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NASCAR Unleashed
Score: 50%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Firebrand Games Limited
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Racing (Arcade)

Graphics & Sound:
NASCAR Unleashed is a mixed bag; a series of contradictions which reduce the target market to a strange niche and, as far as I can tell, limits its possible appeal to gamers who feel the need to collect everything labeled with the NASCAR license.

Although it's a strange take on NASCAR, it is officially licensed and, to prove it, you'll get to play as your choice of fifteen of NASCAR's biggest drivers, including: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and others.

Most of the tracks in NASCAR Unleashed center on known, familiar NASCAR race tracks, but then tear off in other directions, taking the race through city streets and off road alike, over pavement, concrete, sand, dirt and glass, for an arcade-racing experience that is nothing you'd expect in NASCAR... but, perhaps, similar to something you might find in Ridge Racer. You'll race in (and, well, near...) Daytona International Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, as well as new tracks created for NASCAR Unleashed.

The sound effects were generally what you'd expect in an arcade racing game, with a lot of realistic engine sounds and crashes, and unrealistic special effects sounds. There's also some pumping rock music to keep the adrenaline flowing, but again, it's about what you'd expect.

The announcer in NASCAR Unleashed has a lot to say, and frequently eggs you on, as well as announcing the arrival of challenges. If you wipe out or fail to complete a challenge, however, the announcer will scold you and even bad mouth you, even though, based on the way he talks, it seems he's supposed to be your pit advisor.

And, if the announcer can be mildly annoying when playing a one player game (he can), he gets that much more annoying during two player games, since he has twice as much to say. The announcer isn't as annoying as the one from recent Ridge Racer games... but he comes close. Further, since he only announces that there is a new challenge (not what it is) and, since the two players don't get the same challenge or even get their challenges given to them at the same time, you will find that half the time you hear there's a new challenge and you look away from the track to see what the new challenge is - you'll find it's not even for you, but for the other guy. It would have been much better if they had made the challenges for the two player synched, in my opinion... especially if the announcer would actually tell you what that goal was so you didn't have to look over in the corner of the screen to find out.

At times, I was reminded of Ridge Racer, Burnout, Cruisin' and Stunt Drivin', but, often, not for the right reasons. The races are frantic arcade racing action, which is a good place to start, and matches the almost cartoon-esque look of the stock cars. Once you've smacked into a good number of cars, however, you'll find that the vehicles don't merely look messed up when they take damage; their control gets impaired. This leads to a car that pulls harder to one side than that shopping cart at the grocery store that you'll actually walk out into the parking lot to replace. The game is all about smacking the mess out of the other cars, but when you do, the effects fall short of the awesome carnage that you might see in Burnout. Lose control and you can find yourself taking a spill that makes the end-over-end girlfriend-losing wreck in Cruisin' look tame, but, if your car wasn't completely finished off, you get to try to drive away the remaining heap of a car, with the above mentioned mechanical problems. (Good luck with that.) There are certain areas in certain tracks that a road will ramp you up and sideways until you're driving on the side of a building... and you can come to almost a complete stop without tumbling down, but you can also stay vertical too long and fly off the edge of the return ramp, spiraling to your doom. You can also flip your car easily when taking a turn at high speed... which would be fine for a more realistic racing game, but a bit surprising - and frustrating - when playing an arcade racing game.

In addition to realistic NASCAR elements, such as specific, sponsored cars, the likenesses of actual NASCAR racecar drivers and NASCAR racing skills, such as drafting and "sling-shotting" around an opponent, there are other elements (besides merely leaving the tracks) that seem out of place in a NASCAR game, such as drifting (drifting?!) and intentionally smacking the hell out of environmental obstacles. I don't even understand the idea of equipping a racecar with tires to grip the track and then drifting with it, but I'm pretty sure that all of the racers in a NASCAR race are constantly attempting to avoid hitting any obstacles.

While it's fine to say that all of these different elements contradict each other, I would be the first to admit it if they worked out well together. Sadly, the contradictions merely confuse the gameplay and lead to a frustrating racing game that makes me long to play... other racing games.

There are three game types to choose from: Championship, Quick Race and Time Trials. Time Trials has you trying to make short work of a single lap on a race course. There are check points along the one and, at each one, you're awarded boost. You'll want to use up the boost from one checkpoint before hitting the next check point, or you'll miss out on precious boost. For a given track, you're given a time limit in which to complete a lap; bronze, silver and gold trophies are awarded for beating that time for the lap by specified numbers of seconds.

