I’ll get this out of the way right off the bat: I’m a fan of NASCAR, and I certainly enjoy watching it, but I’m not a hardcore NASCAR fan. I keep track of the standings, the big races, and the drama to some extent, but I don’t live and breathe the sport. That said, NASCAR fans are some of the most dedicated and serious sports fans there are, and stock car racing is a unique pastime. There have been few video games that have been able to capture the experience of race day and on-track excitement and suspense that NASCAR brings to the table. NASCAR 14 seeks to do just that, with more cars, racers, teams, and modes than the series has ever had. I have yet to play a NASCAR game that feels really good and like it should, although that’s tough to say given that I’ve never raced a stock car in real life, of course. NASCAR 14 does a better job of this than any previous iteration, even if it’s not perfect.
Fans will be glad to know that the game includes accurate teams and tracks for the 2014 season, and there are more modes than ever in which to use them. There is the usual Quick Race mode, in which you can use any team you’d like, for some fast action. You can build a personalized team and play a single season, careers, or Cup run. Then, there is Career mode, which is more immersive in terms of managing all of the aspects of your team such as spending money and making key decisions on design and your car. The Highlights mode also returns from last year’s game, and contains select moments from the 2013 season, enabling you to relive these experiences on the track. There will also be 2014 moments added as we go, available for download for a small fee.
Career mode is certainly where you’ll spend the bulk of your time, and the great news here is that it’s deeper than ever. The mode will launch you right into a race, and based on your performance, the game will recommend a difficulty level for you, and get an offer from an owner. When you start out, you’ll be behind the wheel of a basic, generic and unsponsored car. As you start to earn money in races, you’ll be able to upgrade your crew, do some research and development, and start to build toward a car that you can be proud of. At first, performing well in races is somewhat difficult because your car will be slower than most others you’re racing against. Pitting, position, and strategy is very important here, and while this phase of your career can be very frustrating at times – especially if you fall behind in a race – it is also very rewarding to place well with an inferior car due to great strategy. Career mode isn’t what it could be, but it will hold your attention.
Online play has always been difficult for racing games, because it’s such an exact science based on timing and precision. Aside from the occasional glitch or connection issue, NASCAR 14 produces a rather smooth online experience. You can create your own leagues with up to 16 racers, or hop into quick races against friends or strangers. Because you’re no longer playing against AI racers, races can be much more volatile. All it takes is for one person to decide it would be fun to create a 10-car pile-up, and off you go. It’s unfortunate when this happens, but it comes with the territory.
In terms of the how the game actually performs out on the track, this game brings a solid experience. It’s the best playing NASCAR game to date, but still not perfect. Your stock car has a better and more realistic feel to it this year. In previous iterations, it felt like I was controlling a hover-car, but I’m pleased to report that this game brings a much weightier and physics-based engine into play. There are touches that draw you into the experience even before the race begins, such as warming up your tires or timing your acceleration to get off to a quick start.
My biggest challenge in gameplay was finding a balance in the settings. The game provides massively customizable settings that allow you to play somewhere on the spectrum of arcade to simulation. Slide all of your settings to simulation, and driving and turning are very tough, and collisions will punish you with realistic damage. On the arcade side, you can pretty much slam into cars – even gaining an advantage by doing so. I’ve found that even after a few hours of playing the game, I still wasn’t sure where I wanted to land on this spectrum. It’s great to have options, but it also seems like the game isn’t sure what kind of experience it wanted to give me.
Drafting is a HUGE part of NASCAR racing strategy, and it’s also perhaps my biggest complaint in this game. To get and hold a successful draft, your line has to be absolutely perfect for an extended period of time. If you go seemingly an inch off-line, you’ll get passed. It’s that simple. And in a long straightaway, it’s frustrating that you can hold a line and be in perfect position for so long, only to get punished because you went an inch outside of the pre-determined line. It’s one of those areas that, in my opinion, could have been toned down just a bit in terms of the perfection needed to avoid being thrown to the back of the pack. Complaints aside, the game does feel good, and for the first time does an admirable job in capturing an engaging on-track NASCAR experience.
Visually, this game is nothing to write home about. I must give a disclaimer, however, because immediately prior to jumping into this game on my PS3, I had been playing a whole lot of Forza 5 on my Xbox One, which is a gorgeous next-gen racer. So, I certainly experienced some “generation shock” when I hit the track. That said, it’s nothing that will stick out as horrible-looking. The stock cars are pleasing to look at, with solid light reflection and sponsor logos. Tracks are average, but clearly not much time was spent on them, since you fly by the surroundings so quickly anyway. Fox has the sound license covered, and you’ll get a little pre-race commentary that is nothing special. In-race, you again have your race director spitting encouragement and direction at you. Some of it is helpful, but after a few races, you mostly hear the same old lines, and it does get monotonous.
Overall, NASCAR 14 improves on past iterations mostly by creating an on-track racing experience that feels much more authentic and engaging that any NASCAR game to date. Career mode is a lot of fun, although it could be built out even more. No PS4 or Xbox One versions of this game exist, and as I review this game, I can’t help but look forward to what the future might hold for a NASCAR game on next-gen consoles. An uber-realistic and beautiful game with a mind-blowing career experience in 2015 could really be an incredible thing. Here’s hoping that we get just that.
If you’re a fan of NASCAR, then this game is worthy of picking up. You’ll enjoy the teams, cars, and feel of the NASCAR world, and career mode can be very engaging if you give it a chance.
Reviewed By: Dan Nielson
Publisher: Deep Silver
This review is based on a retail copy of NASCAR ’14 for the PlayStation 3 provided by Deep Silver.