NASCAR Kart Racing: Five things you need to know

Mario Kart meets Jimmie Johnson. That's the simplest way to breakdown EA Sports' sudden shift in direction for its NASCAR series. Produced exclusively for the Wii (and now under the Freestyle brand), NASCAR Kart Racing looks to combine the arcade-nature of power-ups and tracks that do more than turn left with actual NASCAR strategy like teamwork and drafting.

"The Wii is the number one console in North America, and when you look at the Wii audience, they're not the traditional hard-core gamers," explains Ryan Stradling, the game's Senior Development Director and the founder of EA North Carolina. "The Wii really appeals to the whole family and we want to take the NASCAR series in that direction, so that the whole family could play together and have that living room experience.

So what should you expect? How about Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart dropping oil slicks behind them as they race for first, the Dover monster starring as an actual monster on the track, and teammates who are able to work together to slingshot one another to first place.

But that's just part of the story. Here are the top five things you need to know about EA's upcoming racer, scheduled to drop February 10.

The game is split between 14 real-world NASCAR drivers and 10 fantasy characters created by EA. Drivers known so far are Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, and Elliot Sadler. There will also be two unlockable, NASCAR drivers who remain a mystery at this time.

The fictional characters are a mix of everything from European drivers to motorcross racers (sans motorcycles) to female competitors. "The general idea is all these racers are coming from other sports trying to challenge the NASCAR drivers," says Stradling. "We tried to appeal to every type of audience, and these fictional drivers will have more extreme attributes than the NASCAR drivers, so they will be a lot of fun to experiment with and see who you like to control best."

Jeff Gordon driving through a junkyard? That's right, as the game's tracks aren't the conventional NASCAR stops. There are 24 race layouts including freeways, deserts, and back roads as you speed through surrounding areas of four of NASCAR's elite locations: Talladega, Dover, Daytona, and Bristol.

Says Stradling: "I think the Daytona track is really neat because it's a condensed version of the Daytona world. So you start off by the airport then head out to the beach. You drive along the beach then come back along Speedway Blvd., head through the tunnels, then back on the track where you do a whole turn and a half around the lap. It gives you the flavor of Daytona, but also the whole atmosphere around it."

Stephane Imbert, the game's Senior Software Engineer, has a couple of favorites of his own: "I love Dover. We actually send you underground and face-to-face with the Dover Monster. We built him into the track and it's a really cool visual.

"One of my favorite fictional tracks is the canyon track where you're racing really high in the canyons and there is a sharp drop on the right side. There are also a lot of big jumps where you can get some serious air. It's very impressive."

Rubbin' is racin'. That's just a fact of NASCAR life. It's also a way to make your kart go faster in the video game. "There's an advanced mechanic in the game where if you start rubbing against your opponent, you can build up some boost, and if you happen to boost while rubbing up against an opponent, you'll spin him out," says Stradling. "It's all done in a really arcade, cartoon-type way, so it's really fun when you have four players playing against each other, bouncing off of each other as you race to the finish line."

But that's not all as the game also features a variety of power-ups to send your opponents spinning the wrong direction. There's a NASCAR Yield Flag that slows down everyone on the track and enables you to catch up with the pack. Bottle Rockets can be fired at cars ahead of you, oil slicks can be dropped behind you, and there's even a super boost called Free Pass that not only shoots you forward at high speed, but anyone in your way will get shoved to the side of the road.

Racing as a team might not have become mainstream until Ricky Bobby and Cal did the "shake and bake", but teamwork is actually a big part of the NASCAR circuit, and that's translated into NASCAR Kart as well. Explains Imbert: "You can actually mix and match drivers how you like. By default, if you're a fan of Jimmie Johnson, your teammate is going to be Jeff Gordon, but nothing prevents you from creating your own dream team of drivers and teaming Gordon with Tony Stewart. If you stay close to your teammate, you'll see a connection, there will be lightning between the two cars and it's a really cool visual effect. That will then provide you a boost and you will be able to go faster by staying with your teammate. It's called 'In the Zone' and it's similar to a drafting effect, but we took some liberties with the draft zone."

There is a championship mode where racers compete in a variety of series, and every series has a specific rival who you are ultimately trying to beat. Each series is made of four tracks and after finishing in first place in the first three tracks, you then race against your rival.

"We also have a variety of events in story mode," explains Imbert. "You obviously have some racing to do, there is a best lap feature, but you also have specific challenges to do. For example: There is a fuel challenge where you need to collect gas cans along the way and the more cans you collect, the more boost you get, and the more boost you get, the farther you can go around the track in the set amount of time. You also have precision driving where there are circle gates around the track and you try to drive through as many gates as possible in a certain amount of time. It's no longer just about competition, it's about finding the right line and mastering the track."

Adds Stradling: "The thing about this game is, it's a fun single-player experience, but when you get a group of people playing, you get everyone talking noise to each other, elbowing each other as they race. It's just a really cool experience and I think it's something that the Wii audience is going to love."