NASCAR Heat 2 Review: Racing Through the Pack
NASCAR is one of America’s biggest spectator sports in terms of TV viewership and live attendance but you wouldn’t know this based on its video games. While the likes of the NFL and FIFA have massive video game franchises and the NHL and NBA also have reasonably popular games, NASCAR all but disappeared from the gaming after EA dropped its NASCAR license.
After a period where Eutechnyx had the license and the most noteworthy game they released was Ride to Hell: Retribution, 704 Games picked up the license. Partnered with Monster Games of Dirt to Daytona fame, the new NASCAR games has a bigger presence on NASCAR broadcasts and is getting in the hands of big gaming critics. So while it looks like the series is on the right track commercially, is it on the right track when you turn a wheel in anger? Having reviewed Eutechnyx’s last effort in 2015 (and understanding how that company also released Ride to Hell: Retribution), I can definitely say that the on-track product is heading in the right direction too.
The big addition to NASCAR Heat this year is the inclusion of the other two national series, the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series, along with their exclusive tracks. The inclusion of NASCAR’s two premiere feeder series is a big improvement in terms of creating an actual career mode that brings you through all three series and in just adding more content to the game.
Adding the XFINITY Series and Trucks adds dozens of new cars and drivers and six new tracks so that all 29 tracks run by NASCAR’s three national series are represented in the game. Unfortunately, you can’t race at a track in cars that don’t run there. Want to take your Cup car to Eldora, Iowa or Mosport? Excited for Trucks at Darlington, Richmond and Indy? Sorry but that’s not happening. I can understand that for Eldora since I’d imagine there might be some tricky programming for the dirt that is exclusive to the Trucks but not letting you race what you want on the other tracks seems a massive omission. That’s something NASCAR games have done for years. I’ll give Monster Games and 704 a pass for Eldora but not the other tracks.
Even with that limitation, the pick up and play aspect of Heat 2 is probably the strongest part of the game. It’s fun just picking a car and track and just racing. The default car (not truck) setups aren’t too bad though they are on the tight (understeer) side. There is also a challenge mode that vaguely recreates memorable moments at each of the game’s 29 tracks. Beating each challenge unlocks a video in which a driver gives you some tips for driving that track.
With the addition of two of NASCAR’s support series to the game, we get an expanded career mode. You start as a driver making spot starts in the Truck Series for small teams looking for a driver as you’re put on the “Hot Seat.” The seat is so hot that you can’t decline a race which is a pretty big omission. You’re given a goal to accomplish in those races and get some cash for achieving it. I haven’t found a purpose for that yet but achieving your race target unlocks better drives which in turn unlocks better contract offers after your Hot Seat season. I did like the touch of teams adding a new car/truck for you by having you drive your custom car/truck from the paint scheme designer (even though I was completely underwhelmed by the paint scheme creator in the game).
From here, you earn your way up the ranks by achieving your race goals (which improves your team) and winning races and championships. Of course, tossing in unskippable Hot Seat races and the career mode slows to a crawl. The fact that you will likely be eliminated in knockout qualifying if you skip to the end of a session means that the race weekends take far too long. Basically, career mode will feel like a second job rather than pick-up-and-play racing.
Of course, since the career mode wants you to start at the bottom and work your way up, you have a long way (and long time) to go from the Trucks to get into a top Cup car. Naturally, you can skip this by running a single season in the Cup or XFINITY series. You can even skip that pesky season part and jump straight into the Playoffs for each series. My time with the game didn’t show a way to change the Playoff schedule (not a big deal) or the Playoff drivers (a very big deal). It’s very odd to want to race the Playoffs as Matt Kenseth and ending up with Michael McDowell of #95 Leavine Family Racing in the playoffs.
One nice thing about this game is that Monster Games has an auto difficulty option. Using your speed ratings (your performance on a track gives you a speed rating), the game sets the difficulty so rather than a generic easy / medium / hard / expert difficulty, you can run a difficulty tailored to how fast you are on each track. One of the problems I have with most NASCAR games is that I struggle at plate tracks on normal difficulty but that same difficulty makes road courses a snoozefest. So if I struggle on one track but thrive on another, the game makes sure I have a fair challenge at each track.
Interestingly, there are “Auto” and “Auto (Hard)” difficulty settings because Monster had complaints that the game was too easy. On my first Cup Playoff race in the season mode, I nearly lapped the field and I would have if I didn’t keep getting into wrecks with lapped traffic and then deciding to pit at every caution so I’d have to fight through the field. And that was on Auto difficulty. I ran trucks at Chicagoland in Career mode prior to this race and scored a Top 10 but apparently that didn’t do anything to benchmark the difficulty in a Cup car.
Still, one criticism that I regularly levy against other racing games is the lack of an auto difficulty option and Monster actually put one in this game. I wish the game had a catchup logic or in-race difficulty adjustment so the pack is reasonably competitive all race rather than a speed rating being completely thrown off because of a good or bad race.
