I Didn’t Enjoy the Forza 7 Demo

Let me first start by saying I greatly appreciate Turn 10’s gesture in bringing the seventh iteration of their massively popular car collecting software to the home computer – turning what was once an Xbox exclusive into a multi-platform release – as game developers typically don’t do this sort of thing. I also want to mention that I’ve extracted an enormous amount of playtime from the series on the Xbox 360, back when the franchise was arguably at its peak.

And while some scoffed at the release of Forza: Horizon in 2012, and questioned if the right creative decisions were being made on that front, I was what you could call an early supporter of the dudebro spin-off; I held a few opening week records – including the world record on the final boss romp for a short period of time – and played Horizon far beyond completion, almost excessively. Hell, I bought the complete rip-off known as the Horizon Rally expansion and flew through the reconfigured map in just under ninety minutes, so it’s safe to say that I wasn’t going into the Forza 7 demo with any kind of negative bias. If anything, I’ve been advocating for more of these experiences to come to the PC.

But contextually, Forza Motorsport 7 is probably the worst driving game I’ve ever played. Sure, maybe Monster Truck Rumble is objectively a lesser product, but going into it, you knew it would be bad. What’s Forza 7’s excuse? I just don’t understand how a mammoth quasi-first party team with a gigantic budget and near-infinite resources can create something that absolutely does not resemble what it’s like to drive a real car at competition speeds. I have been more entertained at the mainstream pieces drooling over the Forza 7 demo than actually playing the game itself; Forza is not a simulator or even a competent driving game in the first place, but rather a litmus test to see who actually understands vehicle dynamics, and which gaming journalists take the bus to work. I had genuine hopes that Forza 7 arriving on the PC would shake up our genre and offer a valid alternative to the bore-fests that are polluting sim racing at the moment, but Turn 10 really dropped the ball.

So to give you a cliff’s notes version of all multi-day race car driving schools across the planet, any sort of good race car driver that is routinely seen at the front of the pack in their respective classes essentially pilots their car in a very similar manner. They come barrelling into corner entry until they physically worry about their inability to stop, jump on the brakes as hard as possible to both rotate the ass end of the car & set the vehicle on the bottom of the track at the apex (my entire left leg vibrates in our car), and then as quickly as possible, feed the rear tires enough throttle to pivot the car on the outside rear tire. Provided you exhibit the correct amount of throttle aggression in relation to the radius of the corner, corner exit can be completed with a nearly straight steering wheel because you’re basically steering with your right foot and pivoting the car like an athlete planting his foot to make a cut until you achieve full throttle. This is how I drive in real life. This is how I drive in hardcore sims, if not most racing games. This is why I’m fast in basically every piece of software with cars in it. This is a universal competition driving style that crosses continents and disciplines and realities. There, saved you $3,000, if not more.

There’s even a good quote from Tanner Foust on this same subject.

tanner foust.jpg

Forza 7’s problem is that none of this works. And if this was like, a Steam game for $19.99 in Early Access, then yeah, fine, I probably wouldn’t give a shit. But this is Forza Motorsport, the simulator with over seven hundred cars, more tracks than we know what to do with, and the unofficial title of being Gran Turismo’s spiritual successor – as even GT fans can’t quite figure out what Kaz is doing with the franchise that started this whole car collection phenomenon. Oh, and there’s the Porsche partnership, the Pirelli partnership, and even Ford stepped in a while back. I don’t understand how you have this much access to technical data, and the end result is so disconnected and abstract.

First, weight transfer and inertia in Forza is exponentially greater than what you experience in real life. Yes, if you’re unready for the G-Forces or have been out of the car for some time, it can be a bit disorienting at first to launch the car into a braking zone, but it’s 100% a human thing – the car itself remains relatively stable provided you’re not a complete fucking retard and panic with jerky wheel and pedal inputs. The Porsche GT2RS offered in one of the three demo races does not feel like an ultra-refined track day warrior that Christian Grey might take to the Nordschleife when he’s ran out of hotties to abuse, but rather has the stability and precision of a Ford Transit Van. In any heavy braking zone, or drastic elevation changes for that matter that predominantly load up one side of the car – of which there are a lot at the Dubai canyon track – the car just fucking snaps into the trademark molasses drift Forza is known for.

It’s like driving an EnduRacers mod, where the car swings wildly about at the slightest of undulations or wheel inputs or… basically anything that isn’t a straight line, but unlike their notoriously bizarre rFactor 2 mods, you can’t rely on the tires to catch you here. I have never played a racing game where the tires have such an absurdly low limit of adhesion as what’s exhibited in Forza 7. You can be coasting through an uphill corner at 70 km/h in second gear, feet completely off both pedals, and the rear end will just wash out into a skid that makes you look completely incompetent behind the wheel. There is no sidewall flex. There is no lateral grip. It’s a very distinct on/off switch between adhesion, and hitting phantom black ice. This is how Forza thinks tires work, but I can assure you that this is not how they work in the real world, nor in most other simulators worth your time. So the whole competition driving technique of loading up the outside rear tire and powering off with a bit of counter-steer is completely out of the question.

Whether you’re driving the Porsche GT2RS around Dubai, or the SuperGT-spec Nissan R35 at the Nurburgring GP circuit, what ends up happening is that you pussy-foot around at much slower speeds than what these cars are capable of, under-driving to such an extent that any prolonged period of play is going to actively diminish your skill set when it comes to other simulators. I’m under the impression that Forza’s physics engine was designed with pad users in mind, basically as a way to encourage teenagers and casuals to play it safe and focus on smooth driving lines. In the hands of someone armed with a steering wheel and real world competition driving experience, it is objectively the worst driving game on the market. Cars don’t drive like this. Tires don’t work like this.

I look forward to the Metacritic aggregate of 95 it will undoubtedly receive come October, from guys who either take the bus to work, or whose previous driving experience can be listed as “I play Mario Kart as a drinking game with my old college friends when we meet up.”

So I think a lot of Forza fanboys will kick and scream that my wheel wasn’t configured correctly. Actually, I spent the first hour or so with the game fiddling with the options menu, and above are my G29 settings to give people a very good indication as to what in my opinion feels sensible behind the wheel. I’ve seen a lot of complaints about Forza’s force feedback over the years, but to give this game a proper shakedown I worked to find settings that were optimal for me. Obviously I would like to know why a monolithic company with hundreds of employees are shipping a game with default steering wheel settings that are completely unusable and might be the source of several refunds for the more casual racers among us, but I felt I was able to get something that felt right with the tools at hand – so I’ve provided my personal configuration to ensure as few people get stuck as possible. Again, my complaints are with the physics engine itself. Even with a wheel configuration that I found to be perfect, I just didn’t enjoy the actual on-track experience. It was fucking terrible.

It’s also noteworthy to mention that nowhere in the demo are you allowed to fiddle with car setups. Yet while the Forza fans may crucify me for ripping on default setups that are notoriously bad, and maybe the game becomes infinitely better once garage options are opened up, the question needs to be asked why a team of such high caliber insist on packaging their cars with setups that are completely preposterous and actively work against one’s enjoyment of the game. Either the crew behind Forza have precisely zero idea as to what’s needed for an enjoyable end-user experience from the word go, or as mentioned earlier, the physics just flat-out suck. I will gamble and say it’s the latter of the two.