The multiplayer aspects of NASCAR Unleashed comes in the form of splitscreen two-player races and can be selected after selecting either Championship or Quick Race Mode by having a second player use a second controller. In Quick Race, this two player is called "Versus" - as you might expect. In Championship Mode, however, this two-player mode is referred to as "Co-op" play. This seemed strange, at first, since you can knock each other all over the track. However, since the game progress advances if either player wins, players in Championship Mode are, essentially, cooperating... at least to some degree.

If you find that you're having a hard time progressing through the game, enlist the assistance of a friend in Co-op Mode. If you or your friend places high enough to move to the next race, the next race still gets unlocked. Even if you and your friend find it difficult, you are at least removing one of the opponents from the game and giving yourself two opportunities for luck to be in your favor.

Everything you need to know about the basics of playing the game can be learned in the first race. From there, there are a variety of tracks, possibly a bit of strategy and some dumb luck between you and your progress through the game.

Try to complete challenges to earn boost, but bear in mind that hitting objects and other cars can slow you down, even though both of these are, at times, challenges that you might be tasked with. Also bear in mind that you will sometimes accidentally complete a challenge just in the process of trying to win the race. Whether the challenge is to destroy some obstacles, slam into other racers, move up a few places or make a new rival, I have managed to achieve challenges as soon as they were announced, at times, when I was hurtling toward that particular goal regardless of the challenge. If you really want to try to make good on some of those challenges, have a friend sit with you as a "spotter" and have them read the challenge to you when it appears. This helped me quite a bit when J.R. Nip started reading them out to me.

There are definitely skills to be built that will improve your performance, but there are a lot of factors working against you that you have to simply live with. One thing, in particular, is the loss of traction. You will want to practice dodging oil slicks, as these affect your traction for long after you've passed the oil slick, but you will also find it nearly impossible to get your vehicle to actually turn when racing on grass or sand. Try to learn the tracks and do the minimal amount of steering required on these types of terrain.

Game Mechanics:
While at first glance, NASCAR Unleashed looks like it's a NASCAR licensed arcade racer, this game feels like its fighting against itself, with conflicting goals and unlikely paired game mechanics.

The overarching goal is to win the race, but you're asked to not only employ NASCAR-esque skills, such as drafting and passing cars, but also un-NASCAR-esque skills, such as slamming the heck out of things, drifting and using nitrous boosts.

Racing is arcade-styled, but not as over-the-top as some arcade racers out there, and requires slamming into other cars and obstacles, but doesn't sport the over-the-top destruction that you would see in a game such as Burnout.

There are unlockables that are awarded after winning events, but they are strange, to say the least. There is a "Crazy Spoiler" option that adds spoilers to the players' cars. Not huge, over-the-top spoilers, just spoilers. Small, actually... but I guess it's crazy for a NASCAR to have a spoiler? There's also one called "Superfan" which I thought would be some sort of visible over-the-top enhancement to your car's cooling system, but, no... it's a jumbo, car-sized baseball cap for your car. Not only a bit ridiculous, it makes it difficult to see what's in front of you when playing in third-person view (as most players do) in single player, and pretty much impossible in splitscreen mode. Um, really? Okay...

I'm not the world's biggest proponent of online gameplay, preferring to play through story modes where I can, but it's hard to imagine having a racing game these days that doesn't support online multiplayer. It's also difficult to imagine a racing game that doesn't allow for modifying, painting and customizing your car, but it seems that NASCAR Unleashed is still tightly bound when it comes to straying from your living room or modifying your car.

These factors, together with a strange mix of arcade gameplay components and unforgiving damage-affected driving control, make NASCAR confusing and frustrating; it feels a bit like most decisions were made by compromise, leading to a final product that doesn't create a new genre, but rather feels, at times, like the worst of both worlds.

I don't really know who I would recommend NASCAR Unleashed to; NASCAR fans who staunchly defend the simple oval tracks are unlikely to see the "Unleashed" tracks in a positive light. Players looking for an arcade racer would be better off with a Ridge Racer game. Players looking for spectacular crashes would be better served with a copy of a Burnout game. As it is, NASCAR Unleashed has painted itself into a niche - and a small, hard to define niche, at that.

-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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