Developer: Eutechnyx / Publisher: Activision / ESRB: Everyone / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Mild Violence]
I have a deep respect and appreciation for the bravery and complexities involved in NASCAR. But being more a fan of motorsports with more involving course layouts, I found myself concerned at how entertaining a video game based on circle courses could be. I’m sure I’m not alone.
But I had a genuine good time with Inside Line. It’s engrossing, tense and engaging. It’s also insanely tough and made me want to punch my TV.
Drafting is key to NASCAR and the game portrays this excellently. It instantly introduces you to this concept, for those uninitiated, along with bump drafting, the nudging of the car in front to give them a kick of speed and benefitting from a prolonged slipstream. Then there’s slingshot passing, which is using momentum gained from a draft in a corner to blast past your victim on the straight. It goes even deeper with mechanics like tire wear, fuel levels, and rising engine temperatures when drafting too long, which force you to think about pit strategies.
From all this, a puzzle game emerges. A 200mph game of chess. Your skill with the wheel is as crucial as your split-second decision-making. You fight to get into and maintain a good draft. You choose carefully when to pass and when to tuck up behind someone and bump draft to catch up a distantly leading pack. When all’s going well, it’s like you’re waltzing through the field, picking up speed-boosting drafts from one car, and then another, and another.
There’s a slight rumble in the controller when you closely draft the car ahead. This is a subtle but brilliant touch. That small detail – that one tiny bit of tactile feedback – makes the simple act of tucking into the ‘drag-free zone’ (slipstream) of an opponent immensely satisfying. Who knew?
The game does a brilliant job, then, of portraying the many intricacies of NASCAR racing and delivering them in a satisfying way, even to those who have previously failed to appreciated its complexities beyond “just mashing the gas and turning left a little.”
But if portraying the sport is where the game succeeds, balancing realism with fun is where it fails. That’s the fine line that racing sims such as this have to walk, but Inside Line is brutally hard, and not for the right reasons.
Maintaining faultless driving over dozens of laps is near impossible. The steering feels “floaty” and imprecise, especially with a controller. Playing with a good steering wheel setup is definitely the way to go, but that’s another $150 commitment. The brakes feel equally as unresponsive. That’s just half of the issue.
The other half is the infuriating CPU drivers. Their collision avoidance skills are nil, like they’re visually impaired, or have a serious death wish. An altercation breaks out near the front of the field and every single car ploughs into each other. It’s actually rather funny at first. The issue is, those accidents all too often start with you. The CPU is ruthless. Opponents often tuck up on your inside quarter-rear, primed and ready to spin you should you veer too close.
Consider the aforementioned “floaty” steering and veering too close is entirely likely. Thing is, in most racing games sharing paint with another car is no big deal. In this game, even the slightest brush with a competitor is almost certain to punish you with a 180mph spin, leaving your race in tatters. And spin recovery is a miracle – so much so that the game actually compliments you if you accomplish it.
Thus, at any moment you can be wiped out by a gutsy/idiotic CPU driver with a seeming disinterest in self-preservation, and if this happens near the end of a 30+ (or worse, 100+) lap race – should you even get that far in the first place – you’ll be throwing fists at your TV like Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon after their, let’s say ‘interesting’, collision in Phoenix in November.
Watching one of those CPU bastards in your rear view slowly catching up is unnerving, like you’re being tailed by an assassin on your way home from work. It’s butt-clenching stuff which, admittedly for some of you, will be part of the fun, but suspense caused by brutal CPU behavior and harsh collision physics isn’t ideal.
The developer has clearly tried to tackle the issue of frequent player collisions with a little over-head radar on the bottom of your HUD that shows the positions of cars in your immediate surroundings. Along with the realistic radio calls from your spotter, it certainly helps at times, but fails to solve the issue. The game even lowers itself to offering a ‘rewind and replay’ option, which I personally think is a thorn in the side of modern-day racing games: cheap, dirty and sadly over-used.
I tried to tackle the issue myself by shortening the race lengths; if I can get pole position and race clean for five laps I’m a winner, right? But what if I don’t get pole? Then I have some drafting to do. But then five laps just isn’t enough. NASCAR races have to be long. That’s inherent to the sport. The cars are all on such close parity that blasting past your opponents Gran Turismo-style is impossible. Weaving through the field requires timing, patience and many, many laps.
So the races are long, and crashing is likely. This unfortunate fact will spoil much of the fun for anyone but those with Godlike levels of patience.
Complaints of last-years’ game being inadequately equipped have been addressed. Alongside the usual quick race, track testing and single-season options, there’s a Challenge mode which lets you “relieve and rewrite” iconic moments in NASCAR history, or take on a top NASCAR star in a one-on-one.
More impressive is the game’s new full-bodied Career mode, which slaps you in the seat with the manufacturer of your choice and pits you the challenge of building a basic team up to a front-running competitor.
Events are organized in a calendar, and you race to earn cash and impress sponsors. Events are involving, with full practice and qualifying sessions before races, realistic spotters guiding you through the field and TV-like presentation complete with crash replays and commentary.
As you gain a reputation for yourself, you’ll gain the attention of potential sponsors who’ll set you challenges to earn their support (and money), such as leading a set number of consecutive laps, driving a number of clean laps or placing above a set position. The goals start off modest, but get tougher as you improve.
And you do that by spending all that coin on upgrades, from faster engines, better brakes and improved chassis to various engine maps and car setups. Eutechnyx did a great job here. The upgrades system is engaging yet fairly simple, providing the satisfaction of fitting your own parts without being dauntingly complex.
The self-applied upgrades are deeply gratifying when you get out on course and you can work your way further up the field than you were able to before. When you get used to being a mid-field runner, finally working your way to the front will put a smile on your face.
NASCAR The Game: Inside Line does a superb job of portraying the intricacies of a sport too often dismissed as ‘racing without real corners.’ There’s genuine fun to be had with nailing the perfect slingshot, crawling your way passed 20 cars and clinching a close win. Equally, the Career mode is deep and involving, with a rewarding sense of progression as you earn new sponsors and bolt on better car parts.
On the other hand, the multiplayer, which only offers single races online or in split-screen, is lacking more engaging features (and players, sadly). And while the racing can be solid fun, the ruthless CPU opponents and overly-harsh crash physics ruins too many races with mangled metal and red-faced anger, making this a game only for the most patient and committed of NASCAR fanatics.
+ Deep career mode
– Loose handling
– Frustrating CPU opponents
7 / 10