Despite the sheer abundance of modern racing sims available for the PC, games which are meant to capitalize on every last technological advancement in an effort to bring the most realistic auto racing experience to your home computer, the best racing sim currently available is still 2002’s NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona for Version 4.0.2 of Dolphin, a highly reputable Nintendo GameCube & Nintendo Wii emulator that you can download for free.
I shouldn’t have had to write this review. Though in reading it, I’m sure the readers of PRC.net will understand why I lack sympathy for developers who push out broken and/or unfinished games onto the masses, using rabid fanboys and easily influenced Gaming Journalists as a shield from the average customer pissed off at spending $60 for something that shouldn’t have seen the light of day. NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona was a racing sim developed by a team with no budget, next to no official licenses, no following, and previous entries in the series stood firmly behind both the Papyrus and EA NASCAR titles that were flying off store shelves. Despite this, Dirt to Daytona dropped an atomic bomb on NASCAR fans, and is not only the best NASCAR game of all time – it’s the best racing sim of all time, and now that it’s fully compatible with Dolphin – looking better than ever in High Definition – there’s no reason you shouldn’t be playing it.
The current crop of racing sims on the market are incredibly stale and dodgy; most of them unfinished to some extent, copying a large amount of content from other games already on the market, and relying on community participation to iron out bugs and downplay ominous issues. Project CARS will randomly send your car into the stratosphere, Assetto Corsa‘s AI will knock you around, iRacing will steal your lunch money and frustrate you with a tire model evolving as often as a Pokemon, R3E‘s pricing will confuse you, NASCAR 15 is shovelware in disguise, and Stock Car Extreme will force you to become a connoisseur of Brazilian culture. If you wish for competent AI, driving physics that can’t be exploited, setups that make sense, and a meaningful sense of progression through a huge Single Player campaign mode, the community will bully you into submission and label you a crazed hater for daring to speak out against the modern crop of driving games.
Dirt to Daytona is the antithesis of the above; it’s the game everyone desperately wants, yet are too polite to ask for. And the game was on store shelves years before Gran Turismo diehards would be introduced to the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
The NASCAR video game landscape in 2002 was a battle between two heavy hitters, each with their own dedicated userbase. Papyrus had been deep in the middle of pushing out yearly installments of their NASCAR Racing franchise for the PC, a hardcore oval racing simulation running on the Grand Prix Legends engine; a game that had achieved a huge following due to the simplicity in setting up online leagues and creating custom liveries that could be shared online. On the other side of the spectrum, EA Sports had been dominating the console side of the war with their NASCAR Thunder series, an oval racing game dumbed down for the console kids, but featured an abundance of modes and unlockable goodies to keep people playing well past the expiration date. Both games were highly acclaimed on mainstream critic sites; Papyrus had set an impossibly high standard for all racing simulators to achieve, and EA Sports was tying their extremely deep console racer together with a career mode for the ages.
As a testament to the quality of the EA Sports games, most of the talented members who worked on the NASCAR Thunder series were later recruited for the Madden NFL Football franchise, a line of American Football games which only get better with each passing year.
Hasbro Interactive and Monster Games had been pushing out licensed NASCAR titles based on the Viper Racing engine, though the titles failed to gain any real traction aside from a dedicated group of modders messing with the original PC release back in 2000. The NASCAR Heat series of games were a strange mix between what Papyrus were doing on PC’s, and what EA Sports were doing on consoles. The Heat games weren’t quite hardcore enough on the physics end of things to satisfy the PC racers, and didn’t have all that much to do to keep people playing like what was seen in the Thunder series.
Dirt to Daytona‘s goal was to expand on both ends of the spectrum simultaneously – implementing a massive RPG-like Career mode to simulate the traditional career path of a Winston Cup stock car driver (hence the game’s name), and refining a set of physics that were almost there, but not quite.
The biggest flaw in Dirt to Daytona is the licensing itself. As Monster Games were not in a position to acquire every driver or every track, as is the case with modern dev teams currently, there are some really weird gaps in the game’s extensive list of content. The game includes four licensed NASCAR series – Street Stocks, Modifieds, Trucks, and Winston Cup Cars – although around 80% of the drivers in the minor leagues are completely fictional. This isn’t a big deal for the lesser series, as there aren’t any famous Street Stock or Whelen Modified drivers and most of the fictional liveries are painted in a realistic manner, but the omissions are shocking when you get to the Winston Cup series.
Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte are on the roster, yet teammates Jerry Nadeau and future six-time champion Jimmie Johnson are nowhere to be seen. Sterling Marlin, Casey Atwood, and John Andretti are the three lone Dodge drivers, with Jeremy Mayfield, Bill Elliott, and Jimmy Spencer strangely absent. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park are in-game representing early 2000’s powerhouse Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, yet Michael Waltrip hasn’t come out to play. As you can see above, brand markings for each make and model aren’t present, yet the #18 Dodge Motorsports entry of Robert Pressley in the Craftsman Truck Series is faithfully recreated.
The track list has also suffered – while it’s understandable that the smaller series are made up of fictional facilities created by mashing famous short tracks together – for example, Mankato Speedway on the Modified schedule is a mix of South Boston and Indianapolis Raceway Park – the Truck and Cup schedules lack Pocono, Chicagoland, and Indianapolis.
Dirt to Daytona drives in the way Project CARS was supposed to. Unlike the EA Thunder games, Monster Games went for a simcade approach that leans more towards the simulation end of the spectrum. The cars all feel like big heavy boats with four very sticky balls of rubber on all four corners of the vehicle. With a controller, the game is more than manageable, and there are a few sliders in the options menu that let you tweak the sensitivity and deadzone, with Dolphin offering further controller settings if you can’t get it feeling the way you want it to.
You won’t get in too much trouble if you stuff up a corner or miss your line, but there is a huge advantage to learning proper throttle control and really concentrating on hitting your marks. Early on into your time with the game, it will indeed feel a bit too demanding for a Gamepad, but this is usually rectified by taking a more conservative approach to cornering.
Those who have immediately configured their wheel in an effort to treat Dirt to Daytona as a replacement for whatever modern NASCAR sim they’re currently playing will be happy to learn of a cheat code that unlocks Hardcore Driving Physics. The unlockable Hardcore Mode magnifies weight transfer and reduces grip by about 5%, turning Dirt to Daytona into a full-blown racing sim. It’s manageable with a controller, but wheel users will get the most out of it.
Street Stock drivers are overly aggressive and comfortable with bumping and rubbing, often going for retarded gaps as if daddy’s money was the sole reason they were on the track. Modified drivers are a bit more laid back, with only the front runners exhibiting ruthless tendencies. Truck Series drivers are comfortable in a pack, making moves that capitalize on the huge amount of downforce the Trucks generate. Finally, Winston Cup drivers are blisteringly fast and spread out accordingly. On short tracks, they’re more than willing to tear up a few fenders to get their way. On speedways, they experiment with multiple grooves and thin out to replicate differences in car setups. On restrictor plate tracks, they’re all under a blanket, three abreast. On road courses, they play it conservative, launching attacks only when it’s safe to do so.
All AI drivers play by the same rules and run the same lines as you do – rarely is there ever a that one corner where they all suck moment that allows you to blaze by packs of cars at a time. The AI are respectful to you, but are also fully immersed in the world of Dirt to Daytona. They will find ways around you that make sense. They make easy work of lapped cars, sometimes using them as a moving pick to hold you up. They’ll dump you if you’re well off the pace and don’t want to move. And if you try to wreck them to be a dipshit, a good 70% of the time, you won’t be able to, because they’ll steer out of it in a way that looks natural.
The AI are not just on the track to be moving obstacles, they’re making as much of an effort to win the race as you are, and each driver has their own individual tendencies. Tony Stewart is just as dominant in Dirt to Daytona as he was during the real life 2002 Winston Cup Season, and Casey Atwood is as much of a one-race wonder as he was during his brief stint at NASCAR’s highest levels. Backmarkers such as John Andretti will not have a freak season and win seven races in a row, and this extends into the minor series, where you’ll become accustomed to the short list of stars in the lineup of fictional drivers.
The overall competence of Dirt to Daytona doesn’t stop at just robust driving physics and near-perfect AI. Hell no, this was a GameCube game, where developers had one shot to release a game that wasn’t broken or incomplete. Caution flags work. Accelerated fuel and tire wear both work as they should. User controlled pit stops are part of the game, as are random mechanical failures and AI-on-AI accidents.
