NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona (Monster Games, 2002)

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NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona is considered to be one of the best NASCAR games ever made. It’s a perennial contender on top 10 lists and throughout my research it’s been consistently referred to as the best NASCAR game available on a console. I haven’t played nearly enough of the other contenders to say if Dirt to Daytona truly is the best of all time but from my experience with the game I certainly don’t have any reason to doubt that claim.

NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona was developed by Monster Games, the people behind NASCAR Heat, another very well-regarded game with the same license. They would also go on to develop Excite Truck and Excitebike: World Rally for Nintendo. It was released for the Gamecube and Playstation 2 in 2002 and as you would guess from the name, it features racing from a local level right through to the NASCAR Cup Series.

There’s a few things that stand out to me about this game, namely the depth and range of the content on offer and the attention to detail present in the game. Dirt to Daytona offers a good choice of ‘fast action’ modes such as single races, championships and two different challenge modes as well as a very long and in-depth career mode. There’s a lot of fun to be had whichever mode you play but the career is where the game really comes into its own.

The career mode starts you off at the bottom of the ladder, racing a street stock on local dirt tracks and trying to climb through the ranks to reach the NASCAR Cup Series, stopping off in the Modified and Truck divisions along the way. Whenever you start a new division you’ll have a car with only the most basic components fitted so earning money to buy upgrades is essential. You earn money in two ways, from your finishing position in races and from your sponsors. Finishing higher up the order will attract more lucrative sponsorship deals but big money also comes with high expectations and more challenging sponsor objectives.

Playing the career mode takes a significant time investment but NASCAR fans will appreciate its depth and the satisfaction that comes from building your racing team from the ground up. If a long-term commitment isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of content in the ‘fast action’ modes. The single races and championships will keep most players entertained for a long time and the challenges provide a real test of your driving skill in a variety of conditions.

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The aspect of Dirt to Daytona that I’ve seen given the most praise and attention is the physics engine. It’s an excellent mix of simulation and arcade. With the assists turned on most people will be able to turn laps and race but you’ll still need to take a realistic approach to how you drive. You can’t just mash the throttle and expect to get round corners without taking some of the outer wall with you. Turning off the braking and stability assists gives you a more realistic experience and unlocking the optional ‘hardcore physics’ turns the game into a very serious affair indeed. With the available driving options you can turn your game from ‘serious fun’ to ‘serious business’. A noteworthy aspect to the solid driving physics is the car tuning. You’re provided with as full a range of tuning options as you’d find in any modern simulator and from what I gather from other people who actually know what they’re doing, everything works exactly as it should. If, like me, you don’t know your camber from your Camembert, the game provides 2 sample setups for each track that work as a good baseline and even work well without any tweaking unless you’re playing on the highest difficulty setting. Players who know how to set a car up properly will certainly get a bit more out of Dirt to Daytona but the layperson playing on a moderate difficulty setting can get by pretty well without touching the setups at all.

The AI is probably worth mentioning too. For a 14-year-old game it’s pretty astounding how good the AI drivers are in this game. They’ll race you hard and aren’t afraid to muscle you out of the way but there’s none of the pointless aggression that you see from the computer in a lot of modern games such as the Grid series. They struggle a little with regaining control if they get knocked loose and pit-stops tend to turn into a traffic jam but overall they’re very good opponents and they drive quite consistently.

If Dirt to Daytona falls short in any areas it’s in the graphics and the patchy licensing. The two bottom divisions are mostly made up of fictional drivers and tracks and the truck and cup series don’t have full coverage either. It’s not a big complaint but there are some notable omissions that a fan would probably notice. In terms of the graphics I think the game captures the look and feel of the tracks really well but the detail in the models really shows the game’s age. I normally play this game in the Dolphin emulator with the resolution cranked right up and that does a lot to improve the look of the game. That’s definitely how I would recommend you play this game today.

The depth and breadth of the content on offer in NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona combined with the great physics and AI make it one of the most complete oval racing games available on a home console. Whether or not it’s the best console NASCAR game is still open to debate but even so it remains an enjoyable and satisfying game that offers at least as much to a player as modern titles.

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