It’s nowhere near the evolution that was advertised. In fact, I feel lied to, cheated, and misled about what I could expect from the final product. Dusenberry Martin Racing and Monster Games didn’t have to do a whole lot to improve on the horrid line of Eutechnyx NASCAR games that we’ve been subjected to since the spring of 2011, yet somehow they’ve still managed to royally fuck it all up. Despite dusting off the classic NASCAR Heat engine that once won over the virtual oval racing community over a decade ago with NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona, and repackaging everything in a much prettier product – complete with all the drivers, liveries, and locations of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, NASCAR Heat Evolution for the PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 is a racing simulator you’ll want to skip out on this year. To give credit where credit is due, the game looks fantastic and drives quite well with a gamepad after minimal tweaks, but this game simply wasn’t finished, and forcing consumers to pay $66 for something that would barely classify as an Early Access title after five years of mediocrity is inexcusable. Do not buy NASCAR Heat Evolution.
My review may be loaded with a significantly higher level of salt compared to other sim racing outlets, but there’s a method to this madness. I’ve been following NASCAR since 2001, invested a ridiculous amount of time into oval racing console games dating back to the time when franchises like NASCAR Thunder and NASCAR Heat were brand new, and on weekends, I race 4-cylinder hornets at my local track – in fact I’m actually the points leader with two races left in the season.When a release like NASCAR Heat Evolution comes up on the calendar, it’s not just a yearly NASCAR game to dissect and bitch about as an angry sim racer – this is a game that holds a bit more weight to it, and it’s supposed to carry a whole lot of people through the off-season. I didn’t look forward to Evolution solely for the lengthy hostile review that would inevitably boost traffic on PRC.net for a day; this is what my buddy and I were supposed to spend all night playing after getting stoned on New Years. To North American NASCAR fans, these games were once the perfect remedy for late nights and rainy afternoons. Resurrecting the Heat franchise from the dead was intended to recapture some of that magic.
Monster Games have failed in spectacular fashion. This is a fucking joke.
My rude awakening came at the title screen, when I was promptly informed that my multiple input setup would not be compatible with NASCAR Heat Evolution. The team haven’t done the greatest job of alerting the public as to what wheels would be compatible with the PC version, so here’s the big surprise – if you have any sort of mix & match sim racing setup, where your pedals are from one brand, and your wheel is from another, and you’ve gotta use a couple of USB inputs for all of your shit, you’re fucked. However, Monster Games have made things even worse by not outright telling you in the main menu that multiple inputs aren’t supported; they instead direct you to this bizarre fucking text file inside a barely-used folder on your PC that forces you to configure your wheel by hand, and only then will you realize by combing through the configuration file that the game probably won’t allow you to frankenfudge two inputs into a single text document.
That’s right, we’re nearing the end of 2016, you’ve got a 1080p High Definition camera in your pocket at all times, but Monster Games point you towards a text file just to configure a sim setup that isn’t compatible with their game anyway, and they just sort of hope you figure that out.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the original NASCAR Heat didn’t support multiple inputs flawlessly, but we’re already at 650-ish words, so I’ll just drop a screenshot of my Thunder2Heat install perfectly recognizing both my wheel and pedals despite using 2 USB inputs to connect to my PC, so y’all shouldn’t have to spend much time contemplating why I’m so pissy at the moment. Monster Games literally re-used this exact engine seen in the screenshot below, yet somehow can’t support controller functionality that they’d included back in 2000. Good fucking job guys.
But, and this is a massive but, the NASCAR Heat console games of yesteryear didn’t drive all that poorly with a traditional gamepad. In fact, while the EA Sports games could be hit or miss from year to year, the three Heat games (I count Eve of Destruction as part of the Heat series) had phenomenally tight controls. Now considering 2016’s Heat Evolution is running on the exact same driving model and physics engine, I can’t say I’m too disappointed I’m forced to bust out the Xbox pad on launch day. If the game built around the classic engine provides a satisfactory experience, I’ll still be able to enjoy myself to some extent, rather than pouting in a corner believing I’d wasted $60 CDN on another shitty NASCAR title.
I figured I’d head to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and run some shakedown laps just to get a handle on things, and dial in the pad controls to ensure I’d give the title a fair shot, wheel or no wheel.
