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NASCAR The Game 2011
Score: 66%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Eutechnyx
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2; 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Sports (Racing)/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
NASCAR The Game 2011 borrows a page from DiRT 2 (a better racing game) for presentation inspiration, having all the Options Menus located in some sort of garage. Putting you right in the middle of the behind-the-scenes action works wonders when trying to build the sense of immersion that's so crucial to this medium. However, DiRT 2 was a better-looking game, too, so all it really did was remind me that DiRT 3 is right around the corner. I'm sorry; that's not at all fair to NASCAR 2011, which is a functional virtual representation of the second most watched professional sport in the United States. Luckily, the racing looks pretty good. The sense of speed is there, as is the sense of damage. However, the jaw-dropping crashes viewers (and players of NASCAR games of the past) are used to don't make the transition quite so smoothly. Additionally, there's a bit of throwaway animation work; placing first results in an extremely awkward bit of fist pumping on the part of your racer.

Let me be perfectly clear: ZZ Top's "La Grange" is an awesome song. It's a classic that almost never gets old. But, in NASCAR 2011, it does -- big time. There's more to the game's soundtrack than the Tres Hombres, but it never shuffles; every time you return to the main screen or need to parse through the menu screens, the music will return you to that home out on the range (they gotta lotta nice girls, ah!). I mean, have mercy! The sound effects are solid, though, and capture the intensity of stock car racing quite nicely.

To the untrained eye, NASCAR looks stupidly simple. A bunch of cars race around a tight circuit where left turns are about all there is to look forward to. Pick up the controller and spend a few hours with NASCAR The Game 2011, and you just might change your mind. It's an extremely dangerous motorsport that emphasizes precision, smooth lines, and the exploitation of the rules of aerodynamics. NASCAR 2011 at least gets this part of the simulation dead on. The racing is different from what most gamers are used to seeing, but it is definitely fun. If you're a fan of the franchise and the many racers who participate in it, more power to you. However, there are some problems under the hood that simply should not be there.

If you're a single-player junkie who doesn't choose to venture outside of a game's Career Mode, you'll find yourself more or less satisfied by what NASCAR 2011 has to offer. The thirty-six race schedule takes you on a nice tour around the country, even though the parameters of each track aren't as varied as they are in most other racing games. However, if you want to take your game online, be warned: NASCAR 2011's online component doesn't feel finished. By that, I mean leaderboards are broken and the online play is often bugged out beyond recognition. I'd like to meet the guy who set the Daytona 500 record at 00'00'02, and I'll never forget jumping into a race where all of my controls were locked out. There are also too many spoilsports online; these jerks seem content to play the game Burnout-style.

If you don't count yourself among the myriad NASCAR fans in the U.S., you won't really find yourself digging into the game-altering difficulty settings. The prospect of a fifty-or-more-lap race will turn you away before you even try it. If you're that kind of racing fan, you'll probably stick to the Rookie Career Skill level; this setting minimizes the number of laps, muffles the realism of the damage system, and decreases the effect of all the wear and tear most stock cars go through multiple times during a single race.

I spent most of my time with NASCAR 2011 on the Rookie Career Skill level, and I had a very easy time of it as a result. I'm not terribly experienced at racing games; I usually bomb at the simulations but hold my own with games like Burnout, Need For Speed, and DiRT. Still, I found NASCAR 2011's difficulty level to be quite forgiving, as I was able to finish most races in First Place even though I refused to participate in most of their qualifying runs.

Game Mechanics:
Some NASCAR games got away with simply being about turning left and looking for openings. NASCAR The Game 2011 is the same way, but only to a degree. What I really like about this game is its emphasis on aerodynamics. Slipstreams are a stock car driver's best friends; though learning how to properly use them to your benefit takes time, it's easily the most rewarding part of NASCAR 2011. You see, when your car gets into position directly behind another vehicle, you enter a special area where wind resistance is dampened. If you stay in this zone for long enough, your car will start to gain momentum and you'll gain the opportunity to "slingshot." When the game lets you know you're ready to do this, it's usually best to wait until you're back in the chute before taking your chances. Cutting corners is a viable tactic for the lower difficulty settings, but players who do this aren't playing realistically and will probably have a less rewarding experience. Going from dead last to leader of the pack takes patience, but being able to pass five cars without trading any paint is a pretty sweet thrill. Unfortunately, it's one of the only thrills the game provides.

NASCAR 2011 severely fumbles the implementation of the caution flag -- a big no-no for a NASCAR game. When a hazard presents itself on a live track, the caution flag is supposed to wave, signaling the pack to follow a pace car until it's safe to return to racing speeds. In NASCAR 2011, the caution flag may fly under the flimsiest of pretexts. Additionally, instances that absolutely beg for a yellow flag don't always result in one being flown. It just doesn't make any sense.

So, NASCAR The Game 2011 isn't what it could have been. However, it doesn't necessarily have to be; there's nothing for this game to compete with (and possibly make it strive to be a better title). Here's hoping the franchise's next outing comes closer to fulfilling its potential.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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