As I’m sure you have heard by now, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season will be Papyrus’ final NASCAR Racing game and I couldn’t be more excited, overjoyed, and disappointed at the same time than I am right now. I’m excited to have a chance to play the latest version in the long running series, I’m overjoyed that the game turned out so very well, and I’m disappointed that we won’t be getting a follow up next year, but it is best to leave the series on a high note, rather than have it sink into the bowels of video game fandom, a la Tomb Raider.
NASCAR 2003 puts you into the driver’s seat in a field of 42 other competitors, all with one goal, to be crowned the Winston Cup Champion and take home the trophy and the glory at the end of the season. Opening up in Daytona Beach, Florida for racing’s biggest event you make your way through dozens of events on short, long, and road courses to earn points in a variety of different ways. Chances are, if you are reading this review, you already know the mechanics (no pun intended) of NASCAR and how it works. Papyrus was sure to appease fans of the series by including vastly detailed replicas of the organization’s tracks and teams and the succeeded with flying colors as every team is represented, and every track is included.
The graphics engine driving 2003 Season has been improved over last year, even though it may not seem possible. Added this time around is reflective mapping on the cars and surrounding environment. What this means is on a bright, sunny day, you will get a reflection of the environment on your car’s body and windows giving that added bit of extra life-like appeal. If you have ever played Beetle Adventure Racing (N64) you know what I’m talking about. As always, the damage modeling is top notch showing anything from a minor hit to your rear quarter panel or a massive front end collision that sends your car reeling across the track into the grass.
The infamous Papyrus physics returns with even more added improvements. Cars now respond to bumps and differences in the track texture and reflect the punishment the vehicle and driver take while racing. You don’t notice it as much when watching the race on TV, but, apparently, these tracks aren’t as smooth as we would like to think. Of course this doesn’t play too much into the gaming experience if you use the overhead camera view (which I mainly use) instead of the in-car perspective. Contributing to the physics of the game, your car now more accurately portrays the drift, even when driving down a straightaway. My first race I thought my gamepad was broken, which would be my luck these days, but as it turns out, from reading a number of other previews and early reviews of the game, the cars are set up to reflect this drift. Racing at Daytona became a battle between me and the car as I fought to keep the car going in a straight line and not hitting the other cars who decided to perch in the groove below me. Luckily, for novice players, the amount of drift on the cars can be configured to allow easier steering. Until you really get the hang of it, it is best to keep these setting on low to get a few miles under your belt before attempting anything more.
Again, as with previous versions, NASCAR Racing 2003 offers you a wealth of options to configure every bit of your car, from the amount of wedge, to the tire pressure, you have a full pallet of options to play with in order for you to obtain the perfect racing machine. One of the non-technical options is the ability for the AI to adapt to your play style. In order to make the game more appealing for novice users, something the series has struggled with, Papyrus included a gauge that allows the computer controlled drivers to latch on to your ability and make themselves harder or easier depending on how well you play. The main problem with this is the percentage rating (starting at 70% difficulty) will not always be consistent, leading to moments of extreme pressure with computer controlled vehicles breathing down your exhaust pipes, and other times when you will have half the track to yourself. This addition does up the competition level a bit, whereas NASCAR 4 and NASCAR Racing 2002 Season would allow you to pull away and lap the entire pack multiple times during a long enough race.
Sound is the part of the game that I felt could have used some more work. The engines and roar of these 800 horse power machines sound authentic, but the voice work is laughable at best. It was nice to see Papyrus try to include some much needed light-hearted humor into the game, like the Grand Marshal not being so sure his “Gentlemen star your engines” was good enough, but the voices sound so poorly recorded, it just contrasts on the generally high production values of the rest of the game. The work is no where near as bad as some other games, where a simple one liner will get you buy, but Racing 2003 could have stood to use some new samples other than the voice clips recycled from last year’s game.
The biggest problem with the series is still evident in a big way, and that would be the choppy frame rates for people trying to run all of the bells and whistles. While it is never recommended to bump all of the options up to full blast, even those with moderately high systems, will still experience frame rates dropping into the lower teens, and sometimes single digits if they don’t play their cards right. All of this can be alleviated by investing several hundred dollars to upgrade your system, but many casual gamers don’t want to spend that kind of money on equipment. The up side to this means that with the increase in computer technology and speed, NASCAR Racing 2003 will be able to run on your system for years to come, and look even better with each progressing upgrade because you now have a rig to support those features you were previously left in the dark on.
Multiplayer is the standard fare lifted from NASCAR 4. You are plopped into a field of cars and are given the task of finishing first and improving your online rating. Unfortunately, these races become more of a destruction derby where just surviving with a running car is an accomplishment all its own. If you are able to race against people who actually want to race, you will have a much better time than a ten year old going backwards around the track playing chicken with the entire field.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season features so many options and such a long life that to not recommend it would be a crime. Papyrus has done an excellent job creating, what will surely be one of the greatest racing games released on the PC ever. These guys know how to craft a game that can be so in-depth it should be overwhelming, but a classical interface and thoroughly explained options make it hard to get lost. With the added improvements to the physics engine, graphics, and newbie support, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season leads the series out on a high note as it rounds turn 4 at 180mph to take the checkered flag. And to Papyrus: thank you for an amazing series of games that raised the bar considerably higher for anyone who chooses to follow in your footsteps your additions to the series will be sorely missed.