If you watch a NASCAR race, there’s always that one car. It’s the car that seems to putter around the track in 25th place all day long, running just well enough to not drop back to last or get lapped, but not well enough to really run with the big dogs. NASCAR 2011: The Game is that car. It does some things right, but has just enough flaws to keep it from being a legitimate contender. Huge NASCAR fans desperate for a title dedicated to their sport will find some enjoyment in the on-track action, but most everyone else will quickly tire of “almost but not quite”.
The game features all the modes you would expect from a NASCAR game. You’ve got your standard exhibition race, a full career mode, a car editor, and a couple of interesting additions like elimination races and invitation-only challenges. The career mode allows you to take control of either an established driver or create your own. The created driver is very generic; don’t expect to be customizing faces or anything like that. The career mode is, likewise, a very basic no frills affair. You’ll basically go down the schedule of races, qualifying and racing with no real meat outside of that. The elimination and invitational challenges are very enjoyable however, and add a little spice to the standard mix.
One of my favorite aspects of any NASCAR game is the Paint Scheme editor. I love spending time creating custom paint schemes and decals. The game has some depth in this feature, however like just about everything else in the package, it feels half finished. The paint tools and decal options are dated and too imprecise to create truly great designs. Options in some areas are limited, and certain designs (not just sponsors) can’t even be flipped. My most ardent complaint regarding the paint section has nothing to do with designs or paint tools, however.
After spending about a half hour designing a car the way I wanted it, layering decals and hashing out a design as best I could, I attempted to save my paint scheme. My efforts were met with a hard lock. After restarting my system, I again invested some time in the scheme only to be met once again with a lock-up. Finally, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend another half hour putting together a design and just slapped something together with fewer layers. Instantly, the game saved the design with no issues. I didn’t risk going back in to add layers, so I’m not sure if the intricacy of the design had anything to do with it. Two straight lock-ups in the same place, in an editor, is unacceptable and soured me on the experience considerably.
Unfortunately, this was not the only glitch that I ran into during my time with the game. Stuttering frame rates at the beginning and end of races were a common occurrence. At one point, the game started giving me experience points for lapping a car that didn’t exist, and continued doing so for a lap and a half. While I welcomed the bonus XP, it was somewhat puzzling to say the least. Despite the stutter, the graphics do look good though, even if the backgrounds and crowd are a little bland.
Thankfully, the gameplay does hold up its end of the bargain for the most part. Races are hotly contested and thrilling in traffic because one touch could ruin your day. The game controls very well, and features a full suite of assists for drivers who are less than confident in their ability. The difficulty level seems to jump up considerably between the different difficulty settings, and it may take a couple of races to find the assist/difficulty settings that suit your talent level. The AI fluctuates between solid and below average, with fellow drivers sometimes making incredible passes and other times making questionable decisions. Even the AI behind the scenes gets a little crazy sometimes, highlighted by inconsistent caution flags.
One of the great features of the game for gearheads is the extensive tuning section. You can adjust nearly every aspect of the car in order to milk out its peak performance. This allows crafty drivers to custom fit their car to the specifics of the track, and then save that setting for future races. Of course, for those among us, myself included, who are less mechanically inclined, there are preset templates for each track. This section of the game is quite thorough and it is one area where you can tell the developers spent a great deal of time and attention.
Unfortunately, NASCAR 2011 feels kind of like a $30 title in a $60 dollar package. While the gameplay is solid, the shallow modes, disappointing lack of polish, and overall mediocrity really prevent the game from reaching the high quality of previous NASCAR games. The good news is that this game lays a good base for future titles in the series, should it come to that. If you are a huge fan of the sport and absolutely need to have your fix, you’ll probably enjoy spending your time racing and tuning. Casual fans or fans of past NASCAR titles should probably wait for the price to come down a bit.
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.