NASCAR is often used as a punch line. Everyone has heard jokes about left turns, and the redneck fans that enjoy watching the branded cars go in circles. Despite this, I’ve always enjoyed the sport. While I definitely wouldn’t call myself a huge fan, I pretty regularly will check out how a race is going and watch the final laps in order to see who wins. Even those who dislike circuit racing can’t deny that it’s thrilling when a car takes the lead upon the final turn.
That’s why I was excited to see that Monster Games, the studio behind Excite Truck and Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, was working on a new NASCAR game. It wasn’t their first crack at a racing simulation title either, as they had previously developed NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona and 2000’s NASCAR Heat. Considering there hasn’t been a good NASCAR-only game since Electronic Arts stopped developing them in 2009, this looked to be a return to form.
Sadly, that isn’t the case. Instead, gamers have received an incredibly bare bones racing title that isn’t much fun to play, and one that seems like a huge step backwards. I first started to have doubts about the game’s quality as soon as I paused the game for the first time to look at the controls. Instead the pause menu gave me three options: resume, restart or exit race. That’s it. If I wanted to look at the controls or change game settings, I had to go all the way back to the main menu. This would be a horrendous menu design in 1999, let alone 2016.
Sadly, the terrible presentation is the least of Heat Evolution‘s issues. More damning is the actual in-game HUD. By pressing the circle button I could alternate between seeing what lap I was on, my car’s damage, or my tire status. Ideally, I would want all of this information on-screen at the same time so I could make smart choices and know when to take my car into the pit lane. That isn’t possible. Instead, I had to scroll through these options (while also attempting to race) and look at the upper-left corner of the screen to see anything. Bad presentation is one thing, but when it starts impacting the actual gameplay it’s downright damaging.
If there is one thing I can praise about NASCAR Heat Evolution, it’s that the actual racing ranges from middling to slightly fun. Cars handle as they seemingly should and are pretty fun to drive around. The issue is that the gameplay is simple to a fault. Unlike past NASCAR titles that had players coordinating with teammates in order to succeed in races, this is as bare-bones as it gets. There is no depth, and my performance never really got better with time. I wanted mechanics to master and skills to learn, but this has none of that.
I typically enjoy playing racing games in a first-person view, but that quickly became a huge hassle here. There is a lot of slight pop-in while driving (it can particularly be seen on each track’s fencing), and it became hard to distinguish upcoming turns due to the lack of graphical fidelity (and the lack of an on-screen map didn’t help). Throw in an annoyingly limited view where I could barely look left or right to see my surroundings, and I quickly found myself driving in the third-person so I at least knew when someone was on the sides of my car.
Also, it’s worth noting that the game has significant damage, cautions and pitting turned off by default. It also has races set to the shortest possible length (which is around six laps). This makes the races rely heavily on qualifying, and I started to have more fun once I tweaked the settings. It’s a really strange choice to default the settings to where it barely feels like an actual race. Either way, the settings are there after you dig through multiple menus to get to them.
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All that said, the core racing can still be pretty fun. I still got enjoyment from passing rival cars, and when I won a race I knew it was because I executed on a good driving line (although circuits never really differ that much from driving high on straightaways and low on corners). The game could at least be saved if NASCAR Heat Evolution had worthwhile modes that compensated for the average driving.
Heat Evolution‘s main draw is the career mode, which put me in the shoes of a nameless rookie driver. Now, the entire point of stock car racing is that all of the drivers are essentially on an even playing field (which is why they have regulations on engine sizes and car parts that can be used). This game throws that all out of the window and instead has the player driving a terrible car that is practically guaranteed to qualify last in every race.
This creates a grinding career mode where I had to finish several races (typically around 30th) until I had enough money to upgrade my car. After a few upgrades I became more competitive, but it just goes against everything that NASCAR is about. I was at a clear disadvantage, and that sucks.
Previous games were able to get away from this type of progression by having players compete in other driving leagues (such as trucks or the Xfinity series) before getting to the highest level. That made sense, and allowed gamers to actually feel like they accomplished something. Instead, I was left on a grind to slowly improve my car, just so I could be competitive on the track.
I pretty much only had success on short tracks (such as Bristol) due to my car simply lacking the horsepower on long straight stretches. I could only take finishing 26th so many times, so I went into the game’s Championship mode to use a real driver. Using a regulation car, I immediately won my first race. It was really disappointing to see that the mode I typically love in racing games, was my least favorite here.
NASCAR Heat Evolution Review – Left Turn (PS4)
Besides those two modes, the game also has a really baffling experience system going on. Players earn skill points by racing, and they seem to unlock new content (namely challenges). The issue is that this system is never explained, and the game doesn’t ever communicate if you are close to unlocking something new. I was stuck on “Level 1” for hours, and a simple bar building up would’ve helped me know what I needed to do to get to the next level.
It sucks that the game’s challenges are tucked away behind a weird unlocking system, since that is where I had the most fun. The challenges have players trying to recreate moments from past NASCAR seasons, such as Brad Keselowski (who is my favorite racer because the hood of the #2 car just has “BRAD” on it) going from 25th to first place in the final five laps of a race at Auto Club Speedway. When successfully complete, the player then gets tips from actual drivers on how to master the tracks. It’d actually would make for a great tutorial, but instead it’s locked away.
Finally, the game has online play. This is separated between normal play and “no rules” racing that will allow players to wreck each other. In the past several days I have never seen a single lobby up in the no rules section (although I think this mostly speaks to the fact that less than 100 people are usually playing online). The online play works fine, and you can actually have 40 players in a single race (although good luck getting that many). Ultimately, though, I just didn’t find the game enjoyable enough to where I would want to race against others online. I’d rather play Forza Motorsport 6 (and play its NASCAR expansion) than play more Heat Evolution.
NASCAR Heat Evolution is a thoroughly disappointing release. It’s pretty bad when PlayStation 2 games were more fully featured and fun to play than a new release in 2016. Monster Games have proven in the past that they are a talented developer, and NASCAR fans deserve a better video game than this. I’m just left wondering where everything went wrong. Dig up an old Electronic Arts NASCAR game instead, you’ll have more fun.
Review code for NASCAR Heat Evolution provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.