Even though I've consistently proven myself inept at it time and time again, I'd like to think that I'm capable of not only playing racing games, but also of downright dominating them. Which is why, of course, that a spiffy new copy of NASCAR '08 has found its way into my house and onto my bedroom television via my Xbox 360. Now that it's here and has been run through its paces (i.e. dominated me and my pathetic notions of having "electronic game" in the world of video game racing) let's have a look see at what I've gotten myself into.
The simplest way to describe the way that NASCAR '08 looks is to just have someone come over to my house while an actual NASCAR race is taking place on television and tell them that it pretty much looks "like that!" In short, it's gorgeous. From the heat waves coming off of the track, the shine of the sun (or the electric lights, if racing at night) hitting the gleaming paint on the racecars (or trucks) to the wrinkles in the Pit Crew's uniforms… in the midst of a game; it's visually stunning.
Despite the fact that the game is limited to the sounds that one would expect from any game bearing the NASCAR moniker — radios chattering, tire squealing, engines growling, crowds cheering — it's damned impressive, nonetheless. When combined with the superb visuals, though, it's effortlessly immersive. When you factor in the surround sound, you'd swear you are actually down at the track in person.
In a fashion not dissimilar from games such as Gran Turismo, you must "earn" your way into actually being able to compete and race, should you wish to participate in the "Chase" or "Season" modes. Sure, you can just strap it in and race a quick run-off race or two, but the game makes it very clear that you're not just going to be able to sit right down and know how to handle all the finesse and technique that's going to be required to not only compete in the day to day (albeit simulated) world of NASCAR, but have a chance at winning as well.
Right from the bat you're faced with the challenge of passing 10 "License" challenges in six different categories. Once you've worked your way through those, you need to complete six groups of "contract" races in order to "win" cars that are able to be raced in the "real" racing season. While you don't have to complete all of the races, you'll be limited to just one car to choose from once you get to the "owner" mode, if you don't.
Of course, to be able to race all the races in a given season, you're going to have to complete all of the required license challenges, or you'll just be spinning your wheels and doing a whole lot of nothing at all.
Once you are able to race, the game soars. Despite having to seriously pay attention to whatever moment you're in — whether in relation to your track position, car setup, car performance, crew chief suggestions, etc. — insanely cool moments exist in every race where you just find yourself watching the scenery fly by your car as you smile.
Never has something so challenging been so fun. The closest I can compare it to would be the first (and only) moment when I solved a Rubik's cube without cheating. Sure, it took a lot of practice and concentration, but when those colors locked into place it was a sublime feeling of accomplishment.
It echoes nicely with the warm fuzzy feeling I got the first time I cracked the top ten on a race in this game. Of course, that fuzzy feeling is all wiped away every time that I think I'm finally a kick-ass NASCAR driver and take my "skills" online against 11 other players… only to have my ass handed back to me on a silver platter that looks a lot like a hubcap.
I almost forgot to mention how cool it was to have a game where I'm able to take the Car of Tomorrow out for a spin or 500! It's amazing the way that you can feel the difference in how it handles from the other cars… and this is just in a game. I can't imagine the thrill it must be to be able to actually strap yourself in one of those things.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that I really like this game. Sure, it might have been nicer to have the controls and racing situations more intuitive and something that anyone could pick up and excel at in a few hours, but I happen to like the fact that I had to work (and work and work and work) at becoming a better driver. It kind of hearkened back to the days when I'd play a game's level 99 times until I finally beat the damn thing, y'know?
If I were forced to come up with something that I'd like "improved upon" in the next incarnation of this franchise, it would be to have a career mode that would allow me to work my way up through the various racing series. If I could have begun as an egotistical young guy on the dirt tracks and then worked my way on and up until I was a seasoned veteran on the NASCAR level, it would be my idea of a perfect racing game.
NASCAR 08 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: PS2 and PS3.