|Sierra Attractions, $30. Requirements: 200MHz PowerPC, 16MB RAM, Mac OS 7.6.1, CD-ROM. For more information, visit Sierra at http://www.sierra.com
Review by Rich Pizor
The 3D Ultra Pinball series has been going strong since the first title was released in 1996. The ground-breaking pinball title set some wild precedents: fields that allow for challenge without scrolling; using the whole space of the screen by incorporating one or two additional interlocked tables into each play field; adding brief bonus video games-within-the-game when certain bonus conditions were met; multiple play fields to choose from; hidden tables that could only be accessed through skillful completion of those that were user selectable; top-notch graphics, sound, and ambient in-game animations. The series continued to get better and better in it's second iteration, which was really just more of the same; the third title, The Lost Continent, incorporated a story line that relied on multiple tables to complete.
With 3D Ultra NASCAR Pinball, a new approach was taken: using pinball as a metaphor for a different game altogether, in this case auto racing. It seems a natural enough marriage; pinball and auto racing both rely on completing a repetitive task with skill, speed, and accuracy. Unfortunately, by doing such an excellent job of simulating an auto race, NASCAR Pinball is unable to build on the pinball strengths that have allowed the 3D Ultra Pinball series to endure. The result is not quite pinball, not quite NASCAR, and sadly, not quite a winner.
Many computer pinball games have multiple tables, and NASCAR Pinball is no exception. However, rather than allowing the user to select which table to play, NASCAR Pinball presents the tables in a specific order to match the activities of a NASCAR race. The game begins on the Garage table, where you have one ball to tune your car by hitting targets multiple times; the better your tuning, the easier it is to score points in the qualifying lap. The qualifier and race are both played out on the Speedway table; though the voice-over announcers name four different race tracks over the course of the game, the table itself never changes. Certain events that happen during the race may cause the player to enter the Pit Stop table, which requires rapid hits on a series of targets in order to repair the car and reenter the race in a strong position.
The audiovisual designers have paid tremendous attention to detail, which furthers the sense of simulation but will mean much more to NASCAR fans. Players can race as a driver for any of four actual teams, and the tables are all decorated with the signature, color schemes, and sponsors of the racer that team supports. Ten cars race around the edges of the Speedway table, with the positions of each racer duly recreated in the graphic representation of the race. The sound effects of engines roaring, tires squealing, crowds cheering, and announcer voice-overs are top notch. Where the game begins to fall apart is in the game play elements.
Race tracks are not interesting pieces of terrain. They are designed to encourage speedy, sane driving, and as such are usually in the shapes of featureless ovals or triangles with broad straightaways and steeply banked turns. The Speedway table is similarly uninteresting; it is mostly a flat expanse broken only by a pair of bumpers, a few targets, and four ramps which must be shot in sequential order (Turn 2 following Turn 1 and so on) in order to best score the points necessary to win the race. The clever use of environmental obstacles that set the previous 3D Ultra Pinball titles apart are not nearly as evident here, but it isn't entirely the designers' fault; a NASCAR track has few environmental obstacles to begin with.
Other heretofore trademark techniques of the series are also sacrificed. The unique three-tables-one-screen layout that used to define the series is hampered by the constraints of the NASCAR design; a backfield is evident on the Speedway table, but otherwise no mini-tables exist. The mini-games that serve as occasional rewards for skillful play are also conspicuously absent. There are a few target chase sequences, and while they tie into the theme of a NASCAR race well, they do not lend themselves to furthering the simulation usually when tires stray into the race course, drivers try to avoid them, not run into them.
The final result of all of this is a race that is difficult to control because of the precise ball handling that is required. My crew chief was constantly shouting instructions (such as "Accident on Turn 1; go high on Turn 4 to avoid it") that I was unable to comply with because the ball was in the wrong place on the table. If these were simply added as thematic scoring techniques it would be keeping with the spirit of pinball, but the necessity of completing these tasks to have any chance of placing well in the race detracts from the overall experience. This is especially true of the championship runs-four short races that are run by juggling five balls at once. Even on a 200MHz 604e computer, the very system that Sierra recommends, having that many balls on the screen renders game play jerky and unresponsive. Certainly the championship run should be challenging, but the challenge should derive from the skill required for the task at hand, not from the limitations of hardware or program. And essentially requiring a G3 for a full experience is quite a limitation for the many owners of aging but otherwise fully-capable 60x systems.
This is not to say that the title is without merit. While the concept doesn't lend itself well to a thoroughly enjoyable pinball experience, the designers have done an amazing job of it. The use of a pinball game to control a NASCAR race is not an obvious connection, and the problems with gameplay arise not from lack of ingenuity but from the inherent limitations of pinball itself. A sport that requires such precision timing as auto racing is difficult to capture in the more random realm of pinball, and Sierra has done at least as well as anyone could expect with this challenging task, if not more so. But even an excellent director can only do so much with a poorly-conceived script, and that's essentially what has happened here.
Ultimately this game will have an undeniable but limited appeal to both NASCAR fans and fans of the 3D Ultra Pinball series, which may or may not be enough of a draw to sustain it. True enjoyment of this title will require an above-average interest in both.