And while I was already choked to discover such an abysmal driving experience, the marketing department really competed for the focus of my attention during the inevitable tirade that would be published on PRC. The restart race button has actually been excluded from the demo, meaning that the process of me physically testing out different wheel settings – and then taking a journey back to the options menu after only a few turns – was increased by an exponentially large amount.

Once you’ve either finished or outright quit an event, the game plays a semi-unskippable cinematic sequence displaying the plethora of awards Forza 7 won during E3 2017 of this year, and running down a list of supporting features before finally giving you the option to dismiss it all about fifteen to twenty seconds later. Of course, you’re not even thrown directly back to the menu so you can continue to fuck with your wheel settings and repeat the process ad nauseam, you’re then taken to a screen in which you’re given the option of pre-ordering one of the three variants of Forza 7. This was absolutely painful to sit through.

And maybe it would have been acceptable if behind the wheel, Forza 7 was pretty competent, and didn’t require a solid hour of tweaking. My problem is that I’m forced to watch a game brag about awards that I personally didn’t understand how it received in the first place. In my almost twenty years of PC sim racing, some titles have come unbelievably close to what it’s like to drive in a competitive setting. Forza Motorsport 7, by comparison, is the furthest from reality I have ever experienced. I still think a lot of people will have some fun with it for the light RPG and car collecting aspects, and that’s fine. But after my time with the demo, anyone who honestly sits down and tries to say Forza 7 is anywhere near realistic, or drives anything like an actual car, is an actual idiot. I fail to understand how there’s this much money and hype pumped into what’s basically a first-party Xbox title at this point, only for the on-track product to be so farcical.

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Alternate Reality rFactor: The Review of Project CARS 2

Disclaimer: I work for Slightly Mad Studios. If that triggers you, go here.

Imagine for a moment, that we’ve all entered some sort of bizarre science fiction vortex, and landed in a parallel universe in which Image Space Incorporated were miraculously able to become a multi-million dollar entity, using their status to acquire every last meaningful vehicle & track license, along with hiring a massive staff to actually push out a title that can be deemed “feature complete” – and not the dreaded eternal science project.

While straight out of left field, this analogy accurately describes both the highs and lows of what you can expect to discover during your time behind the wheel in Project CARS 2; this is a simulator that’s almost exactly what PC sim racers have been dreaming of in terms of content, licenses, and features, but also comes with the identical blemishes exhibited by the titles which inspired it. Absolutely loaded with genuinely captivating content that eclipses what other sims offer – and then some – Project CARS 2 is easily the best smorgasbord simulator presently on the market, yet also demonstrates that maybe the current crop of developers are chasing a false lead by cramming as much as possible into one package.

The original Project CARS was an impressive mess, in that the successful crowdfunding campaign and guerilla marketing tactics were offset by an end product known more for its’ technical ineptitude and inability to match expectations than for what it got right. This was a game touted by financial backers as the hardcore answer to Gran Turismo and Forza, only for us normies on the outside to discover the force feedback configuration menu was a university level engineering course at the very least, and cars had a tendency to explode into the air at the most inopportune of times.

To their credit, Slightly Mad Studios listened to a lot of customer feedback, even the stuff laced with heavy profane vocabulary, and there’s a tangible change in atmosphere from the moment you start Project CARS 2. Menus are easy to navigate, exhibiting a very EA Sports-like feel that should be right at home for those who indulge in Madden or NHL like myself, the force feedback menu has been simplified to just four sliders, and button mapping is no longer an ugly list of options all presented at once, but again streamlined into four distinct categories as you expect from something like rFactor 2. The level of polish given to the user interface extends to the in-game setup menu as well; this is the best car setup screen in any simulator – a hybrid of rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa – and the heads up display now resembles more of a professional television broadcast than floating semi-transparent black squares. And yes, unlike the first game, you now have the ability to save multiple setups per car, as well as name them, load them, and manage them across multiple tracks as you would in a traditional simulator.

Pit strategies can be configured while in the garage area, and again the process is a lot more streamlined, and there’s now an in-car management functionality similar to the Codemasters’ F1 games, where you can use the D-Pad to alter your race strategy, prepare for an unscheduled pit stop, or play with the car’s engine mapping. It’s essentially a black box as you’d see in other sims, just presented in a much more aesthetically pleasing manner. There’s also the ability to save what are called Motorsports Presets, allowing you to eschew the session configuration process every time you want to jump in for a race weekend, and just get right to the track with as little fiddling as possible – a nice touch.

I’ve been personally impressed with the game’s attention to detail in some areas that were previously overlooked; we’ve now got animated pit crews, the game is pretty stringent about your pit entrance & exit procedures, and manual rolling starts are pretty flexible in regards to what you can do, and when.

The game also goes the extra mile to provide you with a virtual crew chief companion in the event you’re lost when it comes to car setups. The whole thing plays out like a very basic text adventure, and obviously there’s no substitute for actually knowing what each option in the garage area does, but this is the first simulator that actually tries to meet uninformed players halfway and walk them through basic adjustments to ensure their race car handles just the way they want it to. It certainly makes the dark art of race car setups much more approachable for the average user, and ideally this’ll lead to more people racing competitively and actually doing more than just driving in isolation – as so many sim racers tend to do – because they’re not whining about getting destroyed by a dude with an elite setup. It’s certainly not a be-all, end-all magic fix for sitting down during a lunch break at work and reading about race car setups on Google, but it’ll get a lot of the gentleman drivers among us much further than they were previously.

Unfortunately, genuine improvements to the overall package – the most notable of the bunch being the substantial optimization tweaks – come with an equally diverse list of setbacks. And while they aren’t as crippling or mind-blowing as some of the stuff we saw with the first game, they will indeed ruffle the feathers of those who were hoping Project CARS 2 would blow the doors off the competition and invalidate the need for a lot of other games they’ve got currently installed.

There are some hiccups with loading and saving setups, as I’ve noticed in the game’s online Time Trial mode, the game will load the preset default setup for the car instead of your most recent setup upon restarting the session for another shot at the track. No, it’s not game-breaking, you just need to always re-load your setup before climbing into the vehicle, but it’s something that really shouldn’t be an issue for a game of this magnitude. Suspension of disbelief issues aren’t game-breaking either, but they’re certainly noticeable. Though Slightly Mad Studios have acquired the rights to several major motorsports championships, such as the Verizon IndyCar Series, the AI drivers are still given the names of random WMD members – so even if you’re chasing Scott Dixon’s car at Indianapolis, the leaderboard will actually refer to him as Tiago Fortuna. Again, not game-breaking, but extremely goofy given the fanfare of signing such a high profile license.

