NASCAR Racing 2003 Season - game review
I will not hide that from the official announcement of the next simulation of NASCAR races by Papyrus Studios, until the premiere I was upset with impatience like a child waiting for gifts from Santa Claus. The more that Papyrus Studios announced at the outset that NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (hereinafter I will use the abbreviation NR2003) will be the last simulation devoted to this racing series. Richard Yasi even used the term "ultimate NASCAR simulation" - the final, complete simulation that will set a new benchmark in the world of computer racing simulations.
Today it's time to take a close look at the latest of the NASCAR series from Papyrus Studios. Have the ambitious announcements of its creators been fulfilled? Let's find out.
A computer with the following configuration was used as the test platform:
Other components of the computer are omitted due to the fact that they have no effect on the speed of the game, as well as on the driving experience.
By running NR2003 you can first of all notice the first difference from the previous parts - the lack of a movie intro. All in all, a negligible fact, what matters is the content, not the packaging.
After starting the game, a familiar menu layout appears to our eyes. No fountains, everything is clear and legible. The only difference from NR2002 are the animated background elements, which, however, do not add anything to the overall impression.
Several new items have been added to the options menu. First of all, the tab dedicated to the controller settings has been enriched with advanced options, in which players who do not have an analog controller will be able to fine-tune the sensitivity of the steering wheel's response to pressing a keyboard or gamepad key.
Also in the options of graphic details some new items have been added, but I will deal with them when describing the appearance of NR2003.
Another difference between NR2002 and NR2003 is the lack of lessons presenting NASCAR tracks in the latter. These lessons, along with the commentary by NASCAR racing legend Darella Waltrip, were undoubtedly one of the most interesting options in NR2002. Other lessons on principles, tactics and how to tune the car to the track remained.
GRAPHICS AND HARDWARE REQUIREMENTS
It must be admitted that NR2003 with its appearance can satisfy the most fussy player. Even on a graphics card without full support for DX9 (which is required by NR2003) both the tracks, as well as the cars and the whole envelope, look simply beautiful. It's hard to imagine how NR2003 can look like on the Radeon 9700 series, 100% compatible with DX9.
The first striking addition is the effects of sunlight. The appearance of the blinding sun makes driving in NR2003 very real. Another effect that deepens this impression is the effect of pollution that slowly accumulates on the windshield as the race progresses.
One quite useful option has also been added - the ability to adjust the field of view (FOV). In NR2002 the field of view was rigidly set to 78 degrees. In NR2003 this can be adjusted in the range of 78 to 65 degrees. With a FOV setting of 65 degrees, the view is much more realistic in my opinion.
However, the biggest difference from NR2002 is the ability to turn on the display of all service teams in pitlane (in the previous part only the player's service was visible). The characters of the service teams are much better modeled than in NR2002, and their view of the mechanics bending around like in a drop of water is really impressive.
If we add new, increased quality and resolution textures, improved object lighting algorithms, animated elements of the environment (helicopters and airships of TV stations reporting the race, flags fluttering in the wind, etc.) and much more accurate modeling of the surface of each track, we will get graphics that should characterize the product released in 2003.
What computer is needed to support all these effects?
I honestly admit that after impressions from NR2002 and announcements about graphics in NR2003, I expected the bar to be hung high for our home tin cans.
And here there was a big surprise. The NR2003 graphics engine has been perfectly optimized. I got the impression that the game goes even faster than its predecessor on the same equipment.
When setting all possible graphics options to the maximum, at the start of the race on Daytona track from the last place in the field (with 42 opponents' cars in front) the frame counter showed the number 27. The result is quite poor, and certainly not sufficient for comfortable driving, but let's not forget that the test was carried out on a fairly technologically old graphics card. After overtaking all rivals, the number of frames increased to around 37. It's better now, with such a framerate, you can ride quite comfortably.
I decided to check which of the graphics options burden the equipment the most, resulting in the largest reduction in the number of frames. It turned out that it was enough to turn off the option of displaying shadows cast on wagons by structures around the track (stands, fence, etc.), and the number of frames per second increased to satisfactory - 34 at the start from the end of the rate and over 50 when riding in the first position. And all this at a resolution of 1600x1200 with 32-bit color in OpenGL mode.
