Thursday, September 13, 2018

NASCAR Heat 3 Review (XONE)

Your enjoyment of NASCAR Heat 3 (and 2, for that matter) largely comes down to your acceptance of the fact that these are streamlined arcade-style racing games and not NASCAR simulators. If you want a challenging NASCAR sim, NASCAR Heat 3 will not in any way satisfy you. On the other hand, if you just want to tear around familiar tracks with your favorite driver in a game of 190MPH bumper cars, well then NASCAR Heat 3 can be a lot of fun. It still definitely has tons of problems that you'll wish were fixed even if you do accept it as an arcade racer, but the core thrill of driving door to door with 39 other cars is well done here and almost makes up for the laundry list of issues. As a simple and fun pick up and play NASCAR experience NASCAR Heat 3 is worth a look, but you'll be disappointed if you're expecting anything more. Continue reading our full NASCAR Heat 3 review for all of the details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: 704 Games
  • Developer: Monster Games
  • ESRB Rating: "E10" for Everyone 10+
  • Genre: Racing
  • Pros: Tons of content; dirt racing is fun; solid controls; fun arcade style gameplay
  • Cons: Awful damage model; basically 190MPH bumper cars; so-so career mode
  • MSRP: $50
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The good news is that I can easily say that NASCAR Heat 3 is an improvement in almost every way over NASCAR Heat 2. The bad news is that most of the improvements, at least as far as presentation and gameplay goes, are fairly minor. I'll go into more detail on that below. One thing that is a definite clear improvement, however, is the feature set. NASCAR Heat 3 includes all three main national series - Trucks, XFINITY, and Monster Energy Cup - with all of the drivers (including some part-timers), teams, tracks, and most of the official sponsors aside from the beer companies. New this year is the addition of the fictional Xtreme Dirt Tour that showcases NASCAR's roots on dirt tracks that adds several fantasy dirt tracks to go along with the real world Eldora Raceway. In terms of the sheer amount of content, NASCAR Heat 3 is headed in the right direction.

Gameplay modes include quick race, local split screen multiplayer, online 40-player multiplayer, challenge mode where you re-create real world moments, championship mode where you play a single season (you can alter the length) to go after a championship, and career mode. Career mode is similar to last year's where you start out as a hot seat driver and bounce around between different teams for a season before getting your own full-time ride in each series, which means it takes several seasons of racing before you actually get to the Monster Energy Cup Series for real. I didn't really like this setup last year, and I'm not crazy about it now.

New in NASCAR Heat 3, however, is that you can choose to make your own team, which makes things a bit more interesting but comes with its own set of flaws. When you make your own team you have to buy chassis and hire employees and use your race winnings to fix up the car each week. You start out with pretty crappy cars and not particularly skilled employees, but you can pay to improve the cars as well as train the employees and by mid-season you're able to be surprisingly competitive. And by the end of each season, at least for the dirt, Trucks, and XFINITY series, you'll be blowing the doors off of the other teams because you'll have tons of money to throw at the car and can just buy better performance and easily win (kind of like Petty did back in the day en-route to 200 victories ...). The Monster Energy Cup, thankfully, is a little more balanced.

The result of all this, though, is that the career mode still ends up being kind of a boring grind. Whether you make your own team or sign with an established team and all you have to do is drive, the career ends up the same way. You start with slow crappy cars and end up with fast awesome cars that provide no challenge. Making your own team doesn't have very much depth and it's all just too simple and easy and not satisfying. I like just doing the Championship Mode instead because you can skip the grind.

As I mentioned above, the gameplay is decidedly arcade-y, which is good or bad depending on what you're looking for. The cars are just glued to the track for the most part and you can make some pretty impressive and seemingly impossible saves if you do manage to get the car loose. Even turning off stability assistance in the options only really results in having to be slightly more mindful entering turns and getting on the gas on exit. Making contact with other cars is also ridiculously unsatisfying because it is wildly inconsistent in what it takes to actually wreck someone, but also because the A.I. cars have an insanely unnatural ability to almost immediately straighten out and continue racing like nothing happened. It's like you're playing bumper cars out there but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is a little telling, though, that even the game seemingly doesn't know how to deal with all of the inconsistency as playing with yellow flags on is a crapshoot where you never know what will actually bring a flag out. I've barely scraped the wall and caused a yellow flag and in another race multiple cars flipped and flew through the air with no flags in sight.

I also tested out the damage model and it is hilariously bad to the point you're better off just turning it off. The cars can take a lot of pounding before their performance is really changed, you see, and since the A.I. cars have an uncanny ability to straighten back out and not really crash, having damage on is fairly pointless and only really affects you. You can slam into walls at 200MPH and intentionally try to do damage and the game just shrugs it off like nothing happened. You can cause major damage through multiple targeted impacts, but it takes a ton and things that absolutely would destroy a car in real life are just minor dings here. I'll say it again, these NASCAR Heat games are just straight up arcade racers, and that's fine.

With all of that said, I gotta say that I've still had a lot of fun with NASCAR Heat 3. My favorite way to play has always been to start at the back and fight my way to the front, and that is just as fun as ever. The A.I. seems to be improved this year as getting into the top ten is a breeze but passing the next nine guys is much more of a struggle, just like it is in real life. The racing gameplay in general seems improved a bit over last year, too, as it seems like multiple lines are effective and the A.I. actually uses different lines rather than just running around in a double file pack all race long. There are still some wonky things, though, like the A.I. will all pit at the same time which just causes chaos and you can get a huge advantage by pitting a couple of laps earlier than you really need to. Also, the longer a race goes, the easier it is to win against the A.I. and even on the "Hard" difficulty setting I could lap the field a few times over on fairly reasonably long (25% length or so) distances. It is still fun, but it all comes back to the gameplay being a little easy and mindless.

I also want to give a shout out to the dirt racing in NASCAR Heat 3 as it is more fun than it initially seems even if it is just as inconsistent and unrealistic as everything else. In real dirt racing the cars get sideways and slide around corners and bump and bang and that is a huge part of the appeal, but the A.I. cars here almost never get sideways and if they do it scares the rest of the field so they all slow down like a wreck is happening. The strange thing is that getting loose and sliding or slowing down and taking corners more carefully both result in almost the exact same lap times here, so it's all a little wonky. It's definitely fun, though, and has a unique feel compared to the normal racing in the other series that will keep you coming back now and again for a change of pace.   

The presentation has also seen some slight improvements in NASCAR Heat 3 over last year. Well, other than the front end loading screens and menus looking almost exactly the same and the options literally being the same, the presentation has improved. During races the lighting and shadows are more realistic looking and everything looks better. The skyboxes seem to have been given special attention as there are some very pretty skies this time around, though the daytime races seem to all be taking place at 10 A.M. since the lighting is kind of more dim than you'd expect, which is kind of weird. I don't have any framerate complaints, though it isn't 100% stable. The sound also is slightly better with improved engine sounds so racing in a pack no longer sounds like a bunch of tinny bumblebees in an echo-y room.

NASCAR Heat 3 only makes marginal improvements over the previous games, but it is an improvement overall and that means that it is the best NASCAR Heat yet and the best the sport has seen in a while even if the result isn't quite what fans have been hoping for. It's a simple easy arcade-style racer, not a sim, and as long as you can embrace that you can have a fair bit of fun with NASCAR Heat 3. As long as you aren't looking for absolute authenticity, NASCAR Heat 3 is a fun time and offers enough content to make it worth a look.
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.