The quality of tracks also differ significantly between new and old. Brand new additions like Portimao and Circuit of the Americas are absurdly good; the same cannot be said about historic Spa, which was originally created for the first game many years ago, and as a result it just looks really out of place. You can physically see the LOD on models in the distance change, which quite a jarring effect considering it happens when you’re fairly close to them. Watkins Glen has been given the same facelift it received in real life, and it’s probably the best rendition of the track in any video game to date, yet Sonoma Raceway is still just as inaccurate as it was two years ago. That’s not to say the textures are poor or the model itself is of a substandard quality, their lack of accuracy is just that much more noticeable when you head to something immaculate like Fuji Speedway immediately afterwards.

But now, we dive into the heavier stuff. For a couple of months, we’ve heard how Project CARS 2 would ship with full online league integration internally within the softwareinvalidating the need to monitor scores from each event on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and manage the championship externally on a private forum – with the game taking car of everything from scheduling to scoring to stat tracking. This is completely absent from the launch-day version of the game, and I’m extremely disappointed. I had a ton of friends really excited to put this functionality to the test with their own endeavors  because it gives league owners a much needed break from the management side of things – and hell, I personally was hoping to make use of it – and it’s just flat-out non-existent at launch. I wish I could use my internal connections to reveal when we can expect this to show up as a post-release addition, but I haven’t been privy to that information. So as a sim racer I’m pretty choked on this front.

The single player AI are also a point of significant concern, though while a lot of other websites claim the AI competence is “random”, there’s actually a pretty distinct method to the madness. When driving any modern car that makes use of proper racing slicks, the AI are on par with the current crop of simulators, and this year there are both skill & aggression sliders to ensure that if you’re a talented sim racer, you’ll have a decent field of bots to battle with. I took a fleet of GT3 cars to the Nordschleife, jacked up the skill slider beyond 100% – which is new for this game – cranked up the aggression as well, and received an on-track product that was a night and day difference compared to the first iteration of Project CARS. No, it’s absolutely not a replacement for human competition and shouldn’t be treated as such unless you’re stupid, but it’s in-line with what you’ll experience from other simulators, and for a lot of people, that will be absolutely fine.

Oval racing, another new addition that was left out of the last game, is also quite good. I hate using footage from an older build to prove my point, but this is more or less what you can expect from slugging around the IndyCars – they’re respectful of your space, and put up a good fight.

Where the AI falters, is when you take away mechanical grip. If you’re talented enough to wheel any historical car, such as the ever-popular Lotus 49, you will outright murder the AI on 120% skill / 100% aggression. The AI just cannot cope with such a drastic reduction in traction, to the point where in a short race at Oulton Park in which I started on pole, I couldn’t see the cars behind me after a single lap. At the Nordschleife, I was coasting behind the pack, the AI bots so concerned with giving each other room and adhering to the track limits, they ended up scrubbing off copious amounts of speed. Unfortunately, this is a by-product of creating a smorgasbord simulator with cars of all shapes and sizes – the AI have clearly been optimized for one general type of car, and the outlier vehicles suffer the consequences in pretty drastic ways. Again, all this really does is make me advocate for simulators that focus on a very core group of vehicles, as stuffing a product full of cars that drive fundamentally different from each other and hoping it all works clearly isn’t the right way to go about things.

So what’s going to happen is that some sim racers who race only modern endurance content will more or less come away from Project CARS 2 quite pleased with the AI improvements, whereas fans of historic content or cars that don’t use full-on modern racing slicks will be absolutely furious that they’re stomping the field – or experiencing situations like the video above. It’s very rFactor-like in that you’re going to have to figure out manually what works, where, and what difficulty settings should be used. I’m not a big fan of this, but I certainly look forward to the rFactor fanboys slamming Project CARS 2 for this very reason, only to retreat to a game that exhibits the exact same problems.

Also drawing parallels to rFactor, simulating to the end of a qualifying session prematurely generates lap times for the AI cars that are downright impossible for them to achieve under normal qualifying conditions, so there’s essentially a button in Project CARS 2 that under no circumstances should you ever touch. The workaround here is to just schedule a qualifying session that lasts around ten minutes or so – as once you’ve logged a few laps, you’ll have a minute or two for a piss break and then the event can proceed – but for longer tracks like the Nordschleife you basically have to skip qualifying altogether and just pre-select your spot on the grid.

Yet for all of the babbling about features and functionalities that are either improvements, reductions, or omissions, obviously at some point we need to discuss how Project CARS 2 feels behind the wheel.

Over the summer a lot of personalities got their hands on the game and started throwing around words like “planted” and “simcade”, and it kind of generated a meme proclaiming Project CARS 2 to merely be Need for Speed: Shift 4. I don’t wanna slag off people specifically in what’s supposed to be an informative review, but there are two easy ways to dispel this unjustified reputation: First, some of these online personalities were upwards of seven seconds off pace at the tracks they demonstrated for their YouTube audience – so of course the car will feel planted at 65% attack – and second, the PC version of Project CARS 2 has actually shipped with Pro default setups that cut into the corners like crazy and rotate extremely well through the center, essentially tailoring the PC version specifically for the hardcore sim racing crowd who don’t need an understeering car out of the box, as they’re not playing on a gamepad.

Not only is it a great gesture on the part of Slightly Mad Studios to bundle the game with setups that are pretty decent out of the box, it certainly helps to display the competence of the underlying physics engine and tire model in a more profound way. I think a lot of people will enjoy how much they have to wheel these cars, because it’s certainly not what sim racers are expecting from a game so many labelled as simcade before they’ve even turned a lap themselves. Setup adjustments also generate a tangible difference in vehicle behavior when out on the circuit – compared to the previous game, which felt like a total crapshoot in the garage area – and exploit setups have been more or less erased. There’s no zero camber bullshit or zero aero stuff here; the stuff I’ve been running for testing purposes both in WMD and on my own externally for the review, it’s all stuff rooted in real world techniques.

What’s even more surprising, is that the hit-to-miss ratio among cars in the game features significantly more hits than misses. There are a lot of vehicles where you can turn laps in time trial, hit up the respective series’ official results page, and actually be bang-on with the real drivers’ qualifying times. This doesn’t apply to every car across every track, but it was certainly cool to absolutely blast through Long Beach and be half a tenth off Helio Castroneves’ track record set earlier this year, then take the Ford Fusion stock car to Texas, get Dustin’s help with the car setup, and land eighth on the real world practice charts. I also matched Kobayashi’s Le Mans record this year with one of our prototypes, and in doing a side-by-side of his on-board video it was impeccable how close we were for the entire three and a half minute lap. Not every vehicle in Project CARS 2 is like this – again, a symptom of developing a smorgasbord simulator – but the ones that are, really serve to undermine the detractors.

And this is why, despite some of the AI issues that hamper the single player experience, the prospect of racing Project CARS 2 in a competitive online league – whether it be managed through the yet-to-be released in-game functionality, or a third party site – is so enticing; definitely a selling point. The default setups and physics engine refinements generate handling characteristics much more in line with what you’d expect from a traditional sim, the enormous list of marquee cars rivals – in some cases surpasses – one’s custom rFactor install of all the best mods, there are tons of tracks to ensure you can go at least two or three seasons without treading over familiar territory, and from a user interface standpoint, the whole in-game experience of going to the track, building setups, and monitoring the session’s progress is much more streamlined and representative of titles like rFactor 2 or Automobilista than its own separate thing you need to learn all over again. This is what a lot of sim racers have wanted from a modern simulator, and that’s what they’ll get in Project CARS 2 – a good league platform with a ton of content and no fiddling or extensive third party mod collecting required.