So the fear that with the purchase of NR2003 you will have to change half of the computer components turned out to be unfounded - the multitude of graphics options is so large that you can get a satisfactory number of frames even on much weaker computers. Of course, this will not be without visual impoverishment of the game, but something for something.
As in the case of graphics, also the sound has been greatly improved. Especially at high speed it is no longer the sound of one sample with an increased frequency, when exceeding 8,000 rpm the sound gets a characteristic taste indicating that the power unit is approaching its limit.
Other "accompanying" effects have also been improved. Positioning the sound of other cars on the track is more precise, ambient sounds have also been added, e.g. sounds from the stands.
As with graphics, the sound option settings also affect overall performance and frame rate. Fortunately, they can be adjusted so as not to overload the computer that is too weak.
As for the qualities of the physical model developed by Papyrus Studios for the needs of Grand Prix Legends and regularly developed on the occasion of the release of subsequent versions of NASCAR (starting from NASCAR 4, the previous ones were based on a completely different engine), all in all the most important thing, I have already written in announcement NR2002, which the GRY-OnLine website published almost a year ago (link). You will also find an explanation of how this engine works and what makes it stand out from many games on this subject. As there is no point in repeating - let's focus on what has been added or changed.
Already on the occasion of the first trip to the track you can clearly feel the difference in the behavior of the car. On cold tires, the car is quite difficult to control, which should not be surprising - after all, a 750 horse "team" works under the bonnet, and the tires have an ambient temperature (NASCAR does not use heating blankets to preheat the wheels as in Formula 1). After a few laps, when the tires have reached their optimum temperature, you can clearly feel the difference in tire grip. When driving on less technical ovals, the car on hot tires holds to the surface quite confidently - just like it should when driving on slick tires heated to a temperature of over 100 degrees Celsius. The impression characteristic of NR2002 disappeared, that the car hovers above the track like a hovercraft. This does not mean, however, that you ride it like a tram on the rails and driving on the limit even on new tires is a real challenge for the driver. Of course, we are talking about standard car settings, which are included in the game by default. With tougher setups enabling aggressive and faster driving, the car ceases to be such a "docile lamb" and shows its sporty character.
As for the driving experience, first of all the suspension work has been significantly improved, every track unevenness is now much more noticeable. In addition, the shortcoming from the previous part has been corrected - the impression of the weight transfer of the car. As my colleague from the Polish NASCAR Online League team says (www.nascar.pl), in NR2002 "you could get the impression that you are going by an old couch, not a racing car". In NR2003, the car is no longer so limp, it has become a real "chaser", more willingly reacting to steering wheel movements and pressing the pedals.
Although the car holds the surface better than in NR2002, it does not mean that it is easier to drive. The engine has clearly more power, which means that, unlike NR2002, gas should be handled much more carefully, especially at the exit of corners. I got the impression that countering much better prevents slight rear wheel slippage than in the previous part. Similarly to NR2002, also in NR2003 large slip can be corrected using reverse, but this time it does not have such a salutary effect and uses the front tires much more than before.
The biggest difference in the feelings associated with driving is associated with the previously mentioned improved modeling of track surface. In NR2002 the tracks, despite maintaining general parameters consistent with reality, had a fairly flat surface. This time all uneven terrain that are actually on these tracks was mapped. This is best seen on tracks such as Darlington, Bristol and Lowe's. Especially on Darlington, going out on the limit from corner 4 onto the main straight can cause heart palpitations - it's hard to believe that the race track can be so uneven. One small mistake, and the car lands on the band. This certainly does not sound optimistic, especially for beginners, but in the end we are dealing with a racial simulation - not a Colin McRee or Need For Speed arcade game.
I will not hide that I was very curious what changes were introduced in the algorithms responsible for the "intelligence" of computer opponents (AI). In NR2002 this topic was a bit lame, it happened that AI did unforeseen maneuvers, and in the case of an accident they drove as if with flaps in front of their eyes, often causing large carambolas. In this regard, there was a lot to improve and it is not surprising that the creators of NR2003 announced a breakthrough.
