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
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
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


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