Because of their high fidelity physics and the crude way in which a standard console controller is equipped to handle them, motorsports simulations may be the most demanding genre of any video game. When I fired up NASCAR the Game: Inside Line, rather than jump straight into my career I tried to repeat a moment from the 2011 Sprint Cup Series. It was a simple-draft-and-pass scenario, ranked "easy."
I went into the wall and caused a pileup every single time.
That's the beauty and the beast of Eutechnyx's second edition under the NASCAR license for Activision. Stock car racing is commonly derided as turning left for 400 miles, but it takes a lot of nerve and concentration to race successfully in a motorsport so dependent on drafting in traffic. Even with every assist turned on at the easiest setting, NASCAR the Game: Inside Line will punish you harshly if you don't race according to the sport's code of drafting in the corners and passing in the straights.
At 180 mph, over any distance, turning left without becoming a danger to yourself or others is hard.
I had forgotten that NASCAR is, from a game management standpoint, this kind of an island-hopping campaign. I came to Inside Line having most recently run in Forza Horizon, an arc—uh, "action racer," and F1 2012, also a motorsports simulation, but one where drafting is not as constant a presence thanks to the course layout and the size of the field.
This is my third race (non-career mode), right out of the box, at the Brickyard. Starting 43rd and finishing 27th in three laps is an accomplishment, I think.
The trouble I found was in the underpowered car you (reasonably) start with in your career, in the expectation you'll acquire experience to upgrade the hell out of it and really drop the hammer. On one hand, no, I shouldn't qualify first at Daytona (or, well, for one of its 150-mile Duels, anyway) in my first shot—and I swear I felt the AI deliberately back down my throttle when it became clear I was going to threaten the pole time on my second lap. It seemed to me the game acknowledged that if you got to the front of the pack, much less started there, you'll win every race.
Racing in the clear is simple because the opposing driver AI is neither terribly strong nor aggressive. The bumps and rubs I got into was mostly because my ride couldn't keep up after taking control on the flying start. I felt myself drifting back, which caused me to panic and sit on the accelerator (out of arc—uh, "action-racer" habit) which, true to life, makes your car extremely loose. It's harder to understeer in a high-banked turn like Daytona, but with your foot on the gas it's even harder to make minute adjustments. Compensating by laying off the throttle or feathering the brakes means you have to accept your position at the back of the pack.
Still, hitting a corner at the proper speed and accelerating out of it, to within inches from the wall, communicates a job well done with your car's almost-magnetic handling throughout. Slingshot passes and bump-drafts are a delight, and when two cars push-drafted past me like I was in reverse, I marveled at it more than I cursed. The racing venues deliver a strong sense of place, which is saying something considering how generic the layouts are compared to road courses. The visuals, engine notes, and headset audio are all solid. The spotter audio is actually helpful, particularly in corners where just glancing down at your traffic radar can put you into the wall in a split second.
My career debut at Daytona. Realistic damage and failures were turned off in this encounter, for good reason.
Growing up, when I'd listen to MRN broadcasts of NASCAR events with my father, I was always struck by how the announcers would talk about "a great battle going on for 5th place," or some other position in a sport that really has only one podium step, first. Any fan of stock car racing knows there still are compelling races within a race, and where F1 2012 set you up to defeat a specific rival, event-to-event, NASCAR the Game: Inside Line just by being true to the sport's basis, does a little better job of giving you something to race for, lap-to-lap. Yeah, I only got 9 points in the Sprint Cup series by finishing 35th at Daytona (see this video). But I earned them.
The problem is, Inside Line doesn't give you enough to race for, event-to-event. There's an overall blandness to the season, when it doesn't feature things like driver rivalries, disciplinary actions (I'd have loved to see something, even if it was arbitrary news) and teammate relationships, which all form the long February-to-November narrative of a NASCAR season. Each race gives you your choice of abbreviated distances or the full, real-time amount, if you really want to race 600 miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Doing all the events of one weekend will be delightful for motorsports tourists. I have strong doubts that anyone, other than a seriously committed NASCAR fan, will be up for more than four.
NASCAR The Game: Inside Line deserves praise for how true it is to a motorsport whose challenges and demands are commonly minimized or misunderstood. Yes, the essential act is to turn left at 180 mph for 400 miles (or some portion of it). That's a lot harder than it looks, and if you're not willing to learn how to execute basic driving strategy with that kind of precision, then NASCAR The Game: Inside Line simply won't appeal to you.