NASCAR The Game: Inside Line Review
Historically, NASCAR console games have been one of the greatest stepping stones in the budding career of a sim racing enthusiast. Many drivers can recall countless hours spent fine-tuning their setups on NASCAR ‘99 for the original PlayStation, signing their first multimillion dollar sponsor on the legendary NASCAR Thunder 2004, or turning their daydreams into reality by purchasing a Nextel Cup team in NASCAR 07. While the occasional challenger appeared, offering innovating new career modes and racing series, EA’s long-running NASCAR franchise experienced both immense highs and devastating lows, going from critically acclaimed to universally hated in less than a decade. Incredibly detailed career modes were steadily phased out, extra tracks and game modes suddenly went missing, and by the final game in the series, NASCAR 09, even the four makes involved in the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup season did not appear in-game, in favor of a generic set of brand markings for all cars. It was a dark time, to say the least.
The exclusive rights to develop a NASCAR game for current generation consoles were given up by Electronic Arts in 2009 after intense fan backlash, and instead European developer team Eutechnyx was tasked with giving NASCAR games on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 a complete reboot. The unanimous shouts of “hallelujah” over the NASCAR license being awarded to an up-and-coming developer team were silenced when “NASCAR The Game 2011” was released and quickly gained a reputation as being one of the worst racing games in recent memory. Videos of poor online play and idiotic AI spread like wildfire, patches that promised to fixed several game-breaking flaws were delayed for months at a time and failed to fix ANY problems upon deployment, and developers were less than friendly on the game’s official forums, hiding behind excuses and arguing with a community that just wanted a good NASCAR game.
It seems that Eutechnyx bit off a bit more than they could chew with the NASCAR license, but two years and six patches later, “NASCAR The Game: Inside Line” is on store shelves, featuring the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, with the 2013 Generation Six cars coming soon for DLC. The horrible bugs and glitches of the previous game, in theory, should be behind us by now. Eutechnyx has had more than enough time to sort things out and give NASCAR fans a quality product that replicates the real deal on Sunday.
Inside Line boots up and immediately shoves the full NASCAR experience in your face. The intro videos, user interface, and overall feel of the front-end menus are breathtaking. This isn’t just a racing game featuring the 2012 Sprint Cup series, this IS NASCAR, the way it’s meant to be presented. Your main menu takes you on a tour of your very own Sprint Cup series garage, while trendy rock music plays in the background, and it’s all nicely done and flows very well. EA tried to do this in both NASCAR 08 and NASCAR 09, but nothing comes close to the authentic feel of being in the garage as “Inside Line’s” main menu does. Crew members walk around, trees sway in the wind outside… It’s really well done, and the art department was definitely going all-out on this one. They nailed it.
And like any good sim racer, after configuring your controls and other various options, the first logical step is to begin a test session at your favorite track. Nobody wants to jump in without a little seat time, right?
Immediately, it’s apparent that the art department stepped up their game for more than just the front-end. While HDR and other visual tricks can look great if they’re done tastefully, NASCAR 2011 had an incredibly annoying and distracting shiny brown tint to every single environment. “Inside Line” uses a much more natural color pallet that gives every single track a delightfully realistic look. Motion blur has been drastically reduced, and even little effects such as pieces of debris flying past the roof camera have been faithfully replicated without being obnoxiously overdone. Both tracks, as well as the cars that drive on them, are incredibly detailed and on par with any other mainstream racing game on the market today, occasionally surpassing them. With this console generation slowly coming to an end, seeing a game that looks THIS good in motion reminds us how powerful these consoles really are. This combination of both highly detailed objects and post processing effects is a real treat to see, and it’s great that the developers have added a photo mode to capture some of your finer in-game moments.
“Inside Line” also drives pretty well.
