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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


NASCAR 09 (Playstation 3)

EA's NASCAR 09 brings the excitement of professional racing to the Playstation 3 with a complete lineup of officially licensed vehicles, drivers and, tracks. Players can race in several official seasons including a new Chase for the Cup mode, where you can build up an unknown racer into a champion. For novice players, there are two modes of controls, and an extensive tutorial section where Jeff Gordon shows you the inside moves. These features give the game a lot of polish and depth, making NASCAR 09 a solid title that delivers the excitement and intensity of professional racing.

With NASCAR 09, EA has improved the series with the casual gamer in mind. While there are some tweaks under the hood, most of the game's new features are aimed at the less hardcore players. This is somewhat understandable since the glut of hardcore racing sims on the market has that area covered. Instead, the game focuses on giving the NASCAR audience a game that's accessible, yet offers the challenge and excitement without becoming overly complex. To that end, the game provides two basic modes of play: Standard and Pro. The difference between these lies in how the controls are set. In standard mode, things are much less complicated and the game offers more forgiving controls but fewer car customization options. On the other hand, the Pro mode allows you to go deeper under the hood and creates a much deeper challenge with more complicated controls and more options. These modes allow NASCAR 09 to have it both ways, aiming for both the simulation and casual racing fans. What this means is that NASCAR aims for, and succeeds at is giving the broader NASCAR audience an opportunity to race as their favorite drivers on the famous courses such as Daytona and Talladega without spending hours learning the controls while those who want more detail are given that choice if they want it as well. All of the famous drivers and their cars are here, with the likes of Kyle Bush, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to name a few of the better known names. Each driver's unique sponsored vehicle and paint job has been faithfully recreated in the new game, which adds to its authenticity. Once you've selected your vehicle and driver, you can choose which mode to play. You can choose to play a single race, or play a complete race weekend where you can practice, run a qualifying race and then move on to the main event. Players can also choose to participate in a full season race with their favorite driver or go online and challenge opponents to race, which helps to earn reputation in other modes as well. NASCAR 09's basic modes are fairly simple to understand and largely unchanged from last year's installment, but there are some cool new features which help to extend its longevity.

The gameplay itself is fairly intense and reflects the strategy and velocity of a NASCAR race. One of the key things you have to worry about during the game is when to pit, since this can make the difference between winning and losing. For example, you can choose to pit early, but you might run out of steam early - on the other hand, you can pit too late and cost yourself valuable time. This is one of the key differences between a NASCAR title and other games. The driver AI is fairly smart and the other racers will take advantage of any mistakes you make, so you'll have to keep your eyes out behind your car and make sure you don't give your opponents the opportunity to pass you from the either side of your vehicle. They'll sneak up on you and take the outside corner if you give them enough space, so you have to keep blocking them throughout. Another key element comes when there's contact between vehicles or a crash. This sets up a caution mode where all the cars are required to stay in formation. You can choose to pit during these race pauses, but you'll be sent to the back of the pack if you do, which is another strategic decision you'll have to make. The single-player game is fairly challenging and intense, but NASCAR 09 delivers more than this as well.

Obviously, playing online gives you the opportunity to test your skills against the best players around the world. The game's set-up and customization options allow you to get up and running in no time while also giving you the chance to create a unique identity online. Navigating the menus, setting up games and playing is a fairly simple task and once online, the game doesn't suffer from lag or drop-outs, which makes for a somewhat seamless experience. NASCAR 09's other major addition this time around is the inclusion of a new Chase for the Nextel Cup mode. In this mode, players can create a novice driver from scratch and build them up through the rankings by competing in races against other drivers. As an unknown, you start off near the bottom with limited sponsor and team choices. You need a contract to begin your career, and these have expectations, such as finishing races and qualifying positions that you need to beat in order to win. If you live up to the conditions, your character will advance in the rankings, earning better racing teams and richer sponsors. Fail to live up to expectations, and you'll find yourself out of contention quickly. It's a fun role-playing style mode that adds some depth to the game and gives you a few additional things to worry about between races, though it's not overwhelming.

NASCAR 09's presentation is fairly interesting, with some impressive 3D menus which allow you to go through your team garage in real-time which helps to immerse you into the action. The game's extensive customization options allow you to create your own car and give yourself a unique identity, which is a fairly cool feature. Once you're ready to race, you can see a brief overview of the action narrated by Rusty Wallace, which also gives you techniques and tips for the race itself. NASCAR 09's graphics engine is fairly decent with nicely rendered tracks and a good, consistent frame-rate throughout that makes for some intense action. Its car models look great as well, which shiny, reflective paint glowing in the night races. There are several camera angles including out of the car, first person and in the cockpit modes if you want to really get inside the action. You can also choose from a variety of soundtracks, mostly country rock that accompanies each race. During the race, your pit-leader will contact you and let you know what the other cars are up to. All of these elements combine to make a polished, authentic title that should please racing fans from at least an aesthetic standpoint.

While there have been some tweaks and adjustments made in NASCAR 09, this installment doesn't offer too many surprises. There are some good ideas, such as using Jeff Gordon to teach you the ropes, which is nicely presented and implemented. Using both an easy and pro control mode allows players to either jump right into the action or go slow as they master the nuances of NASCAR driving. Since you can run a practice lap and see which mode is right for you, it has the added benefit of making the game appealing for players of different abilities. The game's controls are decent, though the experience benefits immensely if you use one of the supported steering wheels. Depending on which mode you select, NASCAR 09's AI allows for some surprisingly aggressive opponents, and the strategic pit elements only add to the challenge. From a visual standpoint, while its graphics engine feels quite similar to last year's edition, it's still a sharp looking title that features some impressive lighting effects, with the night and dusk races offering some very cool effects. While it represents more an evolution that a revolution for the series, NASCAR 09 delivers some significant changes and improvements from last year's edition. It exceeds expectations because it delivers a solidly entertaining and challenging racing experience that effectively brings the thrills and excitement of professional racing home in a slick, easy-to-play package.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B

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