Ideally, we'd be glad NASCAR's getting to the next-gen party late. Why? The second-favorite sport of the United States making its Xbox 360 debut nearly two years after the system's launch means EA had that much more time to build up a stock car racer stocky with features, right? Nope. Not unlike the developer's crammed-to-Christmas Madden 06, NASCAR 08 is an opening iteration in the series that lacks much of the content that made its last-gen entries in the franchise so fun. EA Tiburon delivers a basic space in which to interact with the NASCAR world - a middle-of-the-road release that brings about the level of quality you'd expect for an initial entry. There's passable fun for the hardcore fan, but a bevy of potholes in between - mostly a faulty online mode and the omission of key features that made prior iterations of the series worthwhile.
Replacing a genuine career campaign in NASCAR 08 is "The Chase," a set of license-earning challenges and contracted races that serve as a good introduction to NASCAR mechanics for newcomers. Here, you'll wheel through sets of short tasks that teach how to drift, slingshot, avoid wrecks, and so on, aided by brief tutorial videos that precede them. The mini-game tests are divided by track type, meaning you'll have to earn separate licenses for speedway, super speedway, road, and the Car of Tomorrow short track. The Chase clearly caters to casual motor heads, and while it'll serve newbie's well in this regard, NASCAR loyalists will wonder where their additional features from last year's game went and parked themselves.
What's lacking in The Chase is something to supplement the in-game experience - rivalries, management options, even something to spend fake money on would've been nice. Season mode isn't any better, offering only the most basic options for a one-and-done run through the 36-event Cup season. There's the Craftsman truck, National, Car of Tomorrow and Nextel series to ride through, but aside from choosing your driver and tooling a few token settings, there's just a standings menu to look at - no extra meta-gaming to juggle sponsors, tune the vehicle (though it can be done in pre-race), or anything else to mix things up.
NASCAR 08's limited variety wouldn't be as significant of an omission if its in-game mechanics were tighter. Where The Chase caters to newcomers, the controls' responsiveness won't be welcoming to anyone getting behind the wheel of a virtual stock car for the first time. Steering linearity and sensitivity can be adjusted, but it's still quite difficult to find that middle ground between touchy turning and slow steering that leaves room for error. It may be realistic, but when any minor mishandling of the controls produces a wreck, it feels more like a test of perfection than an engaging experience.
Judgmental as they are, the controls are hampered further by 08's over-aggressive AI. Though it won't rear its head in all races, on super speedway courses like Talladega drivers can look forward to being bump-drafted through turns and bullied on straight-aways. Made your way to the front of the pack? Look forward to being rammed and spun-out into last place by approaching opponents. It isn't so frequent to be an outright game-breaker, but NASCAR 08 doesn't allow players to effectively protect their position in the race, and you're often much better off simply letting your competitors pass you than trying to box them out.
Online, where you can race up to 11 other cars online, many of these issues become even more accentuated by incredibly sensitive caution flags that slow the flow of competition. The yellow flag is waved prematurely in almost every situation: if a single car spins out it'll stop the race, and things usually come to a halt before you can navigate out of the seven-car pileup that's about to occur - arguably one of the more challenging, fun parts of the experience. And once the flag's raised, players taxi around the track on auto-pilot for as much as 30 seconds at a time, replacing the fast-paced play with tedious waiting.
In a sport as finesse-focused as NASCAR, lag likewise becomes a concern online, where any small connection hiccup can make opponents jump and stutter about the track. When you're three-wide with your competitors at 180 MPH, you don't want to have to second-guess yourself. A few of these flaws might be more forgivable if EA Tiburon had integrated online leagues or other features, but they're nowhere to be found. Hey, at least NHL 08 will have them this year.
Visually, NASCAR 08 does enough to scrape by as a next-gen title. Damage is nicely represented, with individual panels flaking off the vehicle, scrapes smudging once-clear advertisements and logos, and other parts of the body bending and warping as they should. Day-night cycles on some circuits are neat, but one aspect that could use some polish are the thousands of fans that attend each race. The crowd feels static and stuck to their seats, and this applies to the audio as well, which is otherwise quite good. Engine hums feel authentic, and the radio support you receive from your crew contributes to the already-palpable tension inherent to the game.
In many ways, NASCAR 08 is what it should be: a technical, challenging sim that only stock car racing enthusiasts can appreciate. But oppositely, the title's lack of single-player depth won't satiate the hardcore fan seeking customizable features, meta-gaming, and other intricacies that make the sport so different from other racing traditions. While The Chase is a welcome addition for breaking in first-time players, NASCAR's controls will feel judgmental to anyone used to the tuning of Need For Speed or Forza. The online environment is in need of a similar upgrade, and the aggressive AI doesn't do much but perpetuate frustration when it should simply develop some added tension within the player. Altogether, these half-finished features add up to a score that not only accurately describes the experience, but lets us know how many beers it'll take to make NASCAR 08 fun.