Reviewed: September 28, 2005
Released: September 2, 2005
When it was recently announced that EA had reached an agreement with the NFL giving them exclusive rights to any NFL-branded video games, gamers everywhere piped off against the behemoth. It appeared that once the company was faced with a viable source of competition, that they had resorted to the mighty dollar to squash the competition. What most gamers do not realize – or simply fail to remember – is that the NFL deal wasn’t the first exclusivity agreement that EA entered into, which resulted in the elimination of a viable competitor. And while that incident did not garner as much negative attention as the NFL event – it made a lot of gamers unhappy.
It was somewhere around the year 2002, and the two biggest names in video game NASCAR were EA’s NASCAR Thunder and Infogrames/Atari’s NASCAR Heat. NASCAR Heat had always clocked in a distant second to EA’s offering, but the 2002 edition caught gamers’ eyes with its revolutionary Dirt to Daytona mode – which let gamers live out a career from humble dirt-track beginnings through a variety of racing styles, and ultimately ending up in the NASCAR series. Atari was poised to make a viable run with Heat, when EA suddenly announced that it had signed an exclusive agreement with NASCAR, which locked up the license through 2009.
For the two years following, the NASCAR Thunder series stagnated a bit. It did not get particularly worse, mind you, just not a whole lot better. Then in 2004, EA announced that it was overhauling the Thunder series, and renaming it NASCAR: Chase for the Cup. This new version of allowed gamers to, er…gulp… live out a career through a variety of racing styles, and ultimately ending up in the NASCAR series (sound familiar?). The game also beefed up its AI grudge system (where abused AI will hold grudges) and introduced the “Intimidator®” button which allowed the gamer to target a competitor car and make a friend (by creating a shared draft) or an enemy (by shaking him up a bit).
This year, EA has decided to take another leap forward with the addition of Total Team Control, which ups the ante on strategy and hands NASCAR fanatics the reins to micromanage their own racing team to their heart’s content. And while the game may be a bit daunting for newcomers, the Total Team Control does help minimize the monotony that comes with 200 laps around an oval track.
At the outset, NASCAR 06:Total Team Control does not look a whole lot different from the previous iterations – showcasing four racing series; Whelen Modified Tour, Craftsman Truck Series, NASCAR National Series and finally the NEXTEL Cup; the object of the game is a zero-to-hero climb to the top of the NASCAR hill. We have seen this many times before.
But the main difference between NASCAR 06 and any previous release is that NASCAR 06 successfully introduces gamers to the concept that professional racing is in no way an individual sport – it is a team effort that requires input and dedication from a variety of support staff to succeed and help you bring home the cup.
The game immediately throws you headfirst into the Total Team Control concept right from the outset, putting you in Jimmy Johnson’s just-wrecked car in the final two laps of the Pepsi 400. You immediately are given direction from your crew chief to swap cars with your 2nd place teammate Jeff Gordon and gain the lead from Earnhart Jr. before the race is up. Swapping is performed with two quick flicks of the right analog stick, and suddenly you are teleported to Gordon’s car. What follows is two grueling bumper-to-bumper laps as you try to edge Dale Jr. out of the top spot and give Gordon – and the team – the victory.
Once Gordon has won – and this may take newbies retry or two to accomplish – the game finally takes the player to the main menu, where game modes, options and other settings can be chosen. There are the obligatory quick race and arcade-type modes, but the meat of the game is in the Fight for the Top story mode.
In the Fight for the Top, gamers can design their own driver from a basic selection of body styles and facial features, and become acquainted with their manager, Ace Moneymaker. Moneymaker communicates with you and your driver via PDA-phone – leaving voicemail messages, emailing contracts for review, etc.. As the seasons unfold, owners and drivers will contact you via PDA-phone as well – issuing racing and/or placement challenges, voicing angst over on-track contact, offering bonuses and much more. Navigating about the PDA-phone interface – making sure you get all messages and challenges – can be a bit confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of things.
In order to race in a series, you have to be contracted by one or more racing teams in that series. That’s where Ace Moneymaker earns his 10-percent. Moneymaker plays middleman between you and the team owners, and will inform you of new contracts offers and opportunities. Ultimately, the decision to accept or decline an offer is purely yours to make, but Moneymaker will definitely voice his opinion – an opinion that is generally in his best interest more than it is in yours.
