In some ways, Activision's second NASCAR game is a lot like the first. Although kart racer NASCAR Unleashed isn't trying to replicate the sport to the extent of NASCAR The Game 2011, the outcome is similar. Unleashed delivers a decent gameplay experience, but lacks the depth to be a quality title.
Unlike some other kart racers out there, NASCAR Unleashed doesn't revolve around power-ups, but rather boost. Boost is gained through knocking out opponents (which makes them your rival), performing mid-race objectives, pit stops, drifting, and other driving feats. It's the core of the gameplay to the point that you soon wish it were augmented with something else to bring more depth to the game. That being said, I like how Unleashed offers random objectives during a race apart from their originally stated goals. These change from having to place in a certain spot before the timer runs down, to asking you to create a rival or complete a certain number of drift turns.
As boost-reliant as the game is, it's a good time when you're out on the track. Even without a bevy of power-ups (although there are some random events such as oil slicks and downed trees), there is always something going on. Cars are beating and banging, the rivals you've created are coming after you for revenge, and the pack racing creates that anything-can-happen feeling. The latter is indicative of a superspeedway race, and it’s also natural for a kart racer. Regardless, the tracks themselves – while not just ovals – are a missed opportunity. They feature jumps, but lack enough excitement to make them a worthwhile feature of the game. Plus, the fun and possible advantage to be gained by the jumps themselves is negated by the fact that your cars' physics in mid-air and on landing is too unpredictable to make taking jumps worth the risk.
Moving beyond ovals and introducing boost is certainly unconventional for NASCAR itself, but in the larger realm of fantasy racers out there, Unleashed could do more to create a consistently engaging experience. Mid-race objectives are a great way to keep you absorbed from moment to moment, but the tracks should be doing more of that, and despite the rivalry system, I think the game doesn't do enough to utilize the drivers themselves. This is odd in a sport like NASCAR where the drivers are always front and center. Moreover, the career progression only veers off the path occasionally to cover distractions like a head-to-head race, and the unlocks (new paint jobs, and cosmetic upgrades like a fan hat on top of your car) are slight.
NASCAR Unleashed may be just another kart racer, but it's also not as foreign of a concept to the sport as you may think. Its drafting, rivalries, and car contact are certainly key aspects of the sport represented here – just not enough.
Unleashed delivers a decent gameplay experience, but lacks the depth to be a quality title.