Monday, September 19, 2016

NASCAR Heat Evolution Review (XONE)

After UK-based developer Eutechnyx made the last several NASCAR titles with only middling results, new NASCAR license holder Dusenberry Martin Racing promised that a new team would make the first current-gen NASCAR title.  It gave developer Monster Games – known for making the fan-favorite NASCAR Heat games and Dirt to Daytona – the task, which seemed like a pretty sound idea.  The end product of NASCAR Heat Evolution, however, is anything but sound and makes us wish Eutechnyx was given another try.  See our full NASCAR Heat Evolution review for all of the disappointing details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Dusenberry Martin Racing
  • Developer: Monster Games
  • ESRB Rating: “E” for Everyone
  • Genre: Racing
  • Pros:  Pack racing is surprisingly comfortable
  • Cons: Very bare bones; so-so presentation; you have to unlock tracks!; few options; bumper cars gameplay
  • MSRP: $60

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  NASCAR Heat Evolution was supposed to be a new NASCAR game made by people who actually claim to give a crap about the sport and wanted to do right by fans, so why does it feel like an unfinished half-assed cash grab?  The presentation is last-gen, it is bare bones in terms of features and options, the gameplay is totally mediocre, and yet it costs $60 and has a bunch of paid DLC already.  NASCAR Heat Evolution is a mess from top to bottom. 

The problems with NASCAR Heat Evolution begin with an incredibly sparse feature set.  Just like the last several NASCAR titles, NASCAR Heat Evolution only has the top-tier Sprint Cup series.  No XFINITY, no Craftsman Truck.  Just Sprint Cup.  Remember EA’s NASCAR titles that had all of the national series?  Boy, those were the good ol’ days.  NASCAR Heat Evolution does have all of the Sprint Cup teams and drivers, and even a handful of XFINITY drivers, and most of the sponsors are in place minus the alcohol sponsors.  It is kind of funny to see Brad Keselowski drive around with a car that just says “Brad” on it, though, as that matches his “Me First” attitude fairly hilariously perfectly. 

The modes include a quick race mode, challenges where you must match real accomplishments from the real drivers, a season mode (with different length options), a career mode, and online multiplayer.  In a completely stupid move, however, you have to unlock most of the tracks in the quick race mode via an XP / level system and unlocking all 23 tracks takes a surprisingly long time.  It took me around 35 races or so spread around the different modes just to unlock everything, which kinda sucks since you have to play on the same tracks over and over again.     

The career mode deserves a mention because it is incredibly grindy and not especially fun.  You start off as a nothing team with no sponsors and bad equipment and have to earn a pittance finishing at the back of the field every race in order to save up enough money to start buying team upgrades so you can compete.  Your car literally isn’t fast enough to keep up and turns like a brick, so you spend most of the your first full season finishing between 30-40th.  Things do start to get a little better when you can upgrade your shop and get engine specialists and the like who will actually make your car competitive, but it takes a long, long time and a lot of frustrating racing in the back before that happens. 

All of this wouldn’t be so bad, I suppose, if the racing out on the track was any good, but it isn’t.  There are only two handling modes – normal and simulation – where normal is essentially NASCAR bumper cars where it is almost impossible to crash, and simulation is also still bumper cars but you also occasionally lose control and spin out randomly because there is no traction control.  Unlike past games, there are virtually no options for tuning the game experience to suit your skill level.  All you can really do is change the handling mode and A.I. difficulty but neither seems to make much difference.  Either way it’s all just bumper cars.  It is a shame that there aren’t more options so you can select more of a sim or arcade experience.  There actually are some mechanical tuning options to tune your car’s performance, but they’re buried in a maze of menus.

There is no consistency to the physics at all and you can re-create the same incident ten times and get ten different results.  Sometimes you can slam into a car’s rear quarter panel intentionally to wreck them and nothing happens.  They don’t budge an inch.  Other times you’ll barely touch someone square in the back, which shouldn’t really do anything, and send them spinning.  There is no consistency in how the cars react to each other, which makes playing in simulation mode simply infuriating. 

Regardless of the handling mode you choose, the game plays pretty much the same.  Strangely, the game is very, very consistent when it comes to finishing order for the A.I.. I’ve run dozens of races and a few things are guaranteed – Either Jimmie Johnson or Brad K will win the race, the Gibbs cars are always slotted in from 9-12, Dale Jr. is always in the top 10, and Danica is always 17th, just to give a few examples.  It makes the races really quite boring when the A.I. drivers are always in the same positions in almost every single race.

I will say, however, that despite the broken physics, bumper car gameplay, and wonky A.I., NASCAR Heat Evolution can still be sort of fun to play.  My guilty pleasure in the last few NASCAR games has been to intentionally start at the back and see if I can win in the fewest amount of laps and NASCAR Heat Evolution definitely lets me do that.  The A.I. cars actually use multiple lines instead of just staying in one big two-lane pack the whole race, which makes weaving through them surprisingly enjoyable.  I also have to admit that your car is very stable while racing in a pack, even at Daytona and Talladega.  You feel really comfortable driving mere inches away from other cars, which is something I haven’t really ever felt in a NASCAR game before.  Part of why you feel so comfortable is because this game is basically bumper cars and not in any way shape or form a simulation, but that can still be fun for a while!

One of the most surprising things you’ll notice when you start NASCAR Heat Evolution is the little Unity logo on the start screen.  Yeah, someone thought it was a good idea to make a racing game in Unity.  As with most Unity games, that means NASCAR Heat Evolution only looks OK and runs like a pig.  The game simply doesn’t look like a current-gen title and NASCAR Heat Evolution’s framerate fluctuates wildly, usually getting worse as the race goes on. 

Something that is kind of crazy to me is that there isn’t a photo mode or replays after a race and you can’t even move the camera around during the race to look around or behind you.  It is like they knew it wasn’t too pretty and did everything they could to make sure you can’t actually take a good look at it.  Speaking of the camera, the three available camera angles – cockpit, on the hood, and behind the car – are all too close and too low and make it hard to actually see where you’re going. 

The bottom line to all of this is that NASCAR Heat Evolution doesn’t seem like a finished product.  The menus are simple and ugly.  Some of the trivia facts on the loading screens aren’t finished and just end mid-sentence.  It is missing features and modes and options that have become standard in racing titles, particularly racing titles that want to simulate a real world sport.  The graphics are bland and blurry and not current-gen at all.  And biggest of all, the gameplay is a major step back from the Eutechnyx games in almost every way.  A little more time in the oven wouldn’t have fixed everything, but it certainly would have helped.  As it stands, NASCAR Heat Evolution is a major, major disappointment that I can’t recommend to even the biggest NASCAR fans.
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.