In my time testing Project CARS 2, especially the most recent event prior to launch, online events more or less mirrored what you’d expect from a solid isiMotor league race – the netcode was fine, the menu layout gave a sense of familiarity, and it didn’t feel like a drastic change of pace after several seasons in Stock Car Extreme.  So I think adopters of Project CARS 2, who are coming over from other sims, may be surprised to find that online events no longer feel foreign or confusing because the layout of the session screen is just so abstract – Slightly Mad Studios have paid close attention to what works in this environment, so there won’t be any stumbling around or learning curve to joining an online event.

The same could not be said about the first game.

And while we aren’t privy to the built-in league functionality at launch, the game does track your ELO rank, though it remains to be seen how this will play out. Currently, the online scene for the original Project CARS features a lot of chaotic six lap sprint races, and entering these will be suicide for your ranking in Project CARS 2 if that casual-oriented mentality continues, so those who actually care about their online rank should avoid public lobbies altogether. On the plus side, it’s nice to see Slightly Mad Studios bring back ELO from the days of Xbox Live on Microsoft’s first console, but I actually predict a drop in online activity as people become paranoid about their online skill rating and refuse to race unless it’s in a structured league with proven clean drivers. The ability to lock people out of a lobby who are under a certain skill rating will also play a role in this as well.

And then there are the gimmicks.

A lot of people aren’t fans of rallycross for several reasons, but the inclusion of many RedBull Global Rallycross vehicles and locations – as well as some historic content for good measure – have actually shown off that Slightly Mad Studios can create objectively fantastic loose surface physics. The rallycross vehicles are honestly some of the best race cars in the game, exhibiting more convincing dynamics than what you can find in DiRT 4, but from a content standpoint it just feels like they’re a bit out of place in what is a primarily tarmac-based racing simulator, and maybe it’s time for Slightly Mad to extend into off-road racing as well to give these cars the spotlight.

On a positive note, every car in the game can be equipped with either dirt or ice tires to try and extend some extra life out of the off-road tracks, and experimenting with the right cars can lead to some awesome combinations. Slap dirt tires on Mark Donohue’s Trans-Am Camaro from the late 60’s, and you’ve essentially got a Duke’s of Hazzard simulator. It’s great fun, and I’m thankful that Slightly Mad Studios did not pull a Codemasters by restricting what content you can drive and where – as was the case in ToCA Race Driver 3.

And as you’ve probably learned about via the promotional material, Slightly Mad Studios have not just gone out and created their own dynamic track technology, they’ve also replicated a full twelve-month weather cycle. And while it works, for the most part, I can’t help but think this would have been put to better use in a different game. As cool as it is to drive the Nordschleife in the snow as a throwback to Project Gotham Racing 4, or host a one-off winter championship with the rallycross cars on purpose built circuits, I’m unsure about the staying power this may have on the userbase. I feel it would be great to implement in an off-road game, but I’m just not sure why there’s a need to drive Monaco or Daytona in the snow. Yes, it extends the life of the rallycross cars and sort of justifies their placement in the game, but save for that one class and the meme-worthy YouTube videos it will generate, when are people honestly going to use this feature on a regular basis?

Thankfully, the dynamic driving line and standing water physics mostly hold up their end of the bargain, but in my experience I found the rubber to accumulate in an extremely slow fashion, with it taking almost thirty minutes for the dynamic driving line to become as prominent as the default racing line texture. So I actually expect a lot of people reporting that it outright doesn’t work, because you’ll be turning a pretty extensive number of laps in a full field of cars before you become aware of its existence. A patch or two could easily fix this, and it’s certainly not game-breaking, but I was definitely hoping this feature would be a bit more prominent after all of the publicity surrounding it. The dynamic water physics fare much better, with wet-weather driving being visually stunning while giving off a believable experience behind the wheel.

3,800 words later, what’s the verdict on Project CARS 2?

It’s a great league platform, a sort of alternate-reality rFactor 2 in which the physics are still firmly on the hardcore simulation side of things (aided by great default setups), yet the obscure car and track list of rFactor 2 that actively works against the title – marred by fake tracks and irrelevant vehicles – have been replaced by what’s basically an all-star cast of locations and race cars featuring appearances from all of the major players, and then some. Basically, if you’re a sim racer who patiently awaits for updates from Studio 397 in the hopes that the next lone piece of content they announce is even the least bit captivating, or for general UI improvements, or… well… anything that isn’t a blog post, Project CARS 2 offers a permanent solution to those willing to cross over.

However, it also comes with some of the problems found in rFactor 2, and on a wider scale, problems that appear in basically every other racing simulator on the market today. The offline racing experience varies wildly depending on your vehicle of choice, and like rFactor, there are hiccups with the underlying AI simulation engine when you try to accelerate through a session. But at the same time, the phenomenon of cars in rFactor 2 being wildly out of sync with each other in terms of quality, doesn’t exist here – there are exponentially more hits compared to misses, and it’s definitely an upgrade compared to the other sims available.

Regardless of whether you plan on entering a league right away, or will be holding off until the built-in functionality is up and running, Project CARS 2 is the simulator a lot of people wanted – great handling, lots of marquee cars, lots of world-renowned tracks, and online lobbies that naturally lend themselves to league play – but at the same time it also demonstrates why the smorgasbord approach is getting a bit long in the tooth. When Project CARS 2 is firing on all cylinders, it’s objectively a great racing simulator, warranting the positive reviews received from the more mainstream outlets while making genuine improvements in several key areas that sim racers would be hard pressed to dismiss. When it stutters – figuratively, not literally – you understand it’s because the dev team just couldn’t possibly refine every last car on every last track, and maybe it’s time to collectively rethink where the genre is going.

WRC 7 is Also Spectacularly Broken

What was supposed to be an extremely exciting week for connoisseurs of virtual auto racing has now turned into anything but. After NASCAR Heat 2 established itself as a game that might be good in a few months provided the necessary patchwork is applied in key areas, and the high definition remaster of Baja: Edge of Control exhibited exponentially more flaws than the original release did back in 2008, all eyes were now set upon Kylotonn’s officially licensed rally racer, WRC 7. Though the first two games were disastrous affairs – the first game under the new team being the worst new release I’ve reviewed for PRC, and the second being so technologically inept I refused to review it – coverage of the game from other outlets indicated this year’s rendition would actually be worth buying.

Coupled with the fact that the real life World Rally Championship is experiencing its most exciting season in recent memory, with absolutely ridiculous cars that will surely be toned down at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign, there was also genuine, tangible evidence displaying WRC 7 would be worth a purchase. The stage design would be significantly narrower, the handling model would dip into simcade territory rather than outright simplicity, and there would be a slew of optimization improvements for PC owners to ensure the software would actually run smoothly. Like many gamers who’ve attached a plastic toy steering wheel to their desk, I bought WRC 7 at launch this morning primarily due to outlets such as Team VVV really drilling home that the new game was indeed an improvement, and not a bargain bin mess masquerading as a fully priced PC game to lure in people with the official WRC license.

At the end of the day, as a consumer I feel lied to. My experience with WRC 7, running one of the most common toy steering wheels on the market today plugged into a beefy Alienware Aurora R5, does not match what others are describing in their YouTube videos in the slightest. I would like to know how not one journalist, hobbyist, or multimedia personality covering the game ran into these issues, despite the game’s Steam community forums now overflowing with complaints about crippling problems making the game unplayable for a large number of users.

Why do these personalities all have a functioning game they all seem to enjoy, whereas common customers like myself do not? Given that I receive financial backing from a rival game developer, it’s massively hypocritical of myself to come out swinging and accuse those involved of viral marketing and intentional deception in some regard, but in this situation I am merely a guy running a blog trying to purchase a video game both for his own leisure, as well as to write about on his website. I am confused as to how, when approaching this game from the position of an everyday customer, my time spent with the game is drastically different than all of these YouTube personalities giving WRC 7 two thumbs up.

Above is a first-hand video of nearly my entire time spent with WRC 7 prior to Steam providing me with a refund for the title. Basically, I went through the above sequence twice, recording my second cycle because I genuinely didn’t think anybody would believe me, or they’d just accuse me of going on a hyperbolic smear campaign against anyone who isn’t my employer. Despite Kylotonn listing a stock Logitech G29 as a fully supported wheel, the game fails to detect the device in any functional manner save for the directional pad – which is of little use in any situation behind the wheel. The G29 is so incapacitated, you are unable to even skip the intro movies or navigate the menus once you’ve used the keyboard to navigate past the title sequences and splash screen, nor does going to the options menu warrant any sort of positive results. Obviously going into something like WRC 7, I’m not expecting much of a hardcore experience behind the wheel, but I at least want to take a green flag and complete a stage with my stock, consumer steering wheel being 100% functional. This is apparently too much to ask of French developers Kylotonn in 2017, despite it being their third WRC game.

Moving on to plugging in my DualShock4 coupled with everybody’s favorite background application DS4Windows – more or less a must for those using a standard PS4 controller on Windows 10 – we are at least able to navigate through WRC 7’s menus. Immediately I discover that while the game instructs you to press the A button to proceed, the PlayStation 4 equivalent of A (also known as the X button) doesn’t do anything – proceed has actually been mapped to Square.

Out on the track, things get exponentially worse. In an impressive display of tomfoolery, the chase view camera is locked at a forty five degree angle behind the car, almost as if someone is permanently holding the right stick downwards and to the left. Upon accelerating with R2, the camera rotates to a direct sideways shot of my Hyundai. Braking, in comparison, rotates the camera to the rear of the car. So the default configuration that shipped with the game has the camera rotation mapped to the throttle and brake pedals.

However, in my lone sector of driving, WRC 7 looked quite nice, the stage design was much better than prior entries in the series, and I did not experience any crippling performance hiccups. There should be an asterisk next to this final part, as I am playing on a PC my employer provided me with to give their yet-to-be-released game a proper shakedown on maximum visual settings. Your average driving sim enthusiast does not have a computer this powerful. As a result, WRC 7’s Steam forums have been flooded with complaints by disgruntled customers wondering what in the hell they just bought.In short, there is a fundamental disconnect between what YouTube outlets are saying about this game, versus what the average customer is actually experiencing. WRC 7 was not functional for me, and Steam provided me with a refund after about twenty minutes of play, most of which consisted of me booting up the game and staring blankly at the options menu while I hammered buttons on my steering wheel. I have failed to complete a single stage of driving, let a lone a sector, because all twenty minutes were spent in utter confusion – split up by occasional visits to the forum where others were united in their shared disgust of Kylotonn’s ineptitude. I encourage everyone with three minutes to burn to visit the game’s Steam forums and actually explore what is being said about WRC 7’s first day on the market, and then compare it to quotes such as these I’ve found across social media.

I would love to give WRC 7 a proper shakedown for the readers of PRC, as these kinds of simcade rally games are right up my alley (as you can probably figure out from past articles), and on a personal level I was actually kind of excited about this game after looking at the preview footage that like I said, implied some very tangible improvements had been made to the core gameplay. Yet in actually purchasing the game for myself, I’m profoundly bewildered – WRC 7 as a product you can obtain on Steam for around $40 CDN is just not even in the same ballpark as what the YouTube personalities said it would be. The preview videos all have done a great job getting us excited for Kylotonn to turn a new page and push out something captivating – especially with the glorious 2017-spec cars – but instead we’re left scratching our collective heads at the near-unanimous praise in the face of pretty outrageous technical issues that are generating widely reported problems on the game’s Steam forums. How did every single YouTube outlet miss this stuff, and better yet, why didn’t the public receive this version of the game?

Just read the Steam reviews and compare them to impressions from the big sim racing outlets; you’ll see what I mean.

Baja: Edge of Control HD is Spectacularly Broken [Updated]

There’s been a lot of animosity directed at THQ Nordic from the motocross gaming community, but I’ve never gotten to experience first-hand the justification for it until this morning. I was really hoping to spend a large portion of the day playing Baja: Edge of Control HD as I have no problem listing it as one of my favorite Xbox 360 racers, and could not wait to play a remastered rendition on modern hardware – but after purchasing the game twice, and requesting a refund once, I’m left pretty disgusted at the kind of bullshit THQ Nordic have pulled here. To put it plain and simple, Baja: Edge of Control HD should not have been released, as there are pretty mind-blowing controller problems across multiple platforms.

Initially, I purchased the game on Steam, as it’s about eight dollars cheaper than the PlayStation 4 version for unexplained reasons. The game honestly isn’t a very big download, I think I recall seeing it somewhere between four and eight gigabytes, meaning it was ready for consumption in around seven minutes. This may sound pitiful by today’s standards, but the actual game itself is quite good; with over 170 vehicles split between ten classes, and upwards of one hundred tracks in both circuit and point to point format, Baja as a complete package back in the day was a pretty exciting niche offering provided you could get over the atrocious graphics – hence the point of the HD version in the first place.

My own personal hype train was derailed when I discovered that on the Steam version, the external controller config applet doesn’t actually work. By default, keyboard keys are mapped to all of the buttons on the Xbox 360 controller, obviously so you can bust out a controller and reconfigure everything to your desired layout – which 99% of the time you’re just going to mirror the stock layout and just ensure all the respective axis’ are correct. Here is where things get absolutely insane – the applet crashes upon trying to do so. You know, the basic process of clicking on “Throttle” and pressing R2 to map that button as your gas pedal? Crashes the applet. One hundred percent serious here.

So obviously that means no wheel support either, as while there’s indeed a tab you can click to configure your racing wheel prior to launching the game, and graphically it is a nice applet, again rebinding crashes the thing. Playing Edge of Control HD on the PC right now consists of pressing the “O” key as your throttle, and using the arrow keys to turn.