Your driver will start out the ranks in the Whelen Modified Tour. These modified cars may look like a three year old designed them – what with their off-centerline chassis, and sand-rail like skeleton – but they are a lot of fun to drive and act as a perfect primer to the over-powered vehicles you will meet up with later on in the career. In the same vein, the slower pace affords a nice chance to warm up to with the Total Team Control, shared drafting and Intimidator® mechanics.
As I alluded to earlier, NASCAR 06’s Total Team Control places your driver as one in a team of four. Your particular designed driver will gain status and ranking individually, so you want him to be your ultimate focus. However, the finish-line placing of the other three teammates is significant for the team as a whole – and therefore, helping them get towards the front of the pack is of importance to the team’s crew chief and owner. And this can only be accomplished with razor-sharp reflexes, and a near-constant and strategic dance of car swapping and position hopping.
While the team structure may sound like a real hassle – possibly sacrificing your own player’s current position to help out a teammate’s – the relationship between your driver and the three teammates is actually quite symbiotic. Due to some fairly clever AI, these teammates can actually help your personal cause much more than they can hurt it. By following from a list of available commands such as “follow me”, “drop back”, “block”, that you either trigger with the right analog stick or simply shout into your USB headset (this is not without issues – more on that later), these teammates can be used and abused to help you claw your way to the front of the pack. In exchange, you can hopefully gain enough of a lead to swap off with a lower placed teammate and help him get a better position.
The neat thing about this setup is that since there can only ever be one car holding in first place, you almost always have two or three other team vehicles fighting their way up the line – and isn’t the fight for position what NASCAR is all about? Rising out fifty laps at the front of the pack can be a bit dull when all you are doing is going around an oval, so having the chance to teleport back and help a teammate claw and scrape his way up keeps the game exciting. You just have to make sure you keep checking on your own car, because chances are pretty good that you are no longer in the lead.
The Shared Drafting and Intimdator® functions allow you to build ally or adversarial relationships with other non-team racers on the track. Being the nice fella I am, I often witnessed the benefits of the shared draft – which helps to slingshot your car and the sharer’s car ahead in the pack – but seldom found much benefit from intimidating – scaring or shaking up – anybody but a sworn enemy.
As I mentioned, the game does recognize the USB headset, and once you plug it in, it will automatically feed your crew chief’s instructions to you directly to your ear, and will accept voice commands through the microphone. While the voice option certainly allows you to use from a greater bank of commands (you aren’t limited by the four directions on the analog stick), I found that it does not always work right. In fact, unless your television is turned down to a quiet level, many commands are misunderstood or worse – misinterpreted – and you will find teammates dropping places to follow, or crew chief’s readying pit stops when you really wanted to swap cars or get a block. It becomes quite aggravating to have to say commands three and four times, and you’ll eventually find yourself switching back to stick-based commands.
It is always a bit difficult to really rate the controls on NASCAR games, because so much of the response depends upon the car, the setup, and the tracks themselves. Since NASCAR drivers spend most of their time on a bermed, straight-line 200mph driving lane, the cars are purposely tuned to handle like logs and have horsepower like you wouldn’t believe. So saying that the steering feels unresponsive or that the accelerating from a dead stop is neigh impossible just wouldn’t be fair.
However, I would like to comment on the fact that the control scheme defaults to shoulder button acceleration and braking like you would find on the Xbox – but the DualShock’s analog buttons are no match for variable triggers of the S Controller for the Xbox, and you will soon tire of the constant hard gripping you need to give to keep from losing acceleration.
As for the racing itself, you will find the AI to be quite competitive, and should give you a good run for the money. This is one of the more realistic racers, where season points matter most and you have to settle for not always finishing first – especially if you have the autosave feature turned on. There are no options for retry or restart in the Fight for the Top mode, so if you blow it – you blow it. Clawing your way to the top can be a dirty job, but with the NASCAR 06’s grudge system in full effect (too full in some cases) you will want to be careful of whom you nudge out of the way – they might just decide to pay you back with a Redwings-style check into the boards later down the line.
NASCAR 06 offers online play for up to four players through the EA Nation online service. Although this was not my first foray online in an EA game, it was the first to request that I either pony-up a credit card to charge a $2 subscription fee, or allow ESPN to “sponsor” my membership in exchange for what I expect will be years and years of sports-related spam in my inbox. The cheapskate in me chose to go with the spam.