It cannot be hidden that the improvement is visible at first glance. It is true that I did not have the opportunity to run the race over the full distance, but even passing a smaller number of laps "in the crowd" did not notice the strange behavior of computer rivals. More interestingly, AI in the event of a collision seem to behave intelligently, slowing down and bypassing the danger zone. Even in the case of a slight slip at the exit of the corner, the car next to me slightly corrected its driving path so that there was no contact. In addition, it can be seen that the AI in NR2003 do not go as in the previous parts the optimal track as stuck, often change the track looking for opportunities to overtake. The contacts between the cars are also much more natural. In NR2002, even a slight rubbing of the car against the wagon often ended in a spin that could not be saved. Of course, this is still not the same as driving with live opponents, but for the first time NASCAR by Papyrus Studios offers a realistic driving experience in crowds even in the case of racing with AI, which will probably please everyone who for various reasons can not afford online driving.
Two new options have also been added to make racing more attractive. The first of them, Adaptive Speed Control, constantly regulates the level of AI skills in order to ensure the player competition on the track throughout the race. This is not realistic, but I think it will find many supporters. Pit Stop Frequency is another option. This option is very interesting and highly recommendable especially for races on short distances. It is known that pitlane descents for new tires and fuel are often a key element of the strategy. In the case of shorter races, this element was eliminated, because you could easily travel the entire distance without having to go down to the pitlane. Now you can change it thanks to the option mentioned above, forcing a certain number of exits in the race (maximum 4).
However, the biggest innovation compared to the previous parts are the changing weather conditions. Already in NR2002 the air temperature as well as the direction and strength of the wind had a colossal impact on the car's behavior on the track. This time Papyrus Studios went further - the weather on the track is no longer rigidly predefined for the entire race. All the time while driving, the wind very realistically changes strength and direction, which means that you can no longer take turns "by heart". In addition, the temperature also changes. These changes are not clear, but it is understandable - it's hard to expect that during the 3-hour race the temperature will change by 10 or 15 degrees. One of my tests showed that during a full-distance race on Daytona, the air temperature changed by 4 degrees Fahrenheit between the first and last lap. Such a change in temperature is already perceptible and for the anticipating driver can be an additional element of tactics that can decide about victory.
Car aerodynamics have also been improved. Even more than in NR2002 are aero-push and aero-pull effects when entering the corner, also on straight (especially on long tracks) driving in slipstream gives a lot more extra speed than in the previous part.
Car destruction was also improved. Even the smallest rubbing against the band can affect the behavior of the car while driving, while more severe damage to the front or rear makes the car extremely difficult to maintain.
When it comes to the possibilities of multiplayer mode, since the Grand Prix Legends, Papyrus Studios products have been a model of excellence. Both LAN and online modes are well developed. Especially the online mode, for which you do not need a high-bandwidth connection - even a regular 56 kbps modem is enough to easily compete with live opponents. And these are not only empty assurances of the manufacturer placed on the game box - just look at the NASCAR Online League functioning for 1.5 years (www.nascar.pl), in which even drivers with a dial-up connection are calmly racing on the track, which two weeks experiencing emotions that you can't find in any other game.
This does not mean that the creators of NR2003 have rested on their laurels and left the online mechanism unchanged. It is true that these are cosmetic changes, but in addition to them have been added a few very useful functions especially for online league administrators.
Although Papyrus Studios has been publishing new NASCAR races in a 12-month cycle for 3 years, it is impossible to resist the impression that the next part is not just a kind of upgrade to the previous one. It is no different this time. Compared to NR2002, NR2003 is a completely new simulation, and the differences are clearly visible in virtually every aspect. But does it deserve to be called "ultimate NASCAR simulation"?
After all, no, though it is really close. Some elements of real NASCAR races are missing, which are very characteristic for this series. First of all, you can feel the lack of rain, which quite often in fact has a decisive impact on driving tactics and racing results. It is known that in NASCAR drivers do not race in the rain and it happens that a sudden fall causes earlier interruption of the race. This is not in NR2003 and this is the biggest shortage I have noticed. In addition, a nice addition would be the effect of darkening over the course of the race during the race - several races in the Winston Cup Series start in the late afternoon and end in artificial evening lighting.
However, this does not change the fact that in terms of simulation properties it is undoubtedly a product ahead of all competition by several lengths and personally I do not think that this balance of forces could change in the near future.
NR2003 is a great choice for everyone. For an ordinary player it will be a very interesting item ensuring great fun for many evenings. For a maniac of realism, on the other hand, it is the only really remarkable simulation. Simulation, which for a long time will be an indicator of quality in this industry.
Jakub "kavoo" Wronski