It seems ironic that as the NASCAR Monster Energy Drink series is winding down as it reaches its unique playoff structure that its annual video game adaptation gets released just before the cars go silent in the winter. NASCAR Heat 2 (704 Games, Monster Games, MSRP $49.99) roars onto retail shelves as a spiritual successor to the annual Electronic Arts versions that also came out on a yearly basis. So with its precursor NASCAR Heat Evolotion firmly in the rear view mirror, how will this year’s iteration fare when competing against other driving game releases that are lining up to be a big part of the holiday sales season.
First off the timing of the game’s release may have some (including this writer) questioning why the game came out when it did. As mentioned before the game’s release near the tail end of the NASCAR season series would most likely have been better promoted if it came out in let’s say February when the Daytona 500 and the start of all festivities are just about to begin. Second, the game itself because of when it was released (Sept. 12th) may have found tough sledding due to the subsequent releases of Forza Motorsport 7, Project Cars 2, Gran Turismo Sport and Need for Speed Payback could very easily find itself lost in the shuffle. So if timing may hamper gamers from finding NASCAR Heat 2 initially once they do will they come to appreciate it as being at the top of the leaderboard among driving games?
For those that took in NASCAR HEAT Evolution, one will notice right away that the options of what to do and how to approach it are much more varied than last year’s outing. Whether one wants to go at it for the long haul with a deep career mode, just head straight to the NASCAR playoffs or have some fun in multiplayer (both online and split-screen) this game represents a marked improvement over its predecessor in the way it presents options for the player and if heavily invested with the series will find numerous hours of interest with this game. While most of us cannot afford to pay for the more structured and regulated experience of iRacing’s NASCAR series, it’s at least good to know that one will get a pretty sizable bang for their buck with this game.
A beefed up career mode has gamers competing through a variety of series based within the NASCAR realm. Progressing through the various series be it NASCAR’s main series or through one of it’s smaller divisions such as the Infinity or Camping World Truck Series can become an extended, arduous journey filled with peaks and valleys as the attempt to improve one’s driving status and join one of the top teams continues to be the “driving” force behind what amounts to be a very solid experience. In what essentially amounts to a driving games version of grinding, steadily improving performance on the track can equate to being offered better rides which will gain drivers a better footing against teams with continually better setups and gear. An interesting sidebar can be created if running into other racers during the series as now and then those computer generated competitors will remember in future races and may exact their revenge at any given moment creating a vendetta that keeps the gamer on their toes. But if luck or any outside forces come into play frustration can set in easily as continually bad finishes will lead to languishing within the back of the pack making one’s trek to the front that much more difficult.
Advice from authentic NASCAR drivers on each track help provide a momentary infusion of realism into the game but the lack of presentation and commentary for the most part (outside of a spotter notifying of car locations) within the game itself takes away that immersion factor as compared to say a FIFA, NBA2k or Madden that so many fans look for in their NASCAR games. The challenge option gives out over 30 different tasks to complete within a short amount of time. These challenges, such as winning a short sprint while running out of fuel, holding off specific drivers or navigating through orchestrated crashes among others allow for a bit of diversion but rather than just complete them all in a couple of hours this mode should be something best experienced as a joyful excursion now and then.
Similar to the career experience multiplayer comes up as a solid if not spectacular format that can provide NASCAR fans with an interesting time given a fair amount of challenging and cooperative competitors. The chance to race up to 40 real live or computer generated drivers certainly gives NASCAR Heat 2 the foundation for quality races but without any true way of regulating the structure of the race from denigrating down to a crash fest or a survival of the fittest is commonplace when competing online. If a similar option can be taken for serious or e-sports level competition using a rating system similarly used by iRacing and Gran Turismo Sport, perhaps future iterations of the NASCAR Heat series can also be taken more seriously at a higher gaming level when it comes to an online driving experience. Split-screen racing offers fun for those driving on a more personal level as a face to face competition is almost always surely going to stir up some good natured trash talking and some excitement within the game room area.
In an era where racing games seem to be on the cutting edge of video game graphics, NASCAR Heat 2‘s car models do not come across as visually inspiring. The cars or trucks represented in the game come off sometimes as a little to rigid in their design as even subtle differences between the vehicles, brands and makes in real life are not truly represented in the game. Ford differentiating from Chevrolet or Toyota is harder to visualize in the game which comes off as having a generic feel during racing action. While the game is more akin to an arcade racer rather than simulation experience, for those who are into realism and damage modeling, the system when turned on is improved over last year’s model but still has a bit to go when comparing to iRacing or other driving games due to the lack of bumper damage that can be sustained and the relative cleanliness and rigidity (aka no reaction or shock absorption, paint rub or anything) of the walls and fences no matter hard a car can run into it.
704 Games set out to make marked improvements over its initial entry into the NASCAR video game lineup and from all appearances it looks like it has just done that. With a ramped up career mode and an online experience that provides a pretty fair time as gamers speed their way through a variety of short tracks, super speedways and challenging road courses NASCAR Heat 2 proves to have a couple of car lengths on what Evolution could put out just one year ago for those clamoring for some stock car action. But the way the game is packaged and presented to players overall keeps this game from reaching the winner’s circle when it comes to the race between competitors in the racing game genre.
(Please note that for this review, Pop Culture Cosmos/Game Source did receive a review code/model/sample from 704 Games responsible for distribution to the press.)