Friday, September 13, 2019

Eric Vs. 365 - Day 75 - NASCAR Heat 4

I go into every sports game with a fair bit of skepticism these days. There are always promises of big changes and improvements, but in reality they're usually pretty subtle and don't make that big of a difference. Not that the new game isn't almost always better than the ones that came before, but rarely are there drastic changes that actually warrant the hype. I actually began recording this NASCAR Heat 4 video saying "It's mostly the same as last year but with some subtle changes", and then over the course of the races I ran during the video my mind was kind of blown by how good it is. Notice that the line about "subtle changes" didn't make it into the final edit. 704Games and Monster Games finally got it all right and NASCAR Heat 4 is, pretty easily, the best NASCAR game in years. Click for more and to watch two (edited) races worth of gameplay.

I'm not really doing "reviews" anymore, so I'm not going to lay down all of the bullet points about features and new stuff and changes and blah blah blah. I will say that I definitely dig the fact that you can start your career in any series rather than working your way up from dirt to trucks to Xfinity to Cup over a million years. I also appreciate the day/night cycle during long races in late afternoon into evening. As far as the promised graphics and sound improvements, I couldn't really tell if it was better, but it's certainly fine.

What this article is really about, and why I'm so excited, is that the on-track gameplay in NASCAR Heat 4 is freaking awesome. For the last several NASCAR games dating back to the Eutechnyx days the way I have played them is to start in the back and race my way through the field. This was the only way the games were interesting or challenging because the A.I. was always dumb, or pit stops were screwy, or caution flags didn't work right, or the gameplay didn't feel especially good, or drafting was broken, or a bunch of other things. The games were still fun, don't get me wrong, but they didn't really represent the real sport very well. 

NASCAR Heat 4, on the other hand, is the best on-track action I've ever experienced in a NASCAR video game. One reason is that tire wear actually matters. In most racing games tire wear isn't especially subtle - you reach "X" number of laps and are suddenly driving around on ice. In Heat 4 you really feel your tires going away lap after lap and the handling is much more dynamic. Due to this, pit strategy actually matters! In past games the A.I. would all pit at the same time  in a long cluster-eff on pit road because everyone ran out of fuel at the same time, but in Heat 4 there are actually different strategies in play and coming in early to get new tires can change the complexion of a race. 

Another way NASCAR Heat 4 is a big improvement is that drafting is no longer a one-way street. In almost every other racing game, and not just NASCAR, drafting is mostly about you being able to slipstream the car in front of you to get a boost of speed so you can slingshot around them. The A.I. usually doesn't really try to draft and once you get around a car that's it. In NASCAR Heat 4 the A.I., for the first time ever, actually properly uses the draft to not only draft behind you, but they'll PUSH you and let themselves be pushed by you. In the past A.I. drivers would freak out if you tried to push them, but now you can actually hook up with a partner and draft through the field. This makes the super speedway races at Daytona and Talladega infinitely more interesting, and realistic, than they ever were before. You can see how realistic the drafting is in the video right up until the end when I made a poor choice of who to block on the last lap.

The core driving gameplay has generally been solid in the 704/Monster Games NASCAR titles, but now in NASCAR Heat 4 everything else has caught up. Drafting finally works like it should. Caution flags are more consistent and work properly. Tire wear and fuel consumption work properly and make pit strategy an actual thing for the first time. The A.I. actually runs a ton of different lines and doesn't just run around the track in two orderly lines. The way races play out is more realistic than ever. There is strategy and challenge and things are more dynamic than before. It's incredibly fun to play. 

I think the most glowing praise I can give NASCAR Heat 4 is that I recorded two (and a half ... I got wrecked coming on to pit road at Indy and decided to cut that race entirely) races, and didn't win either one, but had so much fun working out pit strategy and saving my tires and drafting my way through the field that I didn't care. It was realistic and mimicked the on-track product you see on TV better than any other NASCAR game I have ever played. In past games I could start at the back and win every race, which was fun in its own way, but that was nowhere near as fun or satisfying as actually having to work for positions and really, truly, race.

Probably the best part is that there are so many options and settings to choose from that you can make the races as arcade-y or simulation-y as you want. I sort of go in-between where I like easy smooth arcade handling but want the A.I. and everything else to be more challenging. You can tweak the game to be whatever you want, which makes it easy to recommend to any NASCAR fan no matter how hardcore you are.

You can tell in the video how I start out sort of "It's another NASCAR game ..." but end up really genuinely excited about what had happened on the track and couldn't wait to play more to see what other crazy results I'd get. I've played every console NASCAR game since the EA Sports games on PS2 and OG Xbox and I can easily say that NASCAR Heat 4 is the best one yet. No other game has ever made me feel this excited and satisfied even when I lose, and I think that says a heck of a lot.

Disclosure: A download code was provided by the publisher 704Games.