Sep 152011

In my series of navel-gazing posts last week, I noted that games criticism has struggled to say anything particularly interesting about sports games. These games are tremendously popular (Madden 11, a slow seller, moved more than 5 million copies), and virtually everyone who owns a console has played at least one. The critical response has been to produce software reviews, listing off the features, judging the graphics and responsiveness, and calling it a day. There are exceptions, such as Steven O’Dell’s fascinating “Living the Life” series, but the footprint of sports games in the critical discourse is tiny relative to their stature in the market. Some of this is perhaps owed to the character of the critics. However, it should be possible to come to grips with something like NASCAR The Game: 2011 without resorting to a dry discussion of the shoddy multiplayer or silly persistence model.

Sports games, especially those like Madden, are not simulations. A person playing Madden isn’t experiencing anything remotely like what the typical player or coach experiences, and isn’t processing the same or even similar kinds of information. Madden requires the player to act as a coach, and also as a quarterback, running back, or defender. Baseball and basketball games play out similarly. A driving game like NTG 2011 veers more towards simulation, but the player has to act as both driver and crew chief, or even more. So while we can judge these games on how well they reproduce physics and rules, that shouldn’t necessarily be the primary emphasis. As it turns out, NTG 2011 isn’t very good at these things, but I talk about that in my review on GameCritics.

What a sports game ought to try to do is capture the essence of its particular sport. Football, for instance, is a game of strategic deception mediated by the physical efforts of athletes. To think of it as only the athletes, or only the strategy, would lose something critical. Similarly, thinking of a stock car race as cars going around in circles (or tri-ovals, as the case may be) misses part of the key attraction of NASCAR racing.

The quote in the title is the way NASCAR champion Bobby Allison typically describes his famous brawl with three-time champion Cale Yarborough after the 1979 Daytona 500, one of the great defining events in NASCAR history. With much of the nation watching the full race broadcast due to an east-coast snowstorm, Donnie Allison and Yarborough wrecked while fighting for the lead on the final lap (each still blames the other). Richard Petty held on to win the race, and Bobby Allison came by during the cool-down lap, as he tells it, to offer his brother a ride back to pit road. At this point, apparently, words were exchanged, followed by punches, leading to the famous nose-beating.

This does not imply that a good NASCAR game needs a post-race fisticuffs option (although that wouldn’t be a terrible idea). The Allison-Yarborough fight was part of a fairly long feud. A feud isn’t just a rivalry, it’s a story, built over many races or indeed over entire careers. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch have been feuding for years, a conflict that flared up again recently at Pocono and last weekend’s Richmond race. They haven’t punched each other out yet (Busch did come to blows with Jimmy Spencer in another feud), but they’ve torn up each other’s cars repeatedly and traded barbs in the media. A good NASCAR game ought to capture some of this spirit.

NTG 2011 tries, reliably producing a “rival” every race. However, the “rival” is just some guy who happened to be close to you. If you qualify up front, Jeff Gordon will be your rival, and if you qualify poorly, you’ll get Michael Waltrip instead. But this won’t have anything to do with what you did in the last race, and it doesn’t even seem to control the behavior of the rival’s AI. A real rival, however, doesn’t change from race to race. Sometimes he starts way ahead of you, sometimes way behind, and sometimes it’s dangerous to pass him because he’s got nothing to lose and you do. None of that comes through in this game.

NTG 2011 is even more hamstrung in this regard because its career mode is a disaster. The “career” consists of only one season, where you can replay all of the races until you finish Homestead, at which point you’ve just got to wipe the slate clean and start over. A series of seasons would at least allow the player to develop a “rivalry” with an AI character. Better yet would be something like NASCAR 2005‘s system that included a real career, climbing from dirt tracks to the modified division and on into each of the national touring series. A rivalry (or a friendship) built on the dirt tracks and finding expression in the Sprint Cup would be a play experience that comes closer to capturing the personality dynamics that make NASCAR compelling to its fans.

NTG 2011 is an imperfect simulation of driving a racecar, but that wasn’t the key problem I had with it. The real issue, for me, was that it didn’t capture any of the life of the series, the bruised egos that come with banged-up cars. NASCAR thrives on personalities in conflict, to the degree that a large part of its present decline is blamed on the blandness of the reigning five-time champion. NTG 2011 fails as a NASCAR game because its rules and flavor don’t include that kind of conflict in any meaningful way.

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