.
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NASCAR Thunder 2004