Starting up NASCAR 2011 for the first time, you’ll see an instructional video that explains the different parts of the UI. NASCAR 2011 has a smart interface, with a helpful proximity radar at the bottom of the screen that shows your distance from other cars, and nice visual of wind coming off the car in front of your to signal when you’re drafting, but for all this information about the game there’s not much about how the sport of racing actually works.
There’s a strategy to races in NASCAR, and the game will make you appreciate how minor differences between tracks can completely change your approach, but the only tip you get from the opening video is that “drafting is good.” No tips on how to use teammates, nothing on racing lines, or when to enter the pit stop. As a result it’s easy to fall into the trap of treating NASCAR 2011 as any other racing game, trying to pass as many people as possible at once, using collisions or sheer speed to get in first every race. Yet because of the way scoring works, it’s not necessary to get in first every race. You just would never know that from playing.
There’s a lot going on in NASCAR 2011 which isn’t immediately apparent. You’ll earn sponsors for completing certain challenges, but you’re not told when you make progress on a challenge or even when you complete it; instead, you’re suddenly notified that you’ve unlocked a sponsor with no explanation of how or why. Each sponsor gives you a reward for driving well or finishing in a high position, but the specifics of those rewards are only explained on the sponsor page, which is buried many menus away from the race itself. Advancing through the Career mode earns you access to special Invitational Events, which offer a variety of time trials, drafting challenges, eliminator modes, and showdowns. The variety is quite nice, but you won’t know any of these modes even exist until you unlock one. It’s as if the game is trying to hide itself from the player.
Despite all this, the game plays well. Each track feels different; even though it’s a series of left turns the size and angle of those turns make a big difference in how you approach it. No two tracks feel the same, through you will replay a fair number of them as night races over the course of a career.
The racing stays interesting and accessible; you’ll quickly get over any preconceptions that “driving in circles” is boring. It’s a race like any other. There are multiple assists you can manage before each race, making this sim much easier for a newcomer. You can tune your car yourself, but there are also preset options that tune your car for a specific track, so you can largely ignore this complex part of the simulation without punishment. NASCAR 2011 also includes a rewind mechanic, which goes a long way in easing frustration because mistakes are common and easy to make. One small bump against a wall can put you behind several places, and if you can’t regain your position before making another mistake you’ll fall even further behind. You’re limited to five rewinds per race, and while it’s understandable that the developer wouldn’t want players to abuse this mechanic, five seems an oddly low number considering how easy it is to mess up. Plus, the number of rewinds stays the same no matter how matter how many laps you set. Considering how stifling five feels when I race 10 laps, I can’t imagine what it’s like to have so few rewinds when racing on longer trials.
Of course, the idea of getting ahead of someone and never losing your position might not be applicable to NASCAR races. Since NASCAR races are so long (you can choose the number of laps, ranging from four to 300 in some cases) you have plenty of time to make up any lost position. Contrast this with other racing games that only make you run two or three laps, in which case a single mistake is devastating. Racing in NASCAR might demand a different a kind of mindset, and this is where a better tutorial would be appreciated, one that explains the sport itself and not just the UI.
For the uninitiated there is a steep learning curve, but the racing is just fun enough to keep you playing and improving. Eventually you’ll come to rely less on assists, and you’ll want to raise the difficulty and number of laps, but there’s no extra reward for winning with these increased options. I could play on Medium difficulty, dominate each race, and happily progress through the career, or I could play on Hard, lose each race, and revel in this new demanding challenge. I had to have a serious philosophical discussion with myself about which was more satisfying, progression or challenge. If the game just offered more NXP (NASCAR Experience) for raising the stakes, this wouldn’t be an issue.
The multiplayer lets you play all game modes online with any driver you want, but based on my time online, most players would rather race in a demolition derby than a NASCAR race. Be prepared to dodge oncoming traffic.
NASCAR 2011 is a slow burn, especially for those unfamiliar with the sport, and the lack of relevant tips certainly doesn’t help. But persistence has its rewards. Whether or not those rewards are worth the effort is up to you.