Translating the nuances of driving a 900 horsepower American stock car into an experience manageable with your standard Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 controller is no easy task, but “Inside Line’s” driving model is surprisingly approachable. I have an insane amount of experience with both iRacing & NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, and “Inside Line” felt right at home. Cars are maneuverable and able to run multiple grooves without much trouble, and respond incredibly well to a wide variety of racing lines on the more complex ovals such as Dover and New Hampshire. The large selection of viewpoints allows everyone to drive in a position they’re comfortable with, the highlight being TWO roof cameras, and a separate cockpit view sans-steering wheel intended for racers driving with a physical wheel instead of a controller. Tires heat up and cool down at the appropriate times, and the car responds accordingly to the varying grip levels. The cars are completely manageable with a standard controller, while still retaining all of the common stock car characteristics: heavy, unstable, and powerful. They are not a complete cake-walk to drive, but anyone with previous oval racing experience in a number of different PC sims will feel a great sense of familiarity when running laps in “Inside Line,” even with a standard controller.
Yet, just when “Inside Line” begins to look promising, with stellar visuals and a driving model that adequately simulates American stock cars within the restrictions of a common game controller, “Inside Line” spectacularly falls apart.
The first sign of things going haywire is within qualifying. At launch, the game failed to grid you accordingly, and a stellar fifth place qualifying effort could start you anywhere from on the pole, to at the back of the pack. While this glitch has since been fixed, in return, qualifying is now dreadfully easy, even with the default setups. It takes almost zero effort to qualify on pole, and this brings us to our first fundamental problem with NASCAR The Game: Inside Line.
The lack of artificial “intelligence.”
“Inside Line” has AI that is beyond awful, and there’s just no sugar-coating it. AI cars brake-check heavily at seemingly random times, no matter what track or difficulty setting is selected. This, in short, is aggravating, and makes offline racing a complete and utter chore. Simply put, the AI drivers do NOT put up any fight, and anyone with even the least bit of skill can drive circles around them without much effort. On top of that, the driving lines the AI use are downright terrible, often separating into two specific “snakes”, with one half of the field running right along the apron, and the other half of the field running right by the wall, allowing you to easily shoot through the middle on any track where the middle groove is effective. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the AI was constantly swapping spots back and forth with each other, but AI cars are almost reluctant to make passes on each other, even when approaching a lapped car, opting to stay in a perfect single-file line. On both Superspeedways, arguably the most popular tracks in NASCAR games when it comes to fun factor, the AI brake-checking ruins all sense of immersion and constantly breaks up the giant packs you’re used to seeing on TV. It is also very odd to see drivers have no tangible skill level difference, as back-markers such as Danica Patrick and Dave Blaney will be mixing it up among the top ten, while eventual cup champion Brad Keselowski fights it out for 42nd place. The only passing resemblance the AI has when compared to real drivers is their inability to dodge wrecks adequately, opting to instead plow into several cars to create Hollywood-like crash scenes.
Not only does the AI fail to replicate the type of racing only seen in NASCAR, they also have their own set of basic coding issues that seem absurd in the year 2013. AI cars in “Inside Line” just cannot execute a pit-stop properly, opting to either pile into each other upon entry into pit lane, or spin wildly out of control upon exit & create massive track-blocking wrecks that all other AI cars slam into without hesitation. On some tracks, regardless of tire wear settings or race length, AI cars will pit every five laps, for no particular reason. No matter what race lengths you run, or what tire wear setting you select, offline races are often frustrating due to the AI’s inability to hold their composure for more than a lap before displaying some sort of bug that renders them uncompetitive to anyone who’s played a previous NASCAR game.
In other racing games, basic AI issues like this can be combated by increasing the raw speed of the AI in a quick title update, but because Stock Car oval racing has such a specific and unique personality, the experience is completely ruined with unrealistic AI behavior. Racing against drivers that suddenly slam on the brakes, give you massive gaps to pass several cars at a time, and are totally unable to pass lapped cars or execute simple pit-stops, is horrible and in no way an “authentic NASCAR experience” that Eutechnyx has been advertising.
I would have loved to have go into detail about the Career, Season, and Challenge modes offered, breaking them down and explaining what I liked and didn’t like, but the truth is, I wasn’t able to tolerate any offline race for more than a few laps, because the AI is dreadful and offers no challenge whatsoever, even on the hardest difficulty with all assists off. It’s very disappointing remembering how in the early 2000’s, we were all excited to see what the future would bring for NASCAR career modes, and instead being offered something so bland and uninspired when we finally got there.