EA has always been notorious for having sketchy online service, rife with server problems and lag, and NASCAR 06 is a pretty good example of the notoriety. In the games I joined, even when all four players showed “green” on connection speed, nearly every car (the three human competitors as well as the AI vehicles) jittered and skittered about as if the race were being run on a bowl of Jello…in an earthquake. As well, the local graphical slowdown (to be discussed later) really had an adverse affect on the gameplay and really hampered the enjoyment.
So, knowing the technical difficulties this game has online, it answers a lot of questions. For instance: Why are we limited to only four players in a race where 40 cars typically reside? Because the server can’t handle it – that’s why. Seriously though, it’s impressive that EA fills out the lineup with AI cars, but some of us would rather see more online humans and less AI competition.
Thankfully, while EA is notorious for buggy online service when games first release, they are also well-known for fixing said problems is a timely manner. Hopefully, EA can make some upgrades to their service and get NASCAR 06 back on track.
Other than the online play (which can, and most likely will, be fixed), the graphics have to be the real low point of the game. We’ve all read reviews where reviewers have mentioned a PS2 game looking like a PSone game, right? Well if NASCAR 06 does not look like a PSone game to you, then it is certainly only on par with the first generation of PS2 games.
I am well aware that EA’s NASCAR franchise has never been the embodiment of stellar visuals, and I give them the benefit of the doubt because it must be difficult to code 40-plus ornately colored cars all simultaneously interacting onscreen. But you would think after the ten or so years that they have been selling this franchise (as well as a decade of Need for Speed and two iterations of Burnout) that EA would somehow pool their knowledge and put out something better than what we see here.
Now to their defense – as long as the framerate keeps a steady clip, the game is very playable and one can forgive the harsh visuals. If the framerate drops however, it can really affect the gameplay – sometimes getting so bad it causes you to lose sync.
It’s not all for naught, though. The menus look great (although what’s up with this new font that EA is using) and are easily navigable, the cutscenes are crystal clear, and the PDA-phone’s display is awesome. You own car even looks acceptable from any of the behind views.
However disappointing the visual presentation is in NASCAR 06, the audio quality is simply top notch. The stereo and surround effects are great – you always know right where your nearest competition is coming from, and the continuous radio chatter between crew chief, teammates and yourself really gives an authentic feel to the proceedings.
EA is still kicking it with the EA Trax, and this year’s theme song, “Go Faster,” comes from the Black Crowes – and I’ll tell you, it simply rocks! No other song has rocked a racing game this much since Infogrames used the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You” to open Lemans 24hrs for the Playstation. Heck, Joe Satriani even recorded a fitting 42 original tracks (30 minutes total) for the NASCAR 06, and as much as I hate to admit it – it is all pretty enjoyable stuff.
Featuring all of the twenty-two official NEXTEL Cup Series tracks, thirteen fantasy tracks, three official Busch Series tracks, and four separate racing series to compete in – there is a lot of racing to be had in NASCAR 06. Then again, most of the tracks are some form of oval, so it’s not as impressive as getting 38 different road courses in a Gran Turismo or Burnout game – but there is distinct variety here.
For NASCAR fans, the quick race modes alone are enough to warrant a purchase – if you figure in the Fight For the Top mode with Total Team Control, then NASCAR 06 is a must have. Gran Prix and arcade racers might find themselves a bit bored by the banked ovals of NASCAR, and that is understood – I lean towards the Gran Turismo’s and Burnout games myself – but the Total Team Control and constant fight for position really helps keep the interest level and focus up. And with the hours and hours of gaming under NASCAR 06’s hood, you’ll need to be focused.
NASCAR fans would be remiss not to pick up a copy of NASCAR 06: Total Team Control immediately. The Total Team control opens a whole new set of doors for the tired franchise and will definitely have old school NASCAR gamers frothing at the mouth for its new, deeper play mechanic. If only the online package were running a bit smoother, and the graphics didn’t look so mucked up, we might have had the definitive NASCAR title out there.
As it stands, the series probably needs one more year (and a new family of consoles) to tie up the loose ends so it can officially call itself the king of the speedway.