I’m no Dale North when it comes to my love of racing games, but that doesn't mean I don't fancy the occasional white-knuckle thrill ride. NASCAR games in the past have tended to be more about bumping and rubbing and making left turns rather than the adrenaline inducing action of say the Burnout series.
That changes this fall when NASCAR Unleashed crashes its way onto store shelves.
NASCAR Unleashed (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [Previewed], Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS)
Typically NASCAR games have stayed true to the sport by following the simulation path with real tracks, real drivers, and all the team sponsorships one could handle. Fans of NASCAR shouldn’t fear too much that their beloved pastime has been mangled though with this more lighthearted take on the sport.
Fifteen of NASCAR’s most prolific drivers lend their likenesses and cars complete with sponsors in Unleashed. Whether you favor the winner of the last five Sprint Cup Series championships Jimmie Johnson or up-and-comer Joey ‘Sliced Bread” Logano, you will have to save the debate of who’s the best for the tracks as each drivers car handles and performs the same. There is no advantage from whom you pick and even the unlockable upgrades acquired for each ride are merely cosmetic.
At it’s heart NASCAR Unleashed is about fast fun-filled racing, that encompasses the soul of NASCAR -- bumping and rubbing -- and the white-knuckle action of turbo boosting and car checking that made the Burnout series what it is today. It doesn’t need to get caught up in the semantics of car specs and customization to be a fully enjoyable racer, which is indicative by the games graphics. The car design feels slightly Pixar-esque and the bright and wild course designs will have fans who were expecting all left turns in for a treat.
Without the pressure of having to figure out who was the best driver, I chose what any gamer would drift towards. From the moment the first green flag waved, my Mountain Dew powered car bolted out like a caffeine fulled firecracker off the line. The controls strike a balance somewhere between Burnout and the classic Daytona USA, making powersliding into my first corner as natural as should be. The mechanics behind NASCAR Unleashed are easy to pick up and the constant action that unfolds throughout keeps the racing highly entertaining.
The key to winning is aggression and slipstreaming which builds turbo boosts for the all important tactical advantage. Drafting opponents is the safest way to acquire turbo, but the more tenacious will prefer slamming opponents off the track in the attempts to take the checkered flag. Checking the opposition comes with risks though. The rough bumping and rubbing will eventually accumulate damage on both you and your enemies, leading to one’s momentary demise and the release of some slick hazardous oil.
Spinning out of control from a wrecked racer is probably the lesser of two evils that comes from the dastardly defense. When the smoke clears the returned racer becomes your rival with desire to even the score. It’s sometime unavoidable to not create a few rivals during a race, with the aggressive nature of the A.I. and the often congested nature of the tracks. NASCAR Unleashed keeps the racing tight throughout do to some rubber banding. While I’m not a fan of this sort of design, I will say it keeps things interesting when you can go from first to last and vice versa all on the final lap.
The majority of the racing in NASCAR Unleashed takes place in its Championship mode. The path laid before, while not completely linear -- as it offers order selection and optional side events -- puts racers through six legendary tracks. Daytona International Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Homestead-Miami Speedway are just a few tracks that lay the foundation for some of the game's courses. While six tracks definitely falls on the short side, each available track offers multiple variants to help decrease the repetitiveness. One moment you’re hugging the walls of Talladega, the next you’re drifting through some beach chairs at Daytona.
Beyond the excitement of the race, NASCAR Unleashed keeps its virtual drivers busy with a progressive award system. Each race completed earns points that overtime unlock different aesthetic enhancements for each driver and car combo in the game. The higher placed finish, amount of drafting, and rivals created all add the points accumulated at the end of each race. There are also in-race challenges such as smashing a certain amount of road obstacles or completing “x” amount of drifts that further enhance ones score. It’s a nice dynamic that helps keep makes each race a little more than just finishing first.
Outside of Championship mode, a time trial and quick race mode can be selected to hone one’s skills on any given track. Seamless two-player support is as well accessible from any one of the race modes allowing heated competition amongst friends without the need to back out into another menu. I got a quick chance to test out the split screen multiplayer -- which unfortunately is the only form of multiplayer across all versions -- and the game played just as fast and smoothly as it did in single-player.
The lack of online multiplayer is perhaps my biggest concern for NASCAR Unleashed. The game will be budgeted at $40, but I’m not quite sure if that is cheap enough. My time was not long enough to pass final judgement on the game, but from what I gathered NASCAR Unleashed may be better served as a PSN and XBLA title. I’ll let the reviewers make the final call, because regardless of price NASCAR Unleashed is a fast and energetic ride that both hardcore and casual fans can like.