Over the years, the high speed competitive sport of repetitive left turns, otherwise known as NASCAR, has fuelled the hearts of racing enthusiasts around the world. In some places, you can hardly step into a crowded area without seeing some sort of branded paraphernalia. With young drivers like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano tearing up the tracks and ushering in a new generation of fans who've grown up in the gaming era, NASCAR Unleashed is looking to put your favourite drivers in the palms of your hands in a high octane arcade racing experience that’s sure to please all. Or is it?
Once upon a time not too long ago, annual NASCAR game releases were a big deal for the gaming industry. Sadly, the games got stuck in the pits and have remained there ever since. Back in its heyday there was a PlayStation title that tried to stand out from the rest of the simulation games on the market: NASCAR Rumble. Driving away from the circle tracks and onto the streets, Rumble took the cars where they had never been before and the end result was an entertaining ride that boosted itself apart from its competition. Unleashed brings a similar arcade style to 3DS, but with NASCAR fans both new and old craving a title that’s faithful to the franchise, Unleashed simply doesn’t deliver.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the starting line: this isn’t a typical NASCAR game, instead it’s a below average arcade racer with NASCAR thrown in as a lure for fans. Whether you’re racing at the Talladega Super Speedway or Daytona, after the first turn you’ll find yourself veering into some absurd drainage ditch, dirt road or random series of uninspiring streets – briefly ending up back on track to start the next lap. Needless to say, the NASCAR ‘feel' is unleashed, flying right out the window within mere seconds from the start line.
A few oval tracks are thrown into the mix, but it’s here where the game’s laundry list of problems can be fully realised. Drafting for an extended period of time gives you a shot of nitrous boost to blast you right through the pack, flipping cars into the air as you plough through, often putting you right to the front. This isn’t a problem: it’s when you’re in front and find yourself being repeatedly bumped into until you lose control and spin out, finding yourself right back at the end of the pack, that you’ll realise just how shoddy the AI is. The game tries to compensate by placing random challenges throughout each race, asking you to collide with opponents, make rivals collide with objects and more. Completing these awards you extra boost to blast you right back into first place and then the cycle continues until you hopefully cross the finish line in the lead and take home the chequered flag.
Making matters worse, the controls just aren’t up to snuff either. At best they're adequate: on circle tracks when you aren’t playing bumper cars they suffice, but racing on the narrow streets that make up the majority of the game, the sluggish controls will find you bouncing off the walls to steer more often than not – damaging your car in the process and making the controls even worse. Repairing damage can be done in two ways: drive head-on into a wall to destroy the car, or try to manoeuvre the extremely narrow pit roads. Taking the pit road option gives you yet again another boost to help regain lost time, but most trips down pit road end up like a bad pinball game, losing so much ground in the process that trying to catch up with the pack isn’t even feasible. Wrecking for repairs nearly always becomes the better option: you’ll even find yourself respawning at race speed inside the pack and sometimes even in the lead.
It’s not all entirely bad though: the game does hold a surprisingly great sense of speed and frame rate, and has a subtle 3D effect too, with a suitably rocking soundtrack to accompany it. There's a decent single player mode with plenty of unlockable content and of course, the NASCAR drivers and their cars are in the game. But again, none of this helps out anything when the muddy graphics drown out the 3D effect and the gameplay is so severely lacking. This is all before we even get to the last cardinal sin that Firebrand Games has slapped into the game: road dividers. Yes, these abominations are near impossible to see most times – thanks to the muddy graphics and fast speed — and even when you do, you’ll most likely be bumped into them by another car and find yourself at a dead stop with severe damage. Another saving grace is missed: sadly the multiplayer is limited to local play only and extreme difficulty spikes make sure that few will ever complete the single player career.
Sometimes developers try to make a great game and it just doesn’t pan out the way it was planned. These games usually have quite a few enduring qualities, but NASCAR Unleashed is flat-out lacking in nearly every single aspect. Strip away the licence and this is nothing but a forgettable arcade racing title in 3D, but with the licence it becomes a steaming pile of shovelware aimed directly at unsuspecting NASCAR fans. No amount of boost Firebrand Games tries to use, NASCAR Unleashed still reeks of the pits and you should stay far away from the stench.