NASCAR Heat 3 is 704 Games’ saving grace – but problems remain
After a brace of misfires, the NASCAR Heat series has finally taken off with its third release.
After a tough start, the latest iteration in 704 Games’ franchise has fixed a number of issues from the last two games and added a wealth of new features – most notably the fictional dirt series – to make this arcade-sim racer worth playing.
But there are still issues – painful soundtrack notwithstanding.
The North Carolina-based developer has 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski on its board of directors and former NASCAR vice president Paul Brooks its CEO, and that expertise seems to have finally paid off.
Mirroring the much-loved Dirt to Daytona games, the ‘Xtreme Dirt Tour’ starts you off in a late-model dirt racer on real-world circuits such as Eldora and a dirt version of Bristol Motor Speedway, along with one road course. In all, eight are included in NASCAR Heat 3.
But among the dirt series’ many minor foibles is the fact that the cars are far too forgiving, whether on a wheel or pad, without any assists on. And the artificial intelligence rarely seems to go sideways, treating dirt courses more like paved short tracks.
The racing is close and furious, and altogether enjoyable, if a bit timid compared to real-world late-model racing with a distinct lack of tail-out action. Between stages, you’ll be asked whether you want to pit or not – an ill-advised choice as your opponents never do. It’s also confusing, as there’s no way to actually pit during a dirt race.
It’s a shame that your offline opponents will sometimes drive as if you don’t exist
It’s not comparable to iRacing’s depiction of dirt racing, or even the sprint cars included in Codemasters’ old TOCA Race Driver series, but it’s fun and it completely transforms the career mode into a much deeper offering than before.
Much more unforgivable is the still-cryptic approach to car set-up, carried over from the last game, which isn’t explained at all to the player. With car balance such an important factor in every NASCAR series, just why 704 Games has made it so difficult to change is strange. More times than not you’ll find yourself selecting from the presets, ranging from tight to loose on a spectrum, and adjusting wedge and grille tape in the pits during a race or qualifying to correct the game’s default tuning set-ups.
And it shines a light on the direction that the developer has taken with this game, forgoing other simulation aspects such as track temperature and changing grip levels. Instead it’s focused on more arcade-based features, including setting your own team up by gaining sponsors, training and hiring/firing personnel, making friends and enemies through on-track behaviour and off-track social media use, and improving your car between races.
Perhaps 704 Games has taken the right approach here. NASCAR Heat 3 is an accessible, welcoming game with a large single-player offering – much like F1 2018 has – rather than trying to appeal solely to sim-racers.
Another significant improvement over NASCAR Heat 2 is the visuals, with shadows and lighting now easier on the eye – though not at the same level as GT Sport or Forza Motorsport 7 – and the ugly, jagged edges that appeared on catchfences along the track are mostly gone. Frame rate, however, is inconsistent at times, which is frustrating in a game that will throw you into the nearest safer barrier if you make a mistake.
That brings us onto the series that await you after the dirt tour: Trucks, Xfinity and the Cup Series.
Each feels noticeably different, with the Cup Series cars particularly tricky to handle but tameable after a few rounds. It’s a shame that your offline opponents will sometimes drive as if you don’t exist, blocking aggressively one moment and then spinning you into the pit entrance – causing you to get a speeding penalty as you barrel through the pitlane at 100mph – if you dare to overtake on the main straight of a speedway.
Nearly as inconsistent is the caution system, with yellow flags flying sometimes for cars entering the pitlane but not when there’s a damaged car crawling in the middle of the racing line, or one spinning into 200mph traffic.
The experience is somewhat spoiled, but not ruined, by those problems. Yet there’s there is no denying the feeling of danger and speed, something that was all but absent from Heat 2.
The experience of racing in a pack, wondering when to make a move, defend, or change line is magnificent – injecting a heady mix of suspense and adrenaline – and that’s where Heat 3 shines.
NASCAR is a war of attrition, where tyres, fuel and patience trickle away to reveal either a huge accident or a route to victory – and this feeling is executed very well in Heat 3.
Is the exclusion of simulation physics forgivable?
A number of times in career mode I had a shock shot at the win, as the race entered overtime due to a late caution. An equal number of times, a top-10 finish crumbled away as I attempted a regrettable move.
Crashes are as common as they should be, and although the AI is a bit too skilled at saving a spin, they do happen often. When the ‘big one’ strikes at Talladega, expect a comical scrum of cars flipping and flying across the racetrack. But there is no replay mode to find out how the seeds of armageddon were sown.
Stock cars shouldn’t take flight so easily, and generally in real life they don’t. It’s not just the crash physics; the handling goes some way to making the cars feel far too light.
On a controller, cars handle just about the same as they do on a wheel, where a lack of feedback (which can be increased a little bit through the settings) contributes to a slightly floaty feeling. It’s not the most in-depth handling model, and in Heat 3 it’s the action, rather than the car, that stars.
Is the exclusion of simulation physics forgivable? That depends on whether you’re looking for a full-blooded sim or an arcade racing game with a deep, wide-ranging career that ends up providing a solid representation of NASCAR and its most enjoyable parts.
If it’s the latter, then you’ll believe that NASCAR Heat 3 is the once-struggling series’ saving grace.
NASCAR’s Heat series will never be a true representation of stock car racing. And, the many niggling issues in Heat 3 should surmountable for future releases, and far from a deal-breaker.
It’s not the stunning sequel that Codemasters delivered earlier this year in F1 2018, but 704 Games is getting close with NASCAR Heat 3.