Whatever asswipe made the decision to lock more than half of the tracks away from the user at the start of the game deserves to get the boot from the development team. Unlike Formula One 2016 or every other officially licensed racing game, where you can fire up the executable after it installs on Steam and just sort of drive wherever you feel comfortable, Heat Evolution purposely withholds two thirds of the game’s 20+ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tracks behind a padlock until you’ve reached the appropriate driver level. That’s right, if you live a couple miles from Phoenix International Raceway and it’s a ritual of sorts for you to turn laps at Phoenix on each new NASCAR game, or you fancy some road course action at Watkins Glen, you won’t touch these facilities until at least four hours of playtime. You’re handed Experience Points for finishing well in each race regardless of whether you’re online or offline, but rather than using these points to unlock goodies such as alternate liveries or spotter packs, you literally aren’t allowed to drive more than half of the tracks on the NASCAR schedule unless you grind away for XP in Single Race.
The goodies that should be unlocked after reaching a new driver level? They’ve been taken out of the game and sold as downloadable content. I’ve tried downloading a couple of the free livery packs currently available on the Steam marketplace, and they still don’t show up in my game.
The whole concept is just awful.
To my surprise, it’s actually quite good. In fact, it’s better than I remember Heat being back in the day on the GameCube. The underlying physics engine, tire model, and overall vehicle dynamics haven’t changed one bit, but they didn’t need to. It’s not an arcade racer by any means, not quite simulation to the extent the classic Hardcore Mode cheat would allow for, but it’s also not quite the simcade bullshit like you’d see from Forza Horizon or the earlier Codemasters F1 games, which had all sorts of handling oddities. Heat feels really natural to drive after you drop the sensitivity slider to the minimum value in the options menu, and drop the wheel lock setting in the garage menu to six or seven degrees. Most of the trailers appeared to have been played on the Normal handling model, but anyone reading PRC.net should be smart enough to switch that shit to Simulation if they’re dumb enough to pick this up.
What the game does well, and it’s something that really impressed me, was how force feedback is handled. There isn’t a whole lot of vibration going through the controller to begin with; vibration only occurs during understeer or oversteer, and that might piss some folks off. It could be personal preference, but I find this to be awesome. When the car starts pushing on the exit of the corner, and the front tires are struggling to hold grip, you get that little bit of buzz in the controller and instinctively you know to back off. Maybe I just know what to look for when driving a virtual stock car, but the way they’ve done force feedback really lets me manage wear on the right front to an extent I’ve never been able to do previously. Especially when it comes to the mile and a half circuits on the cup schedule, I found myself being able to really wheel the car and drive at 95% or even 98% attack when previous NASCAR console games had me sitting around 85% with a pad just to keep things from going haywire.
Yet when you try to play NASCAR Heat 2016, not just hotlap to check basic vehicle dynamics, that’s when things start to fall apart in quite unique and almost inspiring ways. I’m truly impressed in that Heat Evolution is just as useless as the Eutechnyx titles, but Monster Games have found different ways to achieve the same result as those abominations. The game is beautiful in that you never know when or where it’s going to fall short of expectations next, and better yet, when it’s going to impress you with elements of the game that could be good, but aren’t.
A big part of the ad campaign behind NASCAR Heat Evolution was the fact that real drivers were involved in the development of the game as legitimate stakeholders and not just paid shills. Dusenberry-Martin paraded the likes of Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, and Brad Keselowski around by saying that not only did they endorse the game, they actively helped suggest improvements and were every bit as essential to the development of the game as the developers themselves. Brad Keselowski even went the extra mile to write a blog post about how he was part of the first generation of race car drivers to really “get” video games, and that he couldn’t wait for NASCAR Heat Evolution to hit the shelves.
No less than five Sprint Cup drivers had a hand in the development of this title, and none of them pointed out to developer Monster Games that Generation 6 Sprint Cup entries don’t feature a rear sway bar. So in Heat Evolution, you can essentially hit the track with a car setup that’s been illegal for four seasons of competition and run circles around the AI cars.
Oh yeah, about that…
Another big selling point of NASCAR Heat Evolution was supposed to be this dynamic artificial intelligence that adapted to your driving skill and got faster as you got faster. This is complete horseshit. It’s a slider that goes from 80% to 105%, just like the original NASCAR Heat from 2000, though it auto-detects your lap times on the fly and merely suggests the skill level you should be racing at when the post-race screen pops up. There is nothing new or revolutionary about this at all.
