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Posted: Aug 2, 2004 @ 08:42 pm GMT-0600
Updated: Feb 17, 2023 @ 01:16 pm GMT-0600
Sorting Tags: Article Review, Article Software, Articles, NASCAR Thunder 2004,

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Platform PC
Dev Co: Image Space Inc.
Publisher: EA Sports
Release (UK): Q3 2003
Minimum requirements: Windows 98, 2k, ME, and XP; 800mhz CPU; 128mb+ RAM; 8x CD ROM; 1 GB HDD Space; DX 8.1; GF2, GF3, GF4, GF FX, ATi 9000 series, 8500 series, 7500 (card must be over 32mb)
Reviewer machine: WinXP, DX 9.0, 866mhz P3, 384mb SDRAM, 128mb GeForce Ti4200, 20GB HDD, Momo Racing wheel.

NASCAR…what thoughts does that little 6 letter acronym bring to mind? Me personally: bumpin’, bangin’, and yeeeeehaaaaaww boogity boogity boogity! Since my introduction into the world of road racing, I’ve come to think of stock car drivers as rednecks and their cars as ancient monsters that could be beat by most touring cars if subjected to a handling test going left and right. I mean, come on…3400lb riding around tracks with only 1 direction of turn and big fat slicks. How hard could this be?

Ahhh…this is where my enlightenment starts: EA Sports’ NASCAR Thunder 2004, the latest offering from EA using a newly optimized version of ISI’s physics and graphics engine on the PC. While we don’t get the cool AI features that the console versions of the game get, we still get the excellent and editable ISI game engine and a fully functioning (and highly addictive) career mode. Oh yeah, there’s a dedicated server mode too! *listens for gasp from readers* The screenshots even look pretty good too. So, dare I say it? Lets boogity boogity boogity.

The Pace Laps
The game comes in a familiar looking box with 2002 NASCAR champion featured heavily on the boxart. Open it up, and you’ll find the obligatory install guide, jewel case, and install code. Also thrown in is a very helpful manual that explains most all of the menu options and a basic setup guide.

The minimum system requirements are reasonable, but to me it seems like the hard drive space required is almost excessive. The box and manual call for 1GB of available hard drive space, but with a full install and a bunch of replays, my install is still only ~713mb. It is especially annoying when the game stops recording replays, despite windows saying there is still 700mb of HDD space left. Possibly this is caused by a bunch of temporary file placed on the hard drive? Whatever it is, it’s quite annoying.

Go! Go! Go Buddy!
Upon starting the game, you are greeted by any one of 23 different ‘cameos’, which feature a different NASCAR driver saying EA’s slogan “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” Kind of interesting to see who was included and what they said.

The menu is logical, and fairly easy to navigate. There’s a menu bar with different race modes and options then a toolbar on the bottom where you can modify your player or watch various EA promos. There’s some decent menu music too, courtesy of EA Trax and the various artists on it.

Car selection is easy, with most cars in order by number. Quite a few Busch Series cars and drivers are included, along with some legends. Most cars have multiple paint schemes you can select in the menu, based on the 2003 season for the mostpart. Some cars are fictional too.

Entering Turn One!
So, enough with the boring stuff, lets race! For this example, lets say we’re doing a quick race at Charlotte in Coke 600 guise. You’ve got to select the race length, rules, and weather (sunny or cloudy on the ovals, and the additional factor of rain on the road courses), and you’re off to the races via a generic loading screen and animation.

Once the track has loaded, a time board and live feed window greets you. You can configure your controller, figure out what exactly the piece of asphalt you’re driving is supposed to look like, and lastly and my favourite, mess around with your car setup. Let’s push some buttons!

First off, each track has 3 premade setups that come with the game: an Easy setup, a Race setup, and a Qualifying setup. Each one is actually a decent starting point, with decent balance and speed. They’ll need some adjustment though in most cases, the superspeedway setups come to mind; they’ve got gear ratios that are waaaayyyyy too high for the ‘plate engines.

