STAFF REVIEW of NASCAR Heat 2 (Xbox One)

Monday, October 16, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

NASCAR Heat 2 Box art I have to admit, I never found the appeal to watching NASCAR, aside from top 10 highlights, and of course the crashes. I completely understand the appeal to those who enjoy it, as well the complexity behind the sport, it’s just that it has never been my thing. I approached NASCAR Heat 2 with an open mind hoping to learn from my time with it. I did learn a bit about the sport from playing it, such as the plethora of actual real-life drivers, teams, and events. Even though I’m no expert on the matter, I do know that Nascar Heat 2 plays more like an arcade version of the sport than a simulation, despite its best efforts.

It’s no secret that Nascar has a huge following, as speedways are filled with fans every time I catch an see it on TV as I'm flipping channels on a lazy Sunday. While most will simply pass off the sport as ‘turning left’ repeatedly, there’s a lot of intricacies and strategy that goes into a race from a drivers perspective. You need to be mindful of your tires, cars around you, apexes and the angle of the banks of the turns, among other things. Developer Monster Games has attempted to improve on their last title, and in many respects they have, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be enough to sway people into the NASCAR world, especially given the grind the career becomes and the somewhat mediocre gameplay.

You’ll begin your career as a custom character, male or female, but don’t expect many options for face or body type. Now that I’m writing about it, you don’t ever really see your character from this point on, so I’m not sure why this is even an option aside from your portrait on a few menus. You also begin by designing your vehicle, including what stickers you want to plaster on it and where. Again, there are options here, and a handful of layers, but it’s basic overall, so don’t go in expecting Forza-like paint jobs or cool color schemes.

You begin as a nobody, obviously, and don’t even have a team to drive with, so your career begins racing a handful of Hot Seat races. These allow recruiters to see how well you drive, helping them to decide if they should offer you a spot on their team or not. Your first handful of races are not going to end well, so don’t expect the door to be knocked down with hordes of teams trying to sign you. Your goal is to do just well enough for a team to want to add you to their roster, thus your real career begins at that point.

You sign on the dotted line and you’re now an official driver in the Camping World Truck Series, revolving around driving trucks of course, not stock cars. Those come later; much later. You have the option to set races to full length or just a handful of laps depending on your preference and time constraints. This is a double edged sword, as fewer laps allows you to play more events, as the career mode is quite lengthy, but not doing full races will almost guarantee you’ll never finish in first, as you need a lot of laps to slowly inch your way up the pack.

You are given objectives over a set amount for races, like coming in better than 20th, placing in qualifiers and more. While it’s nice to complete these, there’s no real incentive to do so. Sure, you’re given a small amount of money for winning, but your bank roll literally has no use in this game, so I’m not sure why it’s even included, as you can’t spend it on anything.

You’ll eventually earn your way into the Xfinity Series, and even the coveted Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series should you not only prove yourself worthy, but manage to stick with the career mode grind long enough to do so. Becoming the overall champion will take dedication, as there’s a long length to the career, just not nearly as much substance though. There’s an attempt at trying to make things more interesting with a rivals system and short recorded messages from actual drivers, but it all comes off as a little bland in my opinion; however, I am sure true fans will enjoy this aspect.

You’d think that holding down the gas and tapping left now and then would be all it take to win, but the truth is you’re going to have to race a little dirty if you want to take advantage of the AI, which you will need to do at times as the AI can be downright unfair now and then. You’ll gain speed by drafting behind other drivers, though it’s very hard to slingshot past them, so you need to draft the car that’s two ahead of you if you want to make your way up the pack. That, or you could simply spin them out or push them into the wall with zero real consequences. That’s right, there’s no consequence for driving dirty. Sure, you’ll get the AI racers to hate you and try and take you out more often, but even then, feel free to drive as dirty as you wish.

It took me quite a few races to really get a grasp on the driving intricacies. The drafting mechanic is never really explained (but true fans will already know this tactic), and the moment you ease off the gas or hit the brakes, you almost instantly lose your position. I found that constantly keeping the accelerator pressed while tapping the brake slightly was the best option to keep up your engine revs and speed without slowing down too much. Of course, finding the optimal racing line plays a big part, as does the slope of the bank on turns, but be prepared for frustration until you learn how to keep your speed in the corners without crashing.