To bring new drivers up to speed, Dirt to Daytona shipped with a list of alternative modes designed to improve your Stock Car driving skills, some of them more beneficial than others. The Race the Pro mode allowed you to chase a ghost car across all Winston Cup tracks included in the game, and Beat the Heat was NASCAR Heat’s take on the Lightning Challenges seen in the NASCAR Thunder games. The mode threw a bunch of random on-track scenarios at you, with NASCAR on NBC personality Allen Bestwick walking you through the lengthy tutorial mode.
But enough about what else you can do in the game; the main draw of Dirt to Daytona was the game’s massive Career Mode, starting you out as an unsponsored Street Stock driver, and just sort of letting you do whatever the fuck you wanted to.
The game prompts you to enter some basic profile information for your NASCAR license, and you receive an unpainted 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo to compete as a rookie in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series – a ten race schedule visiting seven different fictional dirt ovals. How the mode plays out from there is entirely up to you. You’re given an iRacing-like paintshop to design your car, winning races nets you sponsors, fulfilling their requirements rewards you with a steady income, and from there you can use your winnings to upgrade your car in an effort to win a series championship and get recruited by a team to race in a better class.
Unlike Single Player campaigns in titles such as F1 2014 and NASCAR 15, Dirt to Daytona is completely indifferent to your existence within the game’s extensive world if you don’t succeed. It’s obviously implied that your goal is to reach the Winston Cup series and ultimately win several championships, but if you’re a shit driver who routinely gets blown out by the AI, the game is perfectly fine with letting you suffer in the minor series while other drivers receive all the publicity.
My wake-up call to the ruthless career mode came during the very first race at the Dundas County Fairgrounds. I fucked up the final drive ratio by one notch, and grenaded the engine three laps into the A Main when I bounced it off the rev limiter for a few seconds too long. Instead of the game offering me a chance to restart the race or go back to the garage and adjust my settings, it instead laughed at me in the local paper for being a scrub, and told me to get my ass ready for next weekend.
If you don’t win, you don’t make the front page of the local paper; instead that honor goes to the AI driver that kicked your ass. If you can’t fulfill sponsorship requirements, they fuck right off and leave you suffering until you get your shit together. If you’re that bad, it’s entirely possible to play through Dirt to Daytona‘s career mode without ever progressing out of the Whelen All-American Series. The game doesn’t seem to mind, either. It’s more of a NASCAR sandbox than a linear path, never actually telling you what’s beyond the next locked door or expecting you to work towards something until you’ve actually gotten there.
Car upgrades are not clear cut like in other games – often a new, seemingly better engine or exhaust system will come at a cost; making the car heavier, or fundamentally changing how power is applied over the torque curve. During my rookie season I saved up a large portion of my winnings for a better engine in the hopes of breaking into the top five, only to buy an engine that made me spend two races figuring out a whole new set of gear ratios, and by the time I was performing up to standard, it was time to grab a new suspension package as well, because the increased speed meant I needed the car to handle a bit better.
And that suspension packaged handled like ass, too, forcing me to re-do my suspension geometry all over again.
In preparation for this review, a few of us have been playing through Career mode to see all that Dirt to Daytona has to offer. Jacking up the difficulty to Legend meant we’d need more than just the best parts to come home with a championship, which sent us to the game’s highly detailed Car Setup Menu. New PRC.net contributor Maple has actually driven these cars, and gave us a realistic setup to try for a laugh.
Real-world numbers and setup tricks, directly from a guy who used to drive these cars, made our cars in career mode unstoppable. All three of us quickly progressed into the Whelen Modified series after immensely rewarding season-long battles with the AI, whom are consistent and ferocious enough to develop actual rivalries (fuck you Matt Kato) with. This is a far cry from the same setup tactics being applied in iRacing, which warrants the exact opposite result:
Progressing through Career mode warrants its own set of challenges. Unlike many games, the financial aspect of Dirt to Daytona rarely has you making a profit – race winnings and sponsorship deals are barely enough to buy upgrades for your car, and it can take multiple successful seasons to fully upgrade your ride. With each new series you find yourself in, the amount needed to be competitive multiples substantially, and suddenly the $30,000 you had saved up from a stressful Street Stock championship is barely enough to buy the lowliest engine upgrade for your Whelen Modified. Once you make it into the Craftsman Truck and Winston Cup series, paying for in-house upgrades and providing a salary for your crew members eats into your budget, forcing you to operate as a Front Row Motorsports venture even though you really don’t want to.