If you’d prefer making your own setup, there are a plethora of options you can mess with, from how much the front fenders are pulled out, to all the wedge, track bar, and tire pressure settings you hear about on TV and many, many more.

It is worth noting about now that the setup changes should react quite realistically compared to how they would in real life due to the ISI physics engine. The engine incorporates active suspension geometry, so bump steer, camber and track gain etc. is all modelled by none other than Doug Arnoa, who has done some other physics work in NT2k4 (he’s also given input on F1 2002 and F1 Challenge, and possibly this game’s predecessor, NASCAR Thunder 2003). There’s some new stuff in this version of the engine, namely some different tire implementation and minor other tweaks.

The physics feel just plain good. While it’s likely not 100% perfect, it feels darn good and is quite fun in reality. On high banked 1.5mi ovals if you set the car into the corner right it will almost seem to act like a slot car and you can carve on the bottom all day. But mess up and hit the flat, another car, or botch the entry itself and you’re greeted with a handful of steering input necessary-but, most of the time you can save it if you aren’t already backwards. At some tracks I’ve gotten into a nice groove where I could go for 15-20 laps just constantly hitting my marks and sliding the rear of the car around and then correcting on exit (the tracks I’m thinking of are Bristol and Rockingham). This all works well until you toast the tires, then you either A) have a handful of a car to drive, and you should probably pit and get them off ASAP. If the AI encounter the same type of wear they will too-cool! Or B) spin off, and hit a wall and mess up more than just tires….which might as well just blow out in he process. Put on too much grille tape and neglect to read the temperatures, and soon you’ll have a trail of white smoke following you around. Really blow it off, and it will blow itself off!

Ohhh…That’s Gonna Leave A Mark!
The damage and pit model in the game is pretty good, and it should considering how much these 2 things play a part in the real series.

First off, let’s talk about what makes the Second part in this section necessary…the damage. NT2k4 implements mechanical, vertex, and object damage. By this I mean that you can blow a tire, crash into a wall, squishing the car up pretty well, slide down the track, and then get pummelled by another car and have your fenders, front bumper, and hood fly off.

The vertex damage is ok, the ‘dents’ are kind of blocky (due to the poly structure of the car mesh), and they don’t seem to deflect that much. For example, if you get it all wrong going into a corner and back the car into the wall, there is only a minor depression, not the car-shortening type of thing you see in real life.

Bashing fenders and other bits of metal off your car is good fun, but the implementation of it is kind of sketchy. All the seams at the front of the car make the car mesh itself look bad in most lighting situations. In some cases on the track, it can be a bit weird too. If a car gets pummelled in the left front wheel for example, the tire may go flat and the fender could fall off, but that would be it. This leaves some strange looking cars going roundy-round nonetheless. One of the cool things about this is the high detail front chassis and engine model that appears when you brake off something. Keep it all intact and this high detail mesh is replaced by a

Most any damage you have affects your car in one way or another. Do a little too much bump drafting and bash in the front of your ride, and you’ll notice your top speed drop on the straights (very noticeable on longer straights), and your downforce fall in the curves. And the obvious effects of a flat tire, or a blown engine.

The poor guys who have to fix all of this and do other ‘regular’ work are fairly decently done too. While racing, you can push an F-key and bring up a menu of adjustments to make or things to change. Select for example 2 tires and a round of wedge, and then decide when you feel like coming into the pits. Slow down onto the apron and enter pitlane (there is usually a message that pops up when you enter pitlane that says the speedlimit, couldn’t they post this BEFORE you break it?), and it is up to you to keep your speed in legal territory. Now it’s up to you to find your pit box, which is quite a hard thing to do, especially in career mode where your crew and their stuff is all white. Anyways, find the right spot, stop in the box, and hang on. Your pit crew run around the car and do the changes you told them to, such as changing tires etc. Most of the vertex damage will be fixed by your guys, but in some cases, not all of it. Listen to your crew chief for him to tell you to go, and leave your stall, still staying under the speed limit (or just slightly over it, the system seems fairly generous).

The one pet peeve I have about the damage and maybe pit system is that fact that if you really bang the car around, the game will take control, and retire you on the spot. There’s also nowhere around this via player file or something else. Kind of disappointing, I’d like to be able to drive my steaming hulk around after I do a triple-axle through the pack at Daytona.

“Daaaytona Fahve-Hundreeeeed!”
NASCAR Thunder 2004 includes quite a few tracks…about 24 real tracks plus the Daytona Beach Roval. This could be a weak point in the game, and accuracy and quality has been a bit of a problem in ISI’s games in the past.

For the most part the textures on the tracks are fairly good, with good detail and ok resolution. Certainly some of the editors for the F1 series of ISI games have shown that the stock textures can be improved almost dramatically, but these should do for now with the stock game.

The same can’t quite be said for the track surfaces themselves. Some tracks are good, some are mediocre. The main issues I found on the bad ones were really strange elevation changes and banking transitions. Some of the 1.5mi speedways come to mind, at Atlanta you practically have to enter the turns on the apron to avoid the jump that is the banking transition. Other than things like that, the 2 other really, really bad tracks are Watkins Glen and Sears Point. Both road courses are just done quite poorly, with WG being loads worse than Sonoma. The elevations seem to be almost made up, and the corners are almost fictitious.

The Photo Finish
The graphics in NT2k4 are pretty good. The lighting ingame is pretty decent, and as said earlier the textures aren’t bad. The car meshes seem fairly accurate and low-poly, but the normals and emaps could use a bit of work in my opinion. There are some dark spots, some creases and edges that could be cleaner etc. etc.

The textures themselves are pretty good, albeit they’re all non-tobacco/non-alcohol. They’re in the .dds texture format, which means they have their own emap. This apparently improves framerates and memory used, but it also leaves a nasty grainy mip map image quality on everything. You may note that the tracks still use bitmaps for textures, and the cars are the only things that use this new format.

The cockpits on the cars seem fairly well done, with nice crisp textures on the steering wheel and rollbars. Instrumentation is by analog style gauges, with a tach, oil temp, oil pressure, water temp, fuel pressure etc. all visible.
There are some pretty neat animations that are implemented too. At the start of the race 3 jets usually fly over the grid, and everyone’s tires have the painted lines on the tracks and stickers. Go around for 2 or 3 laps and the stickers and lines are replaced by a regular slick texture. Do a little too much bumpin’ and grindin’ and spin out, and your roof and cowl flaps will deploy to keep you on the ground. Though notably absent are moving driver arms and animated wheel textures for some cars.

‘Race the Pack, not the Track’
The above slogan comes on the back of the box, and in my experience this is true most of the time. In order to complete a full season in the limited time I had to do it in, I set the race length to anywhere from 10% to 20%, and matched the wear rates to suit. The AI were very dicey in the beginning of the race, they put up good fights to passing, roughed you up at times, and were competitive. The downside to this is when the time came for them to pit. It may not be as noticeable with a 50% or 100% race length where you have long pit stints, but with pit stops coming every few laps, the AI just started to get screwy. At Daytona, I got a nice surprise while running around 30th, when coming into the Tri-Oval with 3 laps or so before everyone’s pit stop, the pack just suddenly hit the brakes…180mph down to 120 for no apparent reason. Rest assured my car was hurt very badly and I restarted the race soon after. After getting to the same point in the race and avoiding a pileup, all the pit stops cycled through and the pack was now very broken up. Apparently NASCAR’s small fuel cell idea works in a simulation. Later in the race, at last pit window, I had earned a big lead by stretching my fuel mileage. Coming around the tri-oval with 5 laps to go, there was quite a large line coming out of the pits, and ‘lo and behold, the first car in the line gets the wiggy-waggys and spins out into turn one, causing the 13 member line of cars behind him to spontaneously turn into my path of travel, and get stuck against the wall. Needless to say again, a flurry of expletives was shouted and an hour’s worth of racing went down the tubes.

Another bug I’ve found with them had to do with caution flags. A car had wrecked himself coming into pit lane, and stopped in his pit stall to retire…or intended to at least. Caution after caution was triggered by this car, because he failed to be removed from the track or something else. I don’t race with cautions anymore ;-).

