For the majority of us Brits NASCAR is that motor sport where you only turn left. That might be a completely ignorant view of the sport that seems to be hugely popular in the US, but that's what happens when most of our knowledge stems from the movies Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. EA has a tricky job on its hands marketing NASCAR 09 over here, and we've had an even trickier time reviewing it. As we discovered though, there's more to NASCAR than turning left.
What this review won't tell you is how accurate the representation of the sport is. We simply don't know. All we can do is rate it on how enjoyable it is as a driving game, and it's surprisingly decent. You do, as previously mentioned, spend a lot of your time turning left, racing around oval circuits that appear to have little to no skill requirements of the drivers, but that's discounting the fact that NASCAR is a motor sport where overtaking and bumper to bumper racing is still present - something F1 is severely lacking.
The skill comes from holding a steady racing line, tailing the leading car and using the slipstream to slingshot your car a few more places up the order. It's not exactly rocket science, but it's a lot harder than it initially seems. Racing at a constant speed in excess of 170mph while a pack of 30+ other cars are all around you is intimidating stuff. One slight mistake and you're heading into the wall, or worse, causing a mass pile up. Then you'll be at the rear of the pack for the restart.
Some of the tracks aren't oval at all, featuring the kinds of bends you'd see in F1 or Touring Cars. Although the average speeds here aren't as high as during oval racing, the pack is still usually pretty tight, making for some nail biting moments as you battle towards the front. Add in smaller ovals and various pit-lane speed limits and you have a game that's more than a challenge for even the most experienced racers.
Beginners can opt to use the more arcade-like basic handling model rather than start off using Pro, and it makes a big difference. It's not quite Race Driver: GRID levels of powersliding, but more enjoyable than repeatedly slamming into a wall. With the two options almost anyone should be able to work through the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup career mode, the Season mode and the Challenge mode. Challenge mode sees you attempting to achieve certain goals such as tailing a leading car for a lap or maintaining a certain speed for a set amount of time.
Reputation seems to be all the rage in racing games these days and NASCAR 09 clearly didn't want to be left out. Rep is earned through your performances on the track and it allows you to perform various off-track things, such as sorting out sponsors. You also earn Performance Points which can be used to improve your car in four areas: Engine, Chassis, Aerodynamics and Durability. This is all handled by simple sliders that even the most novice NASCAR player could understand.
Online play is also included, with competitive races for up to 14 real players supported over PSN. You're limited to single races, but there are options galore covering practically every part of a race. You can even choose to race in full-on sim races, with the lap counts of the real races. It's pretty hardcore, but an option a few die-hard NASCAR fans will appreciate.
The one area that lets NASCAR 09 down is its visuals. On Xbox 360 it wasn't going to win any awards, but it wasn't a bad looking game. Sadly on PS3 something appears to have gone wrong. Texture work on the tracks impresses, as does the lighting, but the frame rate is often pretty shocking, there's a fair amount of pop-up and numerous other glitches. For a racing game a smooth frame rate is everything, so it's disappointing that it's not smooth in the PS3 version. The cars also don't quite look right. They take damage, but from the start they're slightly too perfect and shiny.
NASCAR 09 isn't going to set tills on fire in the UK, but it's a solid racing game that offers something a little different to the likes of GT, Forza, PGR and GRID. It's hard to recommend the PS3 version though. With its slow frame rate and other graphical glitches it's nowhere near as polished as the Xbox 360 game, making this yet another port that hasn't been given enough care and attention.