The AI and driving model make this endless struggle worth the several hours you’ll undoubtedly sink into Career mode. The rock solid AI performance allows legitimate rivalries to develop, and once you have yourself a car that can compete for a championship, the points battles you’ll have with other AI drivers are out of this world; they are just as interested in winning the championship as you are, and will put together consistent seasons in an effort to knock you off your throne. Despite the fact that you won’t actually race on a licensed NASCAR track or against a real NASCAR driver until several hours into Career mode, it won’t bother you. The fictional tracks are designed in a way to be hodgepodges of several real-world locations mixed together, and the fictional field of drivers you’re tasked with competing against have been likened after real world short track competitors – the ’88 Monte Carlo’s and High Downforce Roadsters are adorned with sponsors you’d typically see at a local short track; autobody shops, children’s charities, regional fast food joints, and insurance companies.
I actually grew to enjoy my long-term partnership with Senor Taco and was kind of sad when the regional sponsorships gave way to more lucrative deals with Polaris and Craftsman.
This game looked like ass on both the PS2 and GameCube when it was first released in the summer of 2002, but Dolphin has done a fantastic job of upscaling the game to modern standards. Some tracks are more detailed than others by default, but locations like Anoka Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway offset the bland afterthoughts of Welch Valley and Hastings. Anoka Speedway in paticular looks really fucking fantastic, almost better than most rFactor dirt oval tracks, and the game always maintains a steady 30 FPS regardless of where you go.
There’s always a lot of debate when it comes to emulating consoles like the GameCube and PS2, as sometimes the games just flat out don’t work in certain circumstances (leading to huge compatibility lists you need to consult beforehand), but you can play through Dirt to Daytona entirely without a single issue. It works and it looks good enough to be on par with ISI sims, although some graphics snobs will undoubtedly turn their nose up at it for a lack of a modern shader model.
Sounds are also a strong point. While the overall engine sounds leave some room for improvement, the dynamic tire squeal is nearly spot on and is something to genuinely rely on for those not playing the game with a force feedback wheel such as myself. You can instantly tell when you’re on the edge of grip, when the car’s plowing, and when the car is about to loop itself, all through what’s played out from the speakers. The spotter is friendly without being annoying, and there’s an acceptable variety of crash sounds. Allen Bestwick recorded a ton of different lines for the pre-race intros on licensed NASCAR tracks, giving you a bit of time to look over the field and get hyped for the upcoming race, although for whatever reason his voice quality sucks.
You’ll also want to turn the menu music off; it’s two guitar riffs, over and over again.
There is no best part about Dirt to Daytona. Regardless of how you play the game, it’s not just the best NASCAR sim ever made, it’s easily the best racing sim released for public consumption. Those who play the game solely to run full-length races in Single Race mode against the AI cranked up to 105% and Hardcore Mode activated will be given a NASCAR sim with unmatched levels of authenticity without the headache of downloading and configuring mods. Those under the influence with an equally drunk friend looking to play some split-screen NASCAR at the end of a long night will be given all the goofy cheats in the world to shoot projectiles at each other. And those wanting a huge NASCAR RPG without wanting to spend $$$ on iRacing will be given an entire offline world to explore; one which doesn’t rely on a preconceived narrative where the player is guaranteed to be a champion.
The reason I’m so cynical and outspoken about how much modern racing sims lack is because Dirt to Daytona exists, and it was released before the world had been exposed to NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, GTR 2, rFactor, Project CARS, Assetto Corsa, and iRacing. Somehow, Monster Games were able to create the greatest racing sim ever on a shoestring budget a year after releasing NASCAR Heat 2002, and they released it on hardware that can now be emulated on a smartphone.
In 2015, we’re now told that competent AI is “something that will be worked on”, career modes are “for the console crowd”, and working yellow flags will be implemented “in a future update.” Yet we had all this on a system with less processing power, and a significantly smaller budget behind the project.
Where did it all go? And better yet, why are people settling for less?