Fortunately for us, in the year 2013, online racing is a quick and painless alternative to the drawl of racing against robotic computer opponents, and while “Inside Line” could have easily capitalized on this, once again we are treated to a game that will spawn nothing but YouTube compilations of crazy glitches and frustrated drivers. “Inside Line” has the WORST online racing you can find on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, featuring an abundance of glitches that make you question whether Eutechnyx truly tested their game before release.
No company should release an online game in this sort of condition, period. Words cannot express how bad the online experience is.
Cars levitate, sink into the ground, and flip wildly out of place, giving other users no clear indication of where others are on the track. Collision detection is wildly inaccurate, making passing, drafting, and close racing in general, impossible, as someone is always on the receiving end of a netcode shunt that sends them into the wall and ends their race. Cars spawn upside down on the grid, are shot ahead at twice the speed of sound, or ping-pong off every other car in the field after being brought to a sudden stop for no apparent reason. Sometimes, one or two cars in the lobby will be uncontrollably loose the moment the green flag drops, with no way to adjust this during pitstops. If a yellow flag comes out, half of the field is immediately kicked out of the game and sent to the main menu. The matchmaking system flat-out doesn’t work, putting you in lobbies with races that have already started, and booting users for no explainable reason when the next race finally starts, ten minutes later.
This is considered a “normal” online experience in “Inside Line.”
On the off-chance that you manage to get in a small private lobby with five other players, netcode shunts are still prevalent, to the point that most online “Inside Line” leagues have closed up shop and moved to alternatives such as iRacing or NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. There is just no point in even attempting to play this game online.
Offline, “Inside Line” presents no challenge, and online, it is impossible to get any sort of adequate race going without running into a number of show-stopping issues that completely ruin the experience. Personally, I would love to dig deeper into every single issue plaguing “Inside Line,” because there are a lot, and it’s shocking how a company can release a fully priced game in such a state, but the two main faults that completely ruin the game are the lackluster AI, and broken online functionality. Every other issue, which you can read about on “Inside Line’s” official forums in detail, is just salt on the wound. Setups don’t save properly. Simple statistics such as player lap times are incorrectly calculated. Track names are spelled wrong. Overheating in the draft at Superspeedways doesn’t damage the engine at all. Three laps are run during a green-white-checkered finish instead of two. The list of bugs after TWO patches is never-ending and often comical; this game should have never made it to store shelves in this state. No NASCAR game has ever gotten into the hands of customers with this many issues, dating all the way back to a time when Windows 95 was considered “revolutionary.”
Venturing onto the official forums, however, it’s easy to see why.
Developers actively come on the forums to argue with users who speak negatively about the game, taunt other developers of more successful racing titles about a failed title update, or brag about working on a game unrelated to “Inside Line”, despite telling loyal members only a day earlier that they were “hard at work” on fixing issues in NASCAR. Users with genuine complaints or bugs are promptly banned or called “trolls” by the moderation team, and silenced before they are able to make any further critical comments on the game. Preview videos feature developer’s purposely “sand-bagging” races against the AI to make the game appear more challenging than it actually is, and several topics exist primarily to post YouTube videos of crazy online glitches. There are also your stereotypical younger users, who have never played a NASCAR game before “Inside Line” and praise the developer team while calling everyone else names and making excuses for glitches that should not exist in a game that spent two years in development. Truth be told, browsing the official “Inside Line” message board is actually MORE entertaining than physically playing “Inside Line,” as it’s a grim reminder as to the kind of people your money is going towards supporting should you actually buy “Inside Line.”
It would have been nice to talk about how awesome and intuitive the paint booth is, or how it was nice to see NASCAR Thunder’s “Lightning Challenge” mode return under a different name, but where it actually counts; “Inside Line” has reached a new low for not just NASCAR games, but racing games in general. This is a game that by all means should NOT have reached store shelves in its current state, and NASCAR fans might be waiting quite a while for a faithful representation of their beloved motorsport. “Inside Line” is full of countless issues that completely destroy any chance of the game being worth playing, and is my personal candidate for worst racing game ever released this generation.
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