Despite being a racing fan, NASCAR is the series that I follow the least. That said, I do follow the Sprint Cup series but I just don’t sit down to watch full races like I might do with IndyCar and F1. I love the character that many of the drivers bring to the series and I appreciate the nuances of running a not-so-stock car around a track at over 180 MPH. That’s not to say that I’m an expert at all of the techniques employed in NASCAR but I’m fan enough to appreciate what the sport has to offer. Over the past week, I had a chance to sit down with the latest NASCAR game to hit the Xbox 360. While I did find the game challenging, NASCAR The Game: Inside Line is certainly a fun little racing experience.
Inside Line has the typical range of game modes you would expect from a sports game. You can jump into a race, play a single season, play just the Chase for the Sprint Cup (essentially NASCAR’s playoffs), various challenges including head-to-head races, time trials and the core career experience. It is a pretty standard set of choices compared to other yearly sports game releases but it is always nice to have a choice. Hard core fans are likely to spend the bulk of their time in Career mode. It is pretty typical sports game stuff in this mode. You begin your career as an up and coming driver and through races and seasons you build up credibility and sponsorship until you are number one. All 23 tracks from the 2012 NASCAR season are in the game and I like the fact that you can dig as deep as you want. You can race weekends with full practice and qualifying sessions or you can skip the parts you want for a quicker overall experience.
Further to the Career mode there is a Challenge mode where players can recreate notable moments in NASCAR history or race in head-to-head challenges against NASCAR drivers. This mode is certainly built for fans of the NASCAR history and offers a nice diversion from Career play.
A lot of people think that NASCAR is nothing more than a bunch of left turns. There’s so much more depth to the sport than that. Racing two and three wide in a pack of over forty other cars on tracks with banking’s of over 30 degrees presents an entirely unique challenge compared to other racing games. In a game like this where you are doing 180+ MPH with multiple grooves through turns control is key even without the other cars in close proximity. The controls are good though and I hit a good sweet spot between being responsive but not overly twitchy. To be fast and safe in a pack you need to be precise but in a more gradual way than say than being an accurate shot in a shooter like Halo or Call of Duty.
There is little room for error when racing in a pack. That is where my biggest challenge came from in playing Inside Line. When racing on an open track or against just a few cars I’m just fine. In fact, even in the early career races on medium difficulty I was able to easily put my car on pole and create insurmountable leads in just a 20 lap race. However, put me amongst the field and my inexperience with NASCAR shows. I was the cause of many accidents. This might frustrate casual players. As I mentioned earlier, you might be turning left a lot but there is so much more going on when racing in close quarters where you will have your hands full. This isn’t a criticism of the game as much as it is an observation. Casual players would be well served to watch some of the tutorial videos you can find online that outline techniques as bump drafting and such.
With support for up to 16 players online, multiplayer can be a real blast if you’ve got a room full of people prepared to play the game the right way. Yellow flags can pop up a lot and hurt the flow of online races but I suspect this won’t be much of an issue since this game will likely attract the more passionate NASCAR fans. Online games offer a good amount of customization as well.
There’s both good and bad in terms of how Inside Line presents itself visually. The cars themselves aren’t on par with Forza but don’t look bad by any means. Car damage is good and parts completely loosened from cars persist on the track. Trackside detail is a little lacking but since your focus is generally on the track ahead it is a minor issue at best. There are plenty of views to choose from including third-person, two dash views, a hood view and a bumper view. In both of the in-car views many of the textures become noticeably lower, especially on the track itself. I haven’t seen this sort of thing since the first NASCAR game that was released for PS2. I am assuming this is done to keep the frame rate solid. I desperately wanted to use the in-car view that is close to the dashboard. It is fantastic but I ultimately used the hood view the most because I got a better sense of overall speed without any compromised to the fidelity of the textures in game.
There are some very good camera angles for replays. Most racing games tend to focus too closely on specific cars (I’m looking squarely in your direction Forza) but here the replays are broadcast quality in their perspective. The particle effects like sparks and smoke are a little lacking but big pileups still look pretty decent.
The soundtrack in Inside Line is fittingly a mixture of country and southern bluesy-based rock. I’m no fan of country music but it all fits well with the source material. I play the bulk of my games wearing a pair of Tritton 7.1 surround headphones. I’ve used them for a while now and have never had any distortion. However, in this game when the car is idling or at low revs it sounds terrible and distorted, even at low volumes. Once you get up to speed, the roar of your engine sounds great.
On a more positive note the directional surround sound is very good. While there is an on-screen radar to show you where other cars are in relation to you, there’s good spatial representation of them if you have a decent surround setup. There is also plenty of dialogue in the game including a lot of radio chatter from your crew chief and track spotters. The presentation is complemented by Fox Sports broadcasters Mike Joy and Darryl Waltrip doing commentary which adds to the authenticity.
There is a subtlety to the sport of NASCAR than many casual folks will overlook and Inside Line demonstrates a lot of these well. NASCAR fans should eat this one up but it might be a little too much for the casual racer. If you are up for a challenge and are willing to spend the time to dig deep into what the Career mode has to offer, Inside Line is an enjoyable experience.