CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The first attempt by developer Eutechnyx to bring NASCAR to current-gen consoles, last year's "NASCAR The Game," proved to be more Travis Kvapil than Brad Keselowski. The game featured a solid driving engine, but was plagued by bugs and glitches that ruined any real fun factor.
After a year spent testing and tweaking, Eutechnyx has returned to the track with "NASCAR The Game: Inside Line." And while the game still isn't ready to contend for a championship, it has made steady strides toward the front of the pack.
With any racing game, the core driving experience is the most important element and "Inside Line" has absolutely nailed it. Short tracks feel different from superspeedways and there are multiple racing lines at each track, allowing you to find your own way to the front. No matter where you're competing, the action is tense and pressure-packed, requiring you to keep focused lest you wind up in the wall or spinning through the infield.
The physics are solid, with cars having a real weight to them that can be felt whether you're turning practice laps or going three-wide at Talladega. The draft has been improved, making it easier hook up with another car and push your way through the field. No longer does slight contact send you careening out of control. The physics extend to the adjustments you can make to your car, like changing tire pressure or taking out a round of wedge, which have a palpable effect on your car's performance. The addition of engine failures and damage-caused DNFs, though rare, are welcome.
"Inside Line" also makes significant improvements to the AI, which was the cause of many of the problems in last year's game. The AI seems to have a better sense of recognizing where you are on the track and will do its best to avoid making contact if possible. This extends to the draft, where the AI will look to settle in behind you and push rather than operate on its own as if you weren't even there. You'll still see the occasional weirdness, such as AI cars crashing when making green-flag pit stops or braking for no reason, but many of the problems that crippled last year's game have been addressed and are not an issue in "Inside Line."
Another area in which "Inside Line" shows improvement is in its selection of game modes. The most significant addition is a multi-year career mode, which lets you create a driver and build your team from the ground up, earning better sponsors and equipment along the way. Online multiplayer racing is much more stable, addressing another sore spot from last year's effort.
Visually, an extra year's worth of polish has made "Inside Line" look significantly better than its predecessor. Both the cars and tracks are intricately detailed, damage modeling is improved and the frame rate remains steady throughout. Audio-wise, the annoying comments from your spotter have been toned down drastically, making it easier to focus on the action around you.
I had high hopes, perhaps unrealistically high, for "NASCAR The Game" and was thoroughly disappointed with the experience Eutechnyx delivered last year. As a result, I tempered my excitement for "Inside Line" for fear of being let down again. But I'm happy to say that "Inside Line" didn't just meet my expectations, it blew them away. Even with its flaws, "Inside Line" is the best console NASCAR game I've ever played. Hopefully with some more time in the garage, the next entry in the franchise can deliver an experience worthy of a spot in Victory Lane.