Now I have two distinct opinions in regards to the artificial intelligence found in Heat Evolution, and there’s a reason I’m split down the middle on the matter. The AI cars are extremely competent and some of the best AI I’ve ever seen in a racing game. They respect your position, race you hard, don’t dump you at random times, and in general are a pleasure to compete against. If you get into them, they aren’t granted super-human grip, and they’ve made some extremely nice, realistic looking saves that will slowly be making the rounds on YouTube as the NASCAR console community start recording their offline sessions. Honestly, they’re very nicely done.
That is, if you’re slow.
This is not a problem most people will run into when playing NASCAR Heat Evolution, but if you’ve got years of sim racing experience under your belt, and/or you happen to drive some sort of amateur oval racing car on the side, you can run circles around these fucking guys on the highest difficulty. Again, they’re not terrible to race against, and if you stuff up a qualifying run, navigating through the pack is genuinely enjoyable. However, in one of my first races, I made two basic setup adjustments and put the car on pole by three tenths of a second. After a short twenty lap event at Kansas, I was ahead of the car behind me by over eleven seconds, and had lapped about half of the field. This is after less than twenty minutes of driving, piloting the car with an Xbox 360 controller on the hardest difficulty.
To demonstrate that the AI is indeed slow as fuck, I took things to Bristol Motor Speedway, what many would consider to be the absolute hardest oval on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. Not only is driving the ideal line quite difficult considering the extremely steep banking and overall claustrophobic environment, racing thirty nine other opponents here is equivalent to flying fighter jets in your high school gymnasium.
I’m not sure whether it’s a testament to just how well the gamepad controls function, or if it proves how genuinely slow the artificial intelligence is, but regardless of what spin I put on it, I proceed to lap the entire grid within about forty minutes of driving. I’ve included the shot above as proof that I wasn’t knocking people around or exploiting some little-known AI glitch. I was literally running circles around the AI. They were doing a great job of racing me clean; I was just that much faster.
And while plate racing is simply phenomenal compared to basically every other NASCAR console game in the past decade, again your car is simply faster, and you can breeze by guys on the outside without the help of the draft. I think a fair argument someone could make in defense of the AI as a whole is “maybe you’re really good and need to stick to hardcore simulators”, but let’s be real here – it’s NASCAR, and some of these tracks don’t take a whole lot of talent to drive properly. Hell, at Daytona, you just hold it wide open and keep the wheel steady; therefore I can envision a scenario where a competent driver picks up this game, and within a week or so gets to my level on one or two tracks, slowly losing interest in the game because well, I can’t race Kansas or Texas because I just smoke the AI and there’s no way to handicap myself to the point where it’s fair for them.”
For that reason, I’ve decided to ignore discussing Career Mode in this review. The AI are just too slow to invest any meaningful time into an offline campaign mode.
There are no caution flags. There are no car setups. You can’t vote on what track you race at next. There is no way to chat with other players, at least not that I’ve seen. To select your car, you have to pre-select your car in the Single Player menu before jumping online; there’s no way to do it like in the EA Sports games where you pick your driver before entering a server. There’s no way to boot wreckers mid-race, no practice, no qualifying, and no way to change the handling model to simulation, so you’re stuck with a driving model that feels like an iPhone game.
Now don’t get me wrong, online in this game can easily produce some cheap thrills when among the right group of people. I was extremely lucky to get in a few rooms with dedicated drivers who were focused on participating in a clean race, and I’m happy to report that not only were the races enjoyable, the experience was virtually lag free. Being serious here for a second, the netcode was phenomenal for this type of game. The experience can be good, but there’s basically no functionality for any sort of league racing aside from 40 lap sprints where heats and mains are the way to do things. I’m sure the hardcore guys on the PS4 and Xbox One will organize their own shit to work around the shortcomings regardless of the lack of options or features, because the actual racing isn’t as terrible as many predicted, but Monster Games certainly haven’t thrown anybody a bone.
