Having played NASCAR 2011: The Game, I’ll admit that I was a little harsh when I said, in my review of Glacier 3: The Meltdown, that the racing genre had nowhere to go. In my defense, it’s sometimes hard to imagine good gaming (or cinema, or music) when you’re experiencing the bad, and Glacier 3 remains thin gruel, as games go, and feels oddly unfinished. I’m still not enough of a racing-game enthusiast to fully embrace NASCAR 2011 (legit fans and followers of the sport may augment my rating as they see fit), but I can recognize craft and competence when I see it.
It’s been interesting to trace the evolution of the sports genre in video games from the earliest days of Atari to the present. It’s one of the few genres that has moved decisively away from pure escapism, and toward importing compendium-grade knowledge and detail into what is purely a leisure activity. In the console games for basketball, football, and baseball, the bar for verisimilitude has been raised to the stratosphere; at this point, you can practically customize such things as a quarterback hurriedly procuring an abortion for an underage dalliance, a player’s early-onset arthritis, who’s thinking about a real-estate deal gone south, and so forth.
So, too, does Eutechnyx’s NASCAR 2011 aspire to provide a Saving Private Ryan-level of technical and sensory authenticity. Not only can you choose from real drivers, you can sign contracts with real brands after achieving specific benchmarks, and compete in real invitationals. The races themselves, of course, give you as many variables as you might manage if this was the real thing. My favorite feature is the driver’s-seat perspective (one of a half-dozen different kinds of perspectives), where you see your own maneuvering hands work the steering wheel, and the awkward shape of the car and its safety gear compromise your view of the outside.
Although it’s rated for all audiences, this isn’t a kid’s game. Nor is it a party game. As in the real world of NASCAR, most of the driver’s time is spent in preparation and planning, while the races themselves are simultaneously the main event and an afterthought. As it relates to the driver’s life as one mostly of training and developing commercial relationships, the ratio of rehearsal to opening night is faithfully reproduced, and it’s what characterizes NASCAR 2011’s purpose as the gainful fulfillment of the time and imagination of NASCAR devotees of all ages. It’s nothing less than the transfer of the sport of racing’s version of Fantasy Baseball to the console. In that regard, the game is very successful. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be in stock car/logistical planning heaven.