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NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona
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Monster Games, Inc.
DVD Media Title
ESRB Rating Everyone
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Over the past couple of years Electronic Arts and its best internal development team, Tiburon (“NCAA Football,” “Madden,” etc.), firmly established the “NASCAR Thunder” franchise as a mainstream racing series across all next-generation platforms. Previous “NASCAR” games on PSOne and PlayStation 2 sold well on name recognition alone, but last year’s “NASCAR Thunder 2002” and this year’s improved “NASCAR Thunder 2003” made fans out of even jaded gamers like yours truly. This would be bad news for Monsters Games, Inc., the developer of “NASCAR Heat 2002” (PS2, XBox) and the primary source of inspiration for Tiburon’s Lightning Challenges in “Thunder 2003,” if its latest NASCAR simulator were just a rehashed version of the same game from a year ago. Fortunately for publisher Infogrames, hardcore NASCAR fans that think the “Thunder” series has gone soft on realism and make-believe internet videogame journalists like myself, “NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona” makes a valiant attempt at positioning itself as a worthy alternative to EA’s “Thunder” series.

Going for realism and licensed authenticity over flashy visuals and arcadey physics, “Dirt to Daytona’s” depth is comparable to that of a “Gran Turismo” or “F1” title. Career mode is the heart and soul of the experience, with players being asked to create a driver that will have an office to attend to. Then it’s off to the dirt tracks of the NASCAR Weekly Racing series to make a name for yourself, followed by stints at the Featherlite Modified series and the Craftsman Truck league. Think of these as NASCAR’s equivalents of the high school, college and minor league systems of baseball, where young rookie talent is weeded out until only the best (and the luckiest) get drafted to be on the show. In “Dirt to Daytona’s” case, the show is the NASCAR Winston Cup series races that NBC, TNT and Fox televise every week. As your on-screen alter ego develops a reputation and a widening purse of profits, his amount of responsibilities and things to keep track at the office increase exponentially.

Staff (pit crew, chassis builder), parts (close to 100 of ‘em) and a garage are all expensive things to support, which is where the careful cultivating and placement of sponsors comes into play. Being good at one NASCAR series, as I found out the hard way when moving up from the Featherlite Modified to the Craftsman Truck league, doesn’t mean squat; the whole risk-vs.-reward management of resources and wooing of sponsors has to start all over again. I had never thought much about how important the placement of advertisements on a NASCAR vehicle is, but “Dirt to Daytona” thrives in making you think long and hard about how to squeeze as much profit from your car’s hood as possible. The better one performs the better one’s finances (and sponsor attractiveness) become, which means access to the resources to hire better pit crews and purchase the more powerful engines. Engines needed to compete against the likes of Jeff Gordon, Ken Schrader, Rusty Wallace, etc. (although many real-life NASCAR drivers that appear in the “Thunder” series are MIA from this game).

The tedious nature and long-term commitment that “Dirt to Daytona” demands from those that take on Career mode (which can span as long as 30 seasons!) aren’t meant for every PS2 gamer though. “Thunder 2003,” with its simplified controls and relative ease of play, are better suited for non-NASCAR fans that just want to blow steam and watch pretty pictures while racing. The inclusion of Multiplayer and Quick Race modes, along with a league-specific Championship mode (in which advertisements and the other three series don’t factor into the equation), give a breather and something else to do besides being frustrated for not coming ahead when the checkered flag is waived. If NASCAR is near and dear to your heart then congratulations. Monster Games has indeed coded a monster of a simulation that lives up to its namesake. One that, thankfully, also looks/controls/sounds as good and as deep as it plays.

score 7
(out of ten)
very good
image gallery

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As good (if not better) than the solid physics from last year’s “NASCAR Heat 2002” game, “Dirt to Daytona” makes a virtue out of not forcing those that don’t want to into upgrading their cars. Dozens of potential variables (gear ratio, tire inflation, shock speed, etc.) and lots of individual parts can be purchased with one’s virtual purse, all affecting the handling of the NASCAR vehicle at hand in perceptible ways. But even without upgrades (which are still recommended for maximum performance feedback), the analog responsiveness and realism of the controls makes this as user-friendly a NASCAR racing experience as “Thunder 2003.”

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The one obvious advantage that “Dirt to Daytona’s” engine has over “NASCAR Thunder 2003” is the ability to accommodate up to four players simultaneously on a split-screen display that retains a playable (though somewhat compromised) frame-rate and draw-in distance. Finally Mom, Dad and up to two kids (assuming there are NASCAR-loving families across the nation) can race against each other for virtual NASCAR supremacy. “Dirt to Daytona” looks best when it’s played by one or two players though. This allows the game’s frame-rate and resolution to match its developer’s attempt at creating a game that looks like what the new TNN Network (or your regional cable TV sports channel of choice) airs on an average weekend afternoon.

The cars, tracks and truckloads of advertisements in “Dirt to Daytona” don’t look as glossy and stylized as in EA’s games, which is either a turn-on or turn-off depending on where you come from. Since I’m a wannabe Yankee East Coaster living in the heart of Gotham (that’s Manhattan for those of you reading this in Peoria) that isn’t into NASCAR at all, the Tiburon school of colorful textures and smooth surfaces is the one that appeals to me the most. That said, the muted colors and rough surfaces over which the different models of NASCAR vehicles (many more than in “Thunder 2003”) race look more life-like and realistic on Monster Games’ engine. Though slowdown creeps into the scene periodically (in both single-player and multiplayer modes) this is a good-looking game, with skid marks left on the ground and clouds of color-coordinated dirt or smake. Shattered, deformed and visibly bent car models accumulating damage as a race goes on are also neat PS2-worthy highlights.

Like its gameplay, the visual appeal of “Dirt to Daytona’s” graphics will surely depend on whether the player(s) holding the Dual Shock 2 controller(s) think(s) NASCAR racing is cool or just an endless series of boring circles around an oval-shaped track.

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As with the graphics, “Dirt to Daytona” does a commendable but not particularly memorable job bringing to auditory life the sounds of NASCAR. Engine throttles are only different between leagues and not between individual vehicles (they’re all meaty roar emitters though), tires screech on the pavement, cars collide with clear metal-against-metal-or-pavement sounds, etc. Workmanlike stuff all around.

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score 7
(out of ten)
Hardcore NASCAR followers and simulation freaks will be well advised to rent or give serious purchase consideration to “Dirt to Daytona.” Infogrames’ title lacks a few licensed riders and doesn’t have EA-caliber production values. The game more than compensates for those shortcomings with an authentic feel for what its like to advance from the sport’s grueling rags (the Weekly Racing series) to its elite riches (the Winston Cup series). A close call, but in the end yours truly would rather park his limited NASCAR interest in Tiburon’s garage than Monster Games’.

(12312002)- by - J.M. Vargas


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