Just to reiterate, the AI is not bad by any means, when you’re racing in a pack. But some of the stuff they do is just, well…stupid. Maybe it’s a configuration issue on my part, or bad AI work by ISI. But a lot of races have been prematurely ended by some sort of behaviour relating to pit stops or cautions.

Crank It Up!
The sounds in NT2k4 are pretty nice, with good quality and authentic sound. Only few things could use improvement. The first is the fact that the interior sounds and the sounds used in the swingman view are the same. Outside sounds heard from the TV cams are different, and a typical American V8 snarl. My soundcard and speakers are pretty lousy, but the outside sounds were kind of bassless from a distance. Get a nice 5.1 system with a big sub and it is probably a completely different experience.

One more thing I would’ve liked is a choked sort of sound for the restrictor plate races. But having the ‘open’ noise all around works well enough.

Thanking the Sponsors
Hey wait, we’re not done yet. We’ve still got 2 biggies to talk about: dedicated server and the career mode!

The career mode is something new to me, I don’t play console games and we missed out on it for F1 Challenge because of licensing reasons. All I can say is it’s addictive if you haven’t tried it before. You select a car brand, paint scheme type, paint colours, number (font, number itself and colours), then the length of the championship season and the other rules. You are then greeted with a career interface, where you can view your schedule, standings, statistics, and my 2 favourite places, R&D and the sponsors. You also start each season with a $2,000,000 allotment of money, which you can spend on entry fees, R&D costs, or car repairs.

The R&D page features 4 track categories and the state of development on each type, 1 through 4. You can select a type of track to research, then how fast you want it to be done (faster research=more money, and further research=more time=more money). I can’t really comment on the type of improvements that are exactly given with each level of R&D, as the career file is encrypted, so no digging through it revealed anything scientific. Beating up your car every race usually leaves a fairly large repair bill, around half of the value of the car if you beat and bang enough to DNF or remove some body panels. If the going get really rough, you can build or sell another car, which costs another fair bit of money.

The sponsor section consists of 2 sections, potential and current sponsors. At the start of the season there are usually 4-5 potential sponsors you can sign, some that will give revenue for multiple races or some that are just one race deals. Sign a sponsor up, and their logo appears somewhere on the car, or in multiple places in some cases. At the end of each race, you’ll find a new lump of money in your account from your advertising, which is always good. It is conditional though, as the amount of sponsors that come flocking to your door are dependant on how well you do. Finish in the top 10 your first race, and you’ll have a whole load. Finish 3 laps down in 43rd and your existing sponsors are likely to get up and leave, with no new prospects either.

Race ALL the Time
New for an EA Sports racing sim, NT2k4 comes with a dedicated server option. Another thing new to me (we missed it in F1C because of licensing issues), it is a long awaited addition, and another improvement to the admittedly infamous multiplayer put out by EA. It includes a plethora of options, a chatbox in the interface once you open a game, and all the typical stats for online play. My internet connection is poor for online play at best, so I personally haven’t played online with it yet. However, this is an important step up for the engine.

Victory Donuts
Ok, this was a bit of a long review…consider it the Coke 600 of of reviews in the sheer length of the thing. But, I can say I have enjoyed playing the game during the experience, I now know why it is apparently the Best Selling NASCAR franchise out there. It is a fun game by itself, I’d be curious to see how it would be with a few more mods (there’s an open wheel mod currently out, that’s all to my knowledge). EA have the NASCAR license for a few more years, so it should be interesting to see how they can improve in that time.

Overall, the game is well rounded, with a few oddities. Everything seems to work well, with a finished (but not quite polished) sense of quality to it, and some good gameplay. Physics are typical ISI excellence, but AI, meshes, and textures are typical ISI…er, room for improvement? In my opinion, the modes of play are just too much to be brought down by the little bugs, but the little bugs to exist. Hence my game rating of 8/10. Physics get a 9/10, no notable bugs and excellent feel from those.

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