NASCAR 09 - hands-on

This year's NASCAR 09 will be about driving and making a really long sequence of left turns. Yeah, not much new there, but the brand name racing game from EA does have some new additions in store for racing fans. They've adopted Jeff Gordon (long-time big racing guy) to act as the new mascot and guide people through the game. He had a lot to say (even a new "Ask Jeff" function), but our time was limited, so we just had a quick look at the new features, including a Risk (the boardgame) style Own a Track mode, 14-player online races, the new reputation system and we even got to race a few laps.

To make things easier on new racers (like us) there are two main driving styles: Normal and Pro driving. We got behind the wheel in Normal driving style and got a feel for slowing for the turns and passing cars on the inside - not that we were anywhere near the front of the pack. The cars feel real; they steer deliberately, you need to think ahead to navigate around the other cars, but it's still a videogame. At least in Normal style racing, cars can get pretty beat up before they stop working. We don't know all the details of how handling and damage changed, but we were told cars can bump each other in the sides without causing a spinout as easily. This change is a bit less realistic, but was put in based on a lot of feedback from last year. Even racing in Normal style, the game should still be more than a challenge, but shifting to Pro will rev up the difficulty even more.

Helpful features like automatic pit stops and quick cautions after crashes aren't allowed in Pro style, but you're rewarded by earning extra Reputation points to encourage you to push yourself. Reputation points are needed to unlock sections of career mode and they influence matchmaking. Other drivers will fight harder for their positions or be more willing to let you pass depending on how high your reputation is. Of course, you'll also want to compete to have the highest reputation with your friends, and the best way to get the highest rep is to race in the hardest modes. In addition to Pro vs Normal style, there are menus full of options that you can turn on or off for the races like setting damage to real or visual only. Each one will add or subtract a percentage of the reputation earned after each race. Your rep will attach to whatever car you use and go with you through just about everything in NASCAR 09.

You can also earn Performance points to level up your engine, chassis, aerodynamics and durability. Each stat will be different for speedway, superspeedway, short track and road style races. It's possible to have a great car for racing on roads, but be completely outclassed everywhere else. If you want to be the best you'll have to practice on all kinds of races.