Aside from Turn 10’s attempt earlier this year at bringing the world’s most popular sport into Forza Motorsport 6 via an add-on, there’s been little for gamers who are fans of NASCAR to really get their teeth into in the current generation. Naturally, when Dusenberry Martin Racing announced that they’d grabbed the team behind 2002’s solid NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona to get things going on current consoles, anticipation was at fever pitch.
NASCAR Heat Evolution is the product of that team’s work and as soon as the green flag is waved, things aren’t necessarily up to scratch. The full NASCAR grid is represented, complete with all the liveries and tracks that you’d expect, with players able to take part in individual races and challenges, play online with up to 39 other drivers at a time, or dive into the game’s Career mode. This is where the most time will be spent, with the goal being to start with an un-liveried car and no facilities and build your team up to the point that you’re in contention for the Sprint Cup.
As with every other mode in the game, things are pretty bare bones. You name your driver and head off into a couple of qualifying races, before picking your team’s main sponsor. From there, it’s a trudge through the NASCAR season, putting in losing effort after losing effort, collecting the pittance you get for finishing in 37th over and over again, in the hope that you’ll eventually have enough money to buy an upgrade. Then it’s the same thing, only you’ll be finishing in 35th, until you can get the next one. At times, you’ll pull off a miracle finish – generally around tracks that don’t require a high top speed, like Bristol – and be awarded a new sponsor to help with cashflow, but that’s about the entirety of the management that your racing team requires.
You can’t even so much as alter your car’s setup in the garage before each race, since the game does what it thinks is best without telling you. It’s nice that when you head out at Talladega, your gear ratios have automatically been switched to be longer than they were around Dover’s Monster Mile, but it would be even nicer to have the choice or the ability to make changes yourself. About the best you can do is alter the tape and wedge settings, but even these can only be changed when you’re in the pits during a race. It makes NASCAR Heat Evolution feel like an arcade game, rather than a simulation of one of the most popular sports in the world.
That confused feeling carries on to the track, too. Visually, it would be kind to say that the game doesn’t even come close to pushing the envelope, with the boxy cars looking like creations from a previous generation. Vehicle handling is underwhelming, with NASCAR vehicles obviously incorrectly only able to either go straight or be in full lock. In the menus, steering sensitivity can be changed to allow for subtler alterations to your trajectory, but no matter how you set it up, it doesn’t feel particularly good.
Switching the driving model to “Simulation” doesn’t help matters either, seeming to only remove the traction control provided when you’re driving out of the pits and doing little else. The same could be said for switching the physics model into “Full Damage” mode. You’d think that – no matter how comparatively tough they are – a stock car running at 180 miles per hour head on into another one doing a similar speed would end up causing the two vehicles to be out of commission. Not so. Even with the damage model turned up to the max, NASCAR Heat Evolution lets your car take a remarkable amount of pounding before you see even the slightest degradation in performance.
Again though, this speaks to the nature of the game as a whole. If the vehicles did suffer realistic damage, the product would be even less enjoyable than it is, since the entire thing seems to be set up for you to barge your way around the track, taking opponents out in your race to first place. The AI has the same feeling about things and will think nothing of switching from high to low around a turn when pitting in, without even checking to see if anyone’s in the way and taking you (and themselves) out as they do so.
Online is plagued by people who have worked out that crashing is the key to winning. There’s no “no collision” lobbies available when you head into multiplayer mode so, even though everybody may start out with the best intentions, the second they take a turn a little late and clip a wall, the only way back into the game is for them to try to take other drivers down. As such, every race descends into a grief-fest.
What’s strangest is how the game actually handles collisions. During your career, you can – accidentally or not – clip an opponent and watch them struggle to recover before spinning out totally. Looking in the rear-view (which has to be switched on manually in every single race as there’s no option to just turn it on permanently) you’ll see them careen sideways into the chasing pack, spinning like a top and looking for all the world as if they’ll be out of the race. Not only does everybody somehow seem to avoid them, but there’s never a caution flag to be seen (flags are only available when you’re racing longer races and even then, cautions never seem to happen) and the stricken driver usually crops up a few laps later just a place or two down on where they were when they spun.
It’s unfathomable, not that you’ll get much chance to work out what happens from watching the AI’s crashes, since they’re very rare. You’ll hear your spotter shout “There’s a wreck in turn three!” as you’re rounding turn two, but by the time you get there, everything is fine and dandy. No debris. No wreck. Nobody lost any time. Just…something happened, but you don’t know what.
The sad thing is that it isn’t surprising. By the time you get to the point that you’re trying to work out what happens when a driver goes wrong, you’ll already have seen the terribly basic front end, been fighting with the handling and scratching your head regarding how your apparently important but incomprehensible “Speed Rating” for each race is calculated for long enough to know that a lot of corners have been cut here to get NASCAR Heat Evolution out onto the track.
Overall, the finished product has the feel of a game that wasn’t expected to sell very many copies and as such, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
NASCAR Heat Evolution is the only dedicated NASCAR show in town on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but it’s sadly beaten in terms of depth and realism by games that were released over a decade ago.