reviews\ Oct 1, 2002 at 8:00 pm

NASCAR Thunder 2003 - PS2 - Review

NASCAR is the world of endless left turns, which seems like it would be pretty easy to make a game based around it and difficult to make improvements enough to warrant buying the one that comes out “next year”. Here lately, they’ve been good, but not much has changed overall in the different versions that come out year after year … which is what I expected from 2003 up front. Thunder 2003 definitely proved me WAY wrong, and I really was amazed at how different this one really is. NASCAR 98 got me into watching NASCAR, and this one is the type of game to get new racing players into watching it religiously as well.


As for similarities … all the tracks and drivers are back once again this year, including some newcomers like Shawna Robinson, bringing the total to 50. It has the quick race, career and season modes, complete with the “Create your own car” mode from last year. All of the race options are there and intact, like damage on or off, AI difficulty, and braking / stabilizing assistance. Good gameplay, decent graphics, and good sound are back again as well … but this game has a lot of differences which not only make it unique, but set a new standard for what defines a good from a spectacular racing game. Read on, NASCAR fan.


First off, EA made this an EXTREMELY realistic version which requires skill and strategy rather than just speed and luck. Anyone who has played any of the previous NASCAR titles knows that most of the time you will go smashing and bashing your way around the track, since a button press will fix your car right up and have it as good as new once more. Not this time. Smashing up the car in 2003 not only causes severe speed and performance drop, but repairs are only partial. Sitting an extra 5 seconds in pit road for a damage repair only takes it from danger to caution, and a couple of shots will have it right back in the condition it was in. Now it can be just as important to just decrease speed when in the pack to avoid a collision, or you may find yourself completely out of the race. That’s right … no more “on the fly” quick fixes either. The AI is not immune to mistakes however, like they have been, and one wrong move from them can cause some ugly pileups and knock them out of the race just as fast as you can.


Now, in order to get good, you’re gonna need practice. Two other really different and really fun things that have been added in come in the form of two new race modes which upon completion, earn what are called “Thunder Plates” to unlock new sponsors, cars, tracks, and paint schemes.  The first is Lightning Challenge, which puts you into one of the memorable NASCAR moments of recent times. Basically, the driver who was involved will explain the scenario in a movie (“I was 3 cars back and got in front of the leader, just as a yellow flag went out which I rode to the finish line” for example), at which time EA painstakingly re-created the moment and you get into the driver’s seat to see if you too can make it happen. The second is the Thunder License mode, which gives you driving instructions by top drivers like Richard Petty and Dale Jarrett, who not only show you the best way around each track, but also challenge you to obtain a certain time score at the finish line. It sounds easy … but trust me, it’s not. Each one is very challenging, but will keep you coming back for more.


Oh … back to the realism thing for a moment. In past NASCAR titles in the past couple of years, pit crews and car upgrades are there. Improvements have come in the form of spending more money to upgrade their levels, which increases performance. NASCAR Thunder 2003 again WAY overshot my expectations by making it very detailed and realistic on how your car and pit crew will improve. Gone are the days of paying a set amount and it just “happens”. Now, you must hire each team member (pit crew, builders, and R&D guys) individually and pay out a salary, based on their tenure and quality in the field. If they mess up on things like dropping tires or dropping a lug nut during a pit stop, which they will at times, you also have full hiring and firing capability. Not happy with the jackman? Well, let him go and get a new one.


Now, in 2003, you’re not the only one who makes decisions. Pit members will make more mistakes and eventually quit altogether if you don’t race well. Sponsors will be happy to pick you up in this version, just like 2002, but are more strict and will pull their sponsorship if you’re not meeting expectations and upping their prestige. If a sponsor pulls, you don’t get paid. If you don’t get paid, your team quits. It’s that simple. Since the builders make better and faster engines, and the R&D team looks for better fuel mixtures and tire wear strategies, and the pit crew keeps the car running at full potential during the race … this all means career over.


On the gameplay note, I could go on forever, but I’d rather not since I feel like either I’d overkill with TMI or you’ve already quit reading to go buy this game. On a graphics and sound note, both work together for one heck of a great experience. Right before the race, the national anthem plays or is sung … which is followed by fireworks, F-15 fly bys, and the four most famous and anticipated words in racing history … “Gentlemen, start your engines”. The scene plus the sound of rumbling and revving engines is done so well … I got goosebumps just watching and listening to it. On the track, the game moves really fast, collision detection is good and accurate, and produces some of the most white knuckle, nail biting racing moments I’ve had to date squeezing against a wall or running three wide with only inches to spare … all at 190 MPH.


Overall, there are only two downsides I can find in this game. The first is periodic slowdown that happens rarely. Honestly, I really had to look for it to find it, and most of the time I was so focused on this game I didn’t notice nor care when it happened. The second is the overall difficulty. The realism aspect is awesome for someone like me who lives, breathes, and eats racing and NASCAR … but a younger player or novice to automobiles or racing may be kind of overwhelmed when they toss it in for the first time. Each area does have some hints and tips to help you along, to some extent, but being able to turn off the micromanagement and have more of an automatic upgrade would have been a nice feature for the beginner.


My recommendation to anyone who is a NASCAR or racing game fan is to go and pick this one up as soon as possible. If you liked 2002, you’ll love 2003. Even if you aren’t into NASCAR, I would still recommend picking this one up and giving it a try. This type of game is the type that will make a fan out of those who play it, just like 98 did for me a few years ago.


Gameplay: 8.9
Everything imaginable is found in this game. Hiring, firing, new developments, sponsors, unlockable extras, career modes, challenge modes, replay value, and the list goes on and on. The cars are easy to maneuver, and handling (wedge) can be adjusted to give you just the right feel to the car. The sheer amount of options can also make it a little confusing to the novice, but the hints along the way do help out some. Having an option to make it a little easier and less business management would have brought this close to a 10.


Graphics: 9.1
Overall sharp and well textured. Detail down to the Port o Lets behind pit road can be seen. There is some slowdown in rare occurrences, but I really had to take my attention off racing and look for it to find it. 


Sound: 8.8
Overall fantastic. The car sounds are very realistic and loud, scrapes and crashes sound accurate, and the soundtrack is composed of bands like (hed) p.e. and Nonpoint. The crew chief is helpful, but some of the periodic insults or driving tips can get a little repetitive.


Difficulty: Medium
Everything in this game from car damage to AI difficulty to speed is adjustable to make it a little easier, but nothing takes away the challenge. Even on the easiest of settings, you will not enter as a rookie taking 1st place. Rather, you have to work your way up to the top through money and keeping up with your team, so get used to 35th place for a while.  


Concept: 9.6
Honestly, my hat’s off to the folks at EA sports. I really didn’t see where you could do many more improvements with a sport that was turning left 99% of the time, but they proved me wrong. If you want the experience of NASCAR with some extras, this is it.


Multiplayer: 9.0
Thunder 2003 has the ability to hook in up to four drivers in head to head competition with about 19 cars total on the track. Honestly, I was only able to run two player due to lack of bodies, but it was a lot of fun.  


Overall: 9.1
EA really went out of their way to not only bring all of the fun, excitement, and intensity of NASCAR racing into your home, but also did one heck of a job making it very realistic and as true to the real thing as you can get on a PS2. The difficulty was the main thing that kept this out of the high 9’s overall, but it is definitely worth the ticket price. EA has once again proven why they are still the top of the mountain when it comes to sports titles. If the conversion from 2002 to 2003 is this good, I am really looking forward to seeing what 2004 will bring.  


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