But as is the case with NASCAR games online, for every room with a couple of chill guys, you’ll run into rooms where little kids can’t keep their car pointed straight for more than a few seconds, and this is where Heat Evolution really fucks things up. Anyone who gets in a wreck is kept in the race by a mysterious force that propels their car forward as a sort of anti-trolling measure, even if they’re sliding sideways or trying to slow the car down with the brakes. So what happens is a couple of non-drivers will junk their cars in turn one, and rather than being parked on the infield grass with heavy damage, the game will shoot them up to the rest of the pack at light speed and magically point their nose in the proper direction. It’s completely nonsensical to watch in motion. I genuinely thought it was lag at first, until I noticed it only happened after a massive wreck. My prediction is that online racing will be ruined when someone figures out how to trigger this force without wrecking.
Now that we’ve gone over the main bulk of the game, I think it’s time to talk about some of the miscellaneous grievances I’ve got with Heat Evolution. To recap so far, the raw driving experience is fairly impressive for a mass market game, even with a gamepad, but the AI can’t match my own personal driving skill, and online lacks any sort of meaningful functionality, so as a whole the game is on pace for a decidedly average review. At this point I’d fall back on rehashing the ridiculous downloadable content plan and bitch about locking tracks away, but there’s so much more to discuss.
Heat Evolution has memory leaks. Lots of them. I personally believe this game looks fantastic in motion, and the track models are a sheer work of art that in some cases (such as Bristol) surpass what iRacing can produce. However, while Heat starts off holding a steady 60 FPS for about ten minutes or so, there’s some sort of bizarre memory leak that hasn’t been quite ironed out before release. First it starts dipping to 50, then down to 40, and eventually the framerate goes all over the fucking place. I’m not just taking about during heavy contact moments where half the field has been thrown into the catch fence; the screen will literally freeze on me and drop to 3 FPS when I’m driving all by myself, forcing me to mash the pause button in the hopes that I’m not sent into the wall because the picture has stopped moving.After a second or two, it will recover back into a playable range of 45 to 55, maybe holding 60 for ten to twenty seconds at a time.
In one instance, the framerate problems were so bad, they continued back into the menu – which is a fully rendered 3D scene – and I had to completely restart the game because the menu was unresponsive. The only reason I don’t have video, is because by the time I got my cellphone out and hit record, the game stopped having a Hillary Clinton-like seizure and went right back to 60. That kind of performance flaw is unacceptable in a $66 video game.
Next, it’s time we have a bit of a discussion on car physics in Heat Evolution. I’m not saying the driving model is bad; far from it, but the individual car performance is all sorts of wrong. Look, these may appear to be 2016 Sprint Cup entries, but they’re actually 2002 Winston Cup stock cars under the hood. Coupled with the presence of a rear sway bar, I don’t believe Monster Games even threw the new engine numbers into Heat Evolution.
The insane speeds modern NASCAR Cup cars are hitting in 2016 just aren’t present in NASCAR Heat Evolution, and as someone who’s got a copy of Dirt to Daytona sitting on the shelf, I can say with confidence that the developers literally just inserted new 3D models into the old set of car physics and called it a day. It’s difficult to touch 200 MPH at Daytona or Las Vegas, the cars are two whole seconds off pace at Bristol (17 seconds in game, 15 in real life) and Texas (29 seconds in game, 27 seconds in real life), and by some act of God I can hold the thing nearly wide-open around Atlanta Motor Speedway, touching 181 mph through the center of the corner when they’re down to the low 160’s in real life thanks to a notoriously difficult track surface and low downforce aerodynamics package. None of this shit exists in Heat Evolution, and it basically feels like I’m driving a 2002 Winston Cup car – because I probably am.
And it sure sounds like one, too. All major sound samples have been recycled from the original NASCAR Heat, and no, they haven’t been given a facelift. Most people won’t catch this because they either weren’t around for the original games or are too young to remember, but this is arguably the most pathetic aspect of the whole package. I can’t believe someone gave the thumbs up to just recycle a set of engine sounds that are this dated.
I get that this is not a hardcore simulator and I shouldn’t be expecting 100% unprecedented authenticity, but the developers did parade around all these real world Sprint Cup drivers, bragging about how much they helped contribute to the game and pumping out all these lame little developer diaries showing that they were committed to excellence or some shit. Meanwhile I’m sitting here looking at my lap times from places like Charlotte or Texas and thinking “that’s exactly what I was running in Dirt to Daytona when I was playing it on the GameCube emulator last summer.”
Almost 4,000 words later, and I think y’all have got the message that NASCAR Heat Evolution is a brutal stock car game. To my surprise, it drives really well with a pad, and the artificial intelligence will certainly be satisfying for inexperