The greatest NASCAR console game to date.
Of all of the NASCAR games that EA Sports released from 1997 through 2008, there is one game that stands out above all others in terms of gameplay and overall quality, and that game is NASCAR Thunder 2004. Released for the PS2, PSOne, Xbox, and PC back in September 2003, NASCAR Thunder 2004 took me by surprise as a gamer when I first got it in 2003 for the PS2. I had played the prior two releases (NASCAR Thunder 2002 and 2003) and didn't care much for them, but NASCAR Thunder 2004 blew me away and made me a fan for life.
Gameplay/ModesWhat makes NASCAR Thunder 2004 stand out over the other NASCAR games that EA Sports released in a 11-year span is the sheer quality and effort they put into this game. This was the last NASCAR game made by EA Sports before EA bought out the rights to the NASCAR franchise from their PC rival NASCAR Racing Season 2003, which was developed by Papyrus Design Group and Sierra Entertainment in 2003.
Players can choose from all of the sanctioned NASCAR racetracks to race on, including special and fantasy tracks that they can unlock the further they get in the separate modes and by accomplishing certain goals in-game. Players adjust the settings of the race and their opponents to their preference, and can choose the driver they wanted to use in the race from the roster of Winston Cup drivers as well as special fantasy drivers and select drivers from the Busch Series. One of the options was to pick the paint scheme of the car you had selected (you can choose from multiple schemes from prior seasons on most cars) to use in the race.
But it is on the track where NASCAR Thunder 2004 shines the most. Boasting one of the best Artificial Intelligence systems in racing, the computer-controlled racers race aggressively and react to each and every thing you do due in part to another new feature introduced in NASCAR Thunder 2004: the "Grudges and Alliances" system. It allows for you to build good or bad on-track relationships with other drivers in each race, and how you treat them or work with them effects how they perceive you and how they react to you in races. Working together with a driver by sharing the draft with them or helping them work up towards the front of the field will earn you respect with the driver you are working with, and thus he might help you in return. Rub fenders with drivers too often or knocking drivers out of your way will make you a rival in the eyes of those you victimize, and they will go out of their way to block you, harass you, and even wreck you if they are angry enough with you. This makes each and every race different due to where your allies and rivals are on the track, and depending on how you race, it could be the difference maker that determines if you celebrate in Gatorade Victory Lane or bringing a wrecked race car back to the garage in disgust.
With various modes that challenge the gamer to successfully complete goal-based challenges, beat certain times, and relive or re-write the greatest NASCAR moments from the 2001, 2002, and 1st part of 2003 seasons, NASCAR Thunder 2004 provides many hours of action-packed gameplay and thrilling races against one of the best A.I systems in racing at it's time. From the Thunder Challenges to the new SpeedZone trials, NASCAR Thunder 2004 gives the gamer different options to try and conquer for special rewards. With dozens upon dozens of Thunder Plates to unlock (each containing special rewards for unlocking them), dozens of Thunder Challenges to complete and conquer, and a robust 20 season career mode, NASCAR Thunder 2004 provides the gamer with fun yet rewarding material to spend hours on.