With little activity in the forums to give me faith that this would be fixed, I promptly requested a refund for the game on Steam, and purchased the allegedly superior PS4 version, which a whole bunch of YouTube gaming channels have been demonstrating for THQ Nordic over the past little bit leading up to the game’s launch. I figured that maybe Sony would hold these guys to a higher standard, and I could have faith that both a standard DualShock 4, as well as a Logitech G29, would work out of the box. I wasn’t expecting a great driving experience – this is a weird quasi-simulator, with detailed mechanical failures yet a larger than life driving model – but as I mentioned before, I loved this game back in the day and was jacked that the graphics are no longer a blurry mess, so whatever, in my opinion they fixed the game’s biggest problem and I’d have a cool sorta-casual off-road game in my library.

The Logitech G29 works, only if by the definition of “works”, do you split hairs and have an impromptu debate over what is considered “working.” I can turn the wheel from left to right, and it indeed goes the full nine hundred degrees. I can rev the engine by pushing the throttle. I can also push in the clutch and rev the engine from a standstill. The brake pedal, however, is stuck at one hundred percent input no matter what you do. It is almost impossible to leave the starting line unless you constantly mash the clutch and throttle in succession. If not, the truck hangs on the starting line at 2300 RPM and slides sideways. This game is $39.99 on the PlayStation Store.

 

If, by some act of god the brake pedal doesn’t stick – about 50% of the time for me – other issues arise when you do get moving. The change camera button has been mapped to the PS4 Share button, and the share functionality overrides the ability to change the camera, so if you drive with a wheel, you’re stuck in chase view. There isn’t even a way to change it in the options. The wheel sensitivity slider also warrants no change, meaning a lot of the vehicles in the game require gigantic steering inputs just to take gentle corners.

What makes this strange, is that I can plug my Logitech G29 into my PlayStation 3, boot up the original Edge of Control, and it works flawlessly. The sensitivity is better, the button mapping allows you to change the camera, and the brake pedal does not stick. The problem I have in doing so, is that the PlayStation 3 rendition was dogshit in comparison to the superior Xbox 360 version due to mammoth framerate troubles, which is why a remaster of this title was justified in the first place. Furious? Absolutely. When it comes to old games receiving a high definition upgrade, a reasonable outcome is to discover that it just ain’t like it used to be, or that the nostalgia goggles are almost blinding to a game’s faulty mechanics. But with Baja: Edge of Control HD, sometimes I can’t even get off the starting line when trying the title on multiple platforms. The PC version’s controller config tool crashes upon trying to rebind anything, and the PS4 version features incomplete wheel support.

Can you play with a standard DualShock 4? Well, yes. The problem arises in just how long some of Baja’s marquee events happen to be. While you can indeed slug it out in five lap circuit races that are on-par with what you’d expect from a traditional off-road racer, the enjoyable part of Baja comes in tacking the ultra-long point to point stages chained together to make up the sanctioned SCORE 250, 500, or 1000 mile races. If you’d like to drive for upwards of two hours with a gamepad, by all means be my guest, but I sure as hell don’t.

This is really just the start of the game’s fundamental problems. Occasionally, collision detection gets disabled during a race, resulting in pretty comical moments where you can just drive through the field at your own free will as seen below. In other situations, the game’s dashboard camera generates a giant black artifact across the screen, making it impossible to drive in anything other than chase view. Split screen racing with a friend causes the game to lose all sound until you restart the application. The original game did not have these problems; for the most part it was a solid, albeit highly obscure trophy truck racer.

The motocross gaming community have had similar problems dealing with THQ Nordic, but due to the popularity of an older title – MX vs. ATV Reflex – they’ve for the most part been able to avoid this kind of ineptitude by merely playing a different game. For those of us who loved Baja, and there were a lot of us, we don’t really have a choice here – we really needed the remastered version to be 100% functional. Right now, it’s not.

Comeback Kid: The Review of NASCAR Heat 2

The external controller configuration utility boasts a peculiar watermark; Unity Trial Version. Upon checking the schedule page in Career Mode during the introductory series of races, the game crashes to desktop for no apparent reason. Sometimes the soundtrack notification box fails to disappear, obfuscating your rear view mirror for the entire duration of the session. The framerate is inconsistent; with a lack of fluidity apparent in cockpit view and/or with the mirror enabled in hood cam. During victory celebrations, your avatar levitates about three inches off of the driver’s side door. In online races, the CPU occasionally retains control of your car for the duration of the race, forcing you to exit the multiplayer session and either wait it out, or join another. I was given a one-race deal to drive for NEMCO Motorsports during my rookie season, but upon exiting the game and coming back in, that offer had inconspicuously changed to ThorSport. The game implements a steering deadzone of 0.008 by default, which it’s absolutely necessary you disable to have complete control of your car.

704 Games’ NASCAR Heat 2 can occasionally be a very sloppy experience, but when firing on all cylinders, this is the absolute best officially licensed NASCAR console game to be released since the spring of 2002. Successfully blending the EA Sports flair of the classic NASCAR Thunder titles, with a surprisingly competent on-track experience both behind the wheel and among a field of AI cars, NASCAR Heat 2 is mostly a story of redemption when compared to last year’s atrocious offering. Though it does not boast the production quality of Formula One 2017, and could use one very focused patch to iron out the last nagging kinks, the majority of NASCAR fans both casual and hardcore are going to be extremely satisfied with this title when all is said and done.

Rather than engage in elongated message board flame wars, and lash out against their own customers in the face of the justified negativity surrounding last year’s title as so many simulator developers are prone to do, 704 Games have instead taken this criticism seriously and pushed out a product that is a tangible, robust improvement compared to their previous work. Many sim racers brag about literally throwing money at their favorite developers just to “keep the company afloat” and “show their support” – and in most cases I end up questioning their sanity – but with NASCAR Heat 2, as a customer I feel quite satisfied that the $60 I spent on last year’s disaster helped to fund something infinitely better the following year.

It’s not perfect by any means, but the sheer leap in quality from “absolutely pathetic” to “mostly decent with a few blemishes that can be fixed” is a victory unto it’s own. Last season I questioned how this had been the same Monster Games responsible for the instant classic Dirt to Daytona back in 2002, yet now I’m willing to believe the rumors about a highly limited development schedule, and that the 2017 offering would be better.

Taking a page out of the EA Sports playbook, Heat 2 doesn’t fuck around and immediately sets the overall atmosphere of the game with a solid intro video, before giving way to a user interface and soundtrack that accurately conveys the aggression, passion, and festival-like vibe of top level NASCAR events. Whereas Formula One 2017 is classy and elegant in how it depicts the sport, NASCAR Heat 2 has no problem adopting the in-your-face Monster Energy color scheme and aesthetics throughout the entire game, complimented by some great head-banging material from Inner Image and footage of cars getting destroyed in the background. From the moment you open the application and begin clicking around in the options menu, it’s night and day when pitted against Heat Evolution. Visually, I mean, let’s be real here, the graphics are still ass, but no longer do you get the vibes that you’re playing a tech demo with menus slapped together at the last minute. It might be a bit too edgy and aggressive for the older folks, but I’d rather have this over a generic rendering of a car sitting in some semi-dormant garage.

And like the Thunder games, there are a lot more extra features to dig through this time around. The driver model editor returns, but it’s not something restricted to career mode, and you can enter it at your leisure. You’re allowed to create one custom car per series, with a similar livery editor to iRacing – you receive a base scheme and the ability to select colors and sponsors that are automatically placed in the five main areas – though the relatively light list of brands and designs to select from at launch will turn this into a game of “wait and see” until additional DLC drops, which is said to include more content on this front. The create-a-car mode in NASCAR Thunder worked well because you could select from tons of preset car liveries, along with well-known brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, but here your choices are rather poor; Xfinity, Advocare, Dow, and Peak Anti-Freeze are the highlights among a list of stuff you usually see on backmarker liveries.

However, just seeing these extra little goodies appear at all, including the option to select your personal theme song to play whenever you win a race online or off, is proof that 704 Games are aware of what NASCAR fans want out of their flagship console game, and what these games have traditionally done well in years past. This is not a developer that omits beloved, almost necessary features, and then ventures to the forums to justify doing so; they actively understand the history of NASCAR games and have worked to bring back stuff the fans enjoyed from the games of old.

And in some cases, 704 Games have actually gone above and beyond what previous NASCAR games have accomplished. This is the first NASCAR game in the sport’s history to include a full field of real, licensed drivers and liveries, across not just the Monster Energy Cup Series, but all three national touring series to boot. The only omission comes in the form of GMS Racing’s Camping World Truck Series squad – meaning 2016 champion Johnny Sauter is not in the game – but this is actually a traditional practice in looking back at the line of NASCAR products; Tony Raines was absent in 2003, Jeremy Mayfield was left out in 2004, and Bill Elliot in 2005, whereas Carl Edwards was not present for several seasons in a row. Regardless, this milestone is a massive achievement for 704 Games given the logistical nightmare of licensing over 120 drivers and countless teams, all with multiple primary sponsors that may conflict with one another, so credit should be given where credit is due.

Another major accomplishment is that the game ships with alcoholic beverage sponsors on-disc, meaning that the days of racing with fictionalized liveries in place of Miller Lite, Budweiser, or Coors Light are now officially over; the game allows you to enter your date of birth in the options menu, and provided you insert something that indicates you’re of legal drinking age, you receive Brad Keselowski’s authentic Miller Lite liveries, and not some half-assed monstrosity with BRAD K lazily written on the side of the car in it’s place. For the Formula One fans skimming through, this would be like having a legitimate Marlboro Ferrari car as vanilla content. It’s a huge deal to abolish this barrier altogether with not a post-release patch, but something on-disc at launch.

Unfortunately, despite exhibiting a very strong and composed identity off the track, the on-track experience is where Heat 2 suffers the most. It’s not exactly crippling, it just needs to be patched, and it’s something that could come in less than a week if 704 are able to identify what needs to be done to appeal to one very simple request. This is partially why I’m not relentlessly slaughtering Heat 2 as I did with last season’s offering; Heat 2 is not broken by any means, there’s just a lone element that needs a boost – and I chose my words carefully there, so you can probably figure out what I’m getting at.

So let’s start from the top. Heat 2 is not a hardcore simulator. This is a game designed for teenagers with a PlayStation or an Xbox. And out of the box, the default setups have been constructed with this audience in mind. If you have zero mechanical knowledge when it comes to how a stock car should be set up and driven, Heat 2 will always feel like you’re playing Sierra’s Viper Racing on a variety of oval tracks.  Brutal is an understatement when it comes to the default setups; they understeer to an absurd degree, cook the right front tire regardless of the type of track you’re at, and fail to put any sort of load on the right rear to use it as a pivot point, which is what you should be doing in these cars.

However, if you’re one of the aforementioned teenagers just wanting to jump in with the default setup against a field of AI cars set to the highest skill level – 105% – the AI in NASCAR Heat 2 are honestly phenomenal. Unlike last year’s game, in which they were immovable objects that sent you flying at the lightest of taps, car contact feels wonderful in that you can liberally shunt and lean on people without much in the way of consequences, and the AI are a lot more individualistic in their tendencies. They change lines, battle with other cars, attack, defend, and in general put on a very captivating show that’s arguably more exciting than the real thing. This is also some of the best offline restrictor plate racing I’ve been a part of – a title traditionally reserved for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season – and I’ve linked a short video above of an overtime restart as proof.

And for most of the game’s audience, that will be enough to keep them engaged until next year’s game drops. Not for me.

So what I’ve deduced from my playtime so far, is that the AI speed was generally configured by 704 Games to match what the player would be capable of with the shitty default setups and driving with a gamepad. Once you start unfucking the insanely tight baselines that come loaded in each car – and from what I remember I was universally adjusting the wheel lock, sway bar, track bar, ride height, brake bias, and wedge, so there’s a LOT of work to be done – the AI just cannot compete with the extra speed you’ve found. You go from hanging with them, maybe pulling away if you’re a talented sim racer, to outright anal penetration. At a track that actually takes skill, such as Bristol Motor Speedway, this discrepancy in speed is so profound I lapped the whole group only a third of the way into the race, and then twice more by the time the checkers fell.

This is disappointing, because while not a serious attempt at accurately simulating all of the microscopic elements that make up auto racing, NASCAR Heat 2 is pretty fun when driving off the right rear with a proper stock car setup – and even the force feedback is of a much higher quality than you’d expect from an outing like this. I’m not going to sit here and convince you that 704 Games somehow made a more accurate simulator than iRacing, because that’s incorrect, but for me I’d almost call it DiRT 3 with stock cars – a simplistic yet somewhat reasonable ballpark approximation of American oval racing. Below I’ve turned some laps at Richmond with a custom setup, and while the in-game steering wheel isn’t 100% matched with my personal wheel inputs, I think y’all can see that I’m wheeling the car off the corner and steering with the brakes a whole bunch. Again, it’s lighthearted fun in the same realm as DiRT 3, where it’s a tick simplistic but more or less does the things you expect a vehicle like this to do, but the trade-off is that you’re utterly decimating the AI at these speeds.

The fix, as implied earlier in the article, is to just bump up the AI speeds and presto, Heat 2 rocks. Now, in messing around with the original NASCAR Heat – which is pretty close to open source given all of the mod launchers and editors that have been created for it – the way the Heat/Viper Racing engine works is that the AI lines are literally just ghost car files, and you can import your own ghost car into the game with a special tool if you feel the default AI isn’t on pace with you, or they’re not running the right line for a third party track because the guy making it sucks at driving. So I’m under the impression that they just didn’t have anyone in the office fast enough to set some blistering times to be used as the AI path. Maybe I’m mistaken, but hey, I’m going off what I found in the NASCAR Heat mod launcher.

There’s also not enough talented drivers in the NASCAR YouTube community to obliterate the AI in this fashion on a public level with thousands of views, so maybe 704 are under the impression this isn’t a problem in the first place – but I can assure you, to anyone somewhat talented behind the wheel, it certainly is. Regardless, I would love to donate my time if possible to help re-do the AI if they’re still running off the old import ghost car AI functionality, as it’s basically the one major blemish this game has that currently prevents it from receiving two thumbs up. 

Yes, I am implying that 704 Games indeed polished a turd and Heat 2 is worth your time. In doing a few career mode races and being provided with an underpowered truck, the AI are racey as hell yet still respectful, and I’d love to have that experience when running balls out, not just when I’m handicapping myself in career mode with a shit team that’s down 35 horsepower or whatever.

The game’s career mode has eschewed the traditional NASCAR game formula of managing your own race team, and instead treats your avatar solely as a virtual journeyman driver tasked with finishing well and impressing the teams around you. There are no vehicle upgrades or sponsorships to acquire; the sole goal rather to earn a spot with one of the top Monster Energy teams by starting out in the Camping World Truck Series, and progressing up through the ladder with both one-off and season-long contracts much in the style of Milestone’s old WRC games before they lost the license. It’s an approach I personally don’t mind, as this is more or less how the real life NASCAR ecosystem operates, but from a suspension of disbelief standpoint it causes some pretty fundamental issues.

In my introductory season, in which you’re given random one-off appearances throughout the 2017 truck series schedule from an array of teams, I actually ran well enough and won a few races to the point where I’d outright qualified for NASCAR’s post-season elimination format. The game did not reward me with a short contract for the final races of the season to try and win a championship as a rookie, but instead sent me straight to season 2 with only a Steam achievement to reward me for my success. You’re also given the opportunity to replace drivers that would otherwise never give up their seats to a random – such as John Hunter Nemecheck or Austin Cindric – guys who drive for family-owned teams or are more or less locked in to their respective rides due to external factors. And when you do land a permanent ride after signing a contract, the name of the previous driver will still remain on the back of the windshield. It’s awkward, and shows poor attention to detail – as do the capacity crowds at every single track in the game despite most NASCAR broadcasts showing grandstands that are just barely over half full.

Poor attention to detail also extends to basic elements such as the scoring format and event proceedings: Monster Energy Cup drivers earn points in series they shouldn’t, despite it being a NASCAR rule that their results do not count. The yellow line rule at both Daytona and Talladega, at least in my experience, is not enforced whatsoever. Neither are restart rules, which do not allow passing to the left of the opponent before the start/finish line. If you play this game and generally understand how NASCAR works, you won’t break these rules to begin with, and it won’t actively dampen your enjoyment of the game, but for 704 Games to be located in the same building as NASCAR corporate and leave all this stuff out is… Interesting… To be fair, the EA Sports games for the longest time did not include these rules either, but you’d think with technology progressing to the extent it has, coding an out-of-bounds rule that has existed since 2001 wouldn’t be all that difficult.

But with these specific rule book omissions, suspension of disbelief issues, and an AI in need of a nitro boost, that’s not to say NASCAR Heat 2 is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination – the most prominent objective issue with the game could easily be fixed in just one patch, and we’d have a pretty robust stock car racer on consoles that NASCAR fans would be proud to call their own. The 40-car online grids, which can be filled with AI cars for an impromptu co-op session with friends, along with the extensive set of features and a reasonable career mode plant it firmly behind Dirt to Daytona as the second greatest mass-market NASCAR game of all time.

I would obviously like the AI to go a bit quicker, but to be fair, I was in a late model three days ago, and the target audience for this is mostly gonna be kids who won’t jack the difficulty to 105% and bang off the rev limiter at Richmond with a custom setup. The majority of teenagers who buy this game, and that includes the NASCAR YouTube community, are actually going to have a lot of fun with this title because it’s very, very close to what I remember the EA Sports games being like through nostalgia goggles. In fact, I’d actually give the advantage to Heat 2, as the EA Sports games drove like dogshit. You just put up with it because there was so much to see, do, and unlock.

Where Heat 2 may fail to captivate an audience has little to do with the game itself, but instead the series 704 Games have been tasked with depicting. Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and many others that made NASCAR into the household name of the early 2000’s all no longer race; the Monster Energy Cup Series field now being a hodgepodge of pay drivers and fan-favorites on the cusp of retiring – all of which drive largely unattractive cars with forgettable liveries. The challenging, crazy tracks that used to populate the schedules of the three series featured within the game – Rockingham, Indianapolis Raceway Park, Milwaukee, and Montreal to name a few – are long gone, replaced with near-identically constructed facilities intended to be spec playing fields for a traveling motorsports circus. Stage racing ruins the flow and rhythm of a long green-flag portion, with 704 Games graciously providing the option to turn it off as a nod to the NASCAR purists.

The magic of being able to boot up a NASCAR game and take Jeff Gordon’s iconic #24 DuPont Chevrolet for a spin at Daytona International Speedway, the superstretch grandstands towering over the cars on the exit of turn two, just isn’t there. Instead you get Cody Ware in the ECU Butt Pirates car slugging it out with an obscure Danica Patrick livery she ran precisely once, which just doesn’t have the same allure. Sure, there are some cool trade-offs; the trucks at Eldora are a blast despite being able to full-throttle an entire lap, same with the Xfinity cars at Mid-Ohio, but seeing the countless plain black trucks with a simple sponsor logo on the grid is really disappointing when you can remember a time where even the minor series had quasi-factory teams.

NASCAR as a sport just isn’t a compelling product right now, and it shows in NASCAR Heat 2. Through no fault of their own, just picking a driver and trying to determine which track to race is difficult, because there’s no Goodwrench, no Budweiser, no Tide, no DuPont, no Dodge Charger, and regardless of whether you go to Chicagoland, Kansas, or Las Vegas, it’s basically the same track.

But three thousand words later, the question you want answers is “should I buy NASCAR Heat 2?”

It’s tricky.

Straight up, I think it’s a good console game, the best since Dirt to Daytona. It’s unbelievable that the same team that shat out Evolution last year returned with something exponentially more coherent and focused – this is much more in line with what we thought was coming when it was first announced Monster Games, the Monster Games, would be given the official NASCAR license once again. This is an absolute stellar offering for the thousands of teenagers across North America who love NASCAR, they’ve got a bunch of friends who also love NASCAR, and they want a good, solid NASCAR game to call their own – whether it be slugging it out through career mode, or beating the shit out of each other online. They’ll get a lot of hours out of this one; the same can’t be said for last year’s offering.

But if you possess any sort of skill behind the wheel, I’d wait for confirmation that the AI has been given a shot of NOS. Not that the AI are retarded, or ignore the player’s position, or mindlessly smash into each other, or cause track-blocking wrecks, or do anything ridiculous that you usually see in hardcore simulators – that is absolutely not the case – they’re just slow when pitted against a human player that understands stock car racing and is proficient behind the wheel.

NASCAR Heat 2 is DiRT 3 with stock cars; it’s semi-simplistic on-track with a lot of flashy, edgy presentation bits to nail the atmospheric qualities that other NASCAR games have been lacking for several years now. Provided 704 Games can get the AI up to where they need to be, which isn’t all that difficult, Heat 2 is generally a decent game overall, and after nearly a decade is finally a NASCAR title we can sit back and enjoy rather than rag on.