As a regular racing gamer, one of my biggest issues is with the setups. There are absolutely no tooltips for the various settings you can change on your car nor is there any guidance in the game about setting up your car. For setup hints, I stumbled upon a chart on Reddit that suggests tweaks to fix various driving conditions. That really should be in the game somewhere as a tutorial or in the garage menu as tooltips. I’m not asking for a Project CARS 2 style engineer who recommends setup changes when you tell him what’s wrong with your car but that would be ideal. I’ll settle for the Project CARS 2 style detailed tooltips whenever you highlight a setup option for your car.
Not helping matters is that I don’t think that stability assist is ever really switched off. I found the trucks akin to driving a 18-wheeler. Those things just wanted to push all day long regardless of how much I tried to loosen the car, especially on exit. However, my truck had a weird wiggle and start pushing. It was as if the back end wanted to come around but the stability assist caught it for me and the car would push up the track as a result. I’d rather spin so I can know where the limit is.
To top all that off, the game really feels like a low-line game. You’ve got Kyle Larson who practically rim rides the wall everywhere the high line is an option and we’re playing a game where running the outside seldom feels like a viable option. About 95% of my passes not on a restart were executed by drafting on the straight and diving low into the turn (and almost always into Turn 3). Without being able to find a faster line, the game suffers from a driving perspective.
Probably worse than the garage is the spotter. I’ve never played a NASCAR game with a worse spotter. He’s hard to understand and gives info so sparingly that he’s nearly useless. He’s late to tell you when a car is alongside, if he mentions it at all. Three-wide calls are non-existent. The blend zone on pit out doesn’t exist. He doesn’t tell you about trouble on the track. His attempt at “low, low, low” sounds more like “woah, woah, woah” which is very confusing until you put the timing of it together with what you see on screen. The only thing he’s good for is telling you when a car ahead is pitting. The amount of info he gives you should be a setting in the menu. I’d rather have a steady stream of “still there” for a car alongside than one “car low” and nothing until a clear ten seconds later. Granted, that’s often followed by turning down into a car that I was never actually clear of.
There are some other basic issues that drag the game down. For example, any time I go back to the pits from the menu in a practice session, the practice clock resets to one hour. I also can’t see my rank in practice or my speeds / lap times from previous runs which makes finding speed utterly hopeless when added to the setup pains I found. You can change tires in qualifying which is great when I want to find more speed but completely illegal under NASCAR’s rules. And the custom car creator is underwhelming with only five or so numbers available and a couple of sponsors with limited sticker colour options so trying to get a preferred sponsor’s logo to fit with my scheme wasn’t always easy.
As for the graphics and sound, there’s nothing too much to write home about. The visuals wouldn’t be out of place on a last-gen console. Racing games are the ones that console manufacturers love to have in a sizzle reel because they somehow always look the best on new consoles but NH2 will never get near a sizzle reel. The visuals barely get any airtime on NH2 ads on NASCAR races. When you barely use your own game’s visuals in the marketing, that should be a massive hint that you missed the mark on them.
On the plus side, alcohol sponsors make their first appearance in a NASCAR game (without downloading them from third-parties). If you’re old enough (you can input your date of birth in the game for this purpose), you can unlock the alcohol-sponsored paint schemes of various drivers. So instead of “Brad” on Mr. Keselowski’s #2, you can see him driving the Miller Lite Ford Fusion. It’s a little touch that probably doesn’t mean much to most but fans of drivers like BK and Kevin Harvick, both of whom have beer sponsors, it’s a critical touch of realism so they can drive their driver’s car.
NASCAR Heat 2 is like a car that’s fast on fresh tires but slowly fades on the long runs. When the green flag flies at the start, NH2 takes off flying with the two new series, new cars, new tracks, challenges and deeper career mode. As you spend more time running, that initial enthusiasm is tempered by limiting the tracks you can run, an occasionally tedious crawl through career mode, a dreadful setup menu and bugs.
It’s amazing that we’re almost 15 years removed from NASCAR Racing 2003 Season but no game has come as close to being a complete experience. Sure, the EA games had a better career mode and even this one tops NR2003 by having a career mode but NH2 isn’t as fun as the older games. Even though NR2003 was a sim, I thought the handling model was comparatively easy to grasp for someone who isn’t a through-and-through sim racer because I could feel the car.
Monster Games needs to get away from trying to be this idolized version of NR2003 or iRacing and get back to fun. Let’s race the cars on every track. The handling model needs to be tweaked to open up the whole track to racing, not just the low line, and to actually turn off the stability assist. Forza captures this balance between being an arcade racer and a sim racer. NASCAR Heat 2018 needs to find that same balance. The building blocks for a great NASCAR game are all there. Monster Games just needs to tweak the setup to run at the front.
NASCAR Heat 2 was reviewed on PC but is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A review copy of the game was provided by 704 Games. Your impressions of the game may change depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you think that a NASCAR game shouldn’t completely overlook critical elements like car setups and spotters.