Feeling rather good about ourselves, we spent our Daytona winnings on a more powerful engine for our car, signed up a few new eager sponsors and got ready for the next round at Phoenix. We managed to get yet another pole position at Phoenix International Raceway before we were rudely and horribly brought back down to earth by the race that followed. Here's why: Unlike Daytona, where we basically lead from start to finish, at Phoenix we fell back into the pack fairly quickly, and then fell prey to the single worst part of the game... the caution flag.
While bumping and scraping paint are all par for the course in NASCAR The Game, the digital marshals pull out the yellow caution flags, essentially when any one of the cars actually spins on the track. That seems reasonable, until you understand that its far more common for this to happen during a yellow-flag restart, where the field is packed tightly together, than during any other part of the racing. (You'd think that the start of the race would have the same effect, but the annoying yellow flags seemed far less common at the start of races.)
We fell back into the pack fairly quickly, and then fell prey to the single worst part of the game... the caution flag.
During these frequent restarts, we tried every possible option to keep the race flowing: holding our spot in the field, aggressively trying to pass; even slowing down to let others by and secure some running room didn't help. We either were the cause of a crash, the target of an aggressive maneuver that resulted in a crash or simply a witness to two or more AI-controlled cars crashing themselves. Many times, this resulted in more laps being completed under yellow flag conditions than not.
Now, it could be that we're just so unskilled at the subtleties of NASCAR simulation that we were the root cause of all of the flags. But the net result no matter what we did – smarter and dumber AI, turning all of the driver assist setting all the way up and all the way down, changing our car setup ad nauseam – was that we were rarely able to race without enduring 10, 15 or even more caution flags per race. (And note that, only a few of these were the full 500-lap monsters of NASCAR reality, most of the time we'd select 10- or 20-percent of the real lap count to keep things moving along.) Even if the problem were just our bad driving (despite some 25-years of avid video game-racing experience, we might add), we would be forced to call these game mechanics and driving physics "unintuitive," – and we'd have to be feeling charitable with our adjectives to do so.
As we alluded to above, the promising online racing isn't much better, dynamically, than in Career Mode. Races benefit from being generally more open, with fewer racers to bump into one another, but the experience is still far from perfect. The smaller number of yellow flags is offset by long wait times to enter a race with a full field (ours ranged from five to ten minutes or so) and in-game glitching that saw cars "jumping" around the surface of the track when multiple-car interactions were happening.
Sadly, there's not much else to pull this wreck of a racer out of the fire, either. The graphical presentation is passable but disappointing – really only the cut scenes seem at all pretty. The damage modeling on the cars during a race is cartoony, the visual environment surrounding the racetrack itself is thin and pixilated, the cars feel weightless and unpredictable from one corner to the next and the schizophrenic music selection seems as though its been picked at random from the clearance bin at Target. (The score moves painfully from Pop to Metal to Young Country with foot-to-the-floor abandon.)
The guys that we "met" online, that first day of play, deserve better from the signature stock car title than NASCAR The Game: Inside Line has to offer. Hardcore NASCAR fans might find a little to love in this lackluster title – with a lot of patience – but more general racing gamers should look at other titles or wait for the next NASCAR game altogether.