I’m glad the career is lengthy, but it felt almost daunting at times, as you aren’t really given a set end date for events ahead of time. I’m sure if you know how the sport works, and how it is scheduled, you’d have a better idea, but as someone that doesn’t know the sport too well, it simply felt like I kept racing for no real reason. If you’re content with racing over and over with no end goal, then you’ll feel right at home. It's not that I wanted some form of rubber banding, but one bad crash or rub and you practically lose all hopes of winning a race. The longer the races the more time you’ll have to move up, but it always felt like I was bounding around in the middle of the pack, never near the front.

There are 29 official tracks, and while that seems like a lot, they all feel very familiar aside from a few, like the infamous Eldora Speedway dirt track and road courses. Some tracks have tighter turns and higher banks, but they all are generally the same and don’t require much difference in racing strategy. The road tracks only tend to showcase the arcade-ness of the braking and controls, and while the dirt track is fun for a change, it feels like a completely different game when you’re constantly sliding and almost drifting when you’re not supposed to be.

There’s a number of other modes should you tire of career and want to attempt something different. Challenges is a mode that is quite interesting, especially for someone like myself that isn’t as very knowledgeable about the sport. Here you’re given a very specific task with a certain driver based on real life events that has taken place in NASCAR history. Finishing a race when you’re running out of gas, holding back a pack of racers, or coming from behind to win; these are just a few of the almost 30 challenges you can attempt. Your prize is a video showcase of what actually happened, complete with footage and interviews, something that I really appreciated as a non-fan, so I can imagine these would be quite cool for a real NASCAR fan to see (again).

There is a Championship mode should you want to jump right into a full season of the Camping World Truck series, Xfinity Series or Monster Energy series, being a part of the team that you choose. Essentially this is just career mode without the extra fluff, allowing you to focus on exactly what you want to play without having to grind your way to get there. Of course there’s also an option for Quick Play should you want to just jump in and start racing.

There is an online mode present, as well as a split screen mode for those times when you're sitting on the couch with a friend at home. In terms of the online mode, what caught me by surprise is the support for a full 40 players online in a single race. Granted, I’ve yet to find a lobby this packed, and after playing online with others, I would want no part of that disaster. Online is where you generally go to prove yourself, testing your skills against others online, rising up the leaderboards and playing with friends. Remember above when I mentioned there’s no consequence for driving dirty? The same applies here, so expect nearly every other human driver push, shove, and slam you into the wall to get past you. Given that there’s no reason not to drive dirty, every match I played ended up this way. Instead of proving your driving abilities, it degrades into who can cause the most havoc behind them. Sure, it’s fun with a friend or two, but the chances of you and 39 other people, friends and general public, all playing at the same time with a gentleman’s agreement to race proper most likely isn’t going to happen.

Lastly, given the point that we are in the life cycles of the consoles, I generally expect a racing game to look impressive, nowhere near Forza games of course, but racing games tend to generally take advantage of the hardware. Sadly this isn’t the case with NASCAR Heat 2. Sure, there’s some nice details, like the decals on the vehicles, but nothing here really impresses at all. Come to a complete stop and you’ll see some ugly looking textures and many jagged edges, which surprised me.

I do appreciate that a lot has been improved on from the last release, which should appease fans, but there’s simply too much grinding and blandness to the overall package for casual or non-NASCAR fans. I enjoyed the Challenges mode, almost using it as a NASCAR history lesson, but I‘m still baffled as to why I’m trying so hard to win money in career that has zero use, other than as a gauge of how much I’ve won to this point.

Fans of the sport will surely enjoy seeing their favorite teams and drivers, but there’s not much weight to that novelty here for the rest of us. I went into NASCAR Heat 2 with an open mind, hoping to be won over, and possibly even becoming a fan of the sport; neither of these really happened and I found that unfortunate. At the end of the day, NASCAR fans will find something to like here for sure, but for gamers as a whole, I'm not quite sure that this would fill their need for a racing game nor be an experience that would help them to understand, or even enjoy, what NASCAR may have to offer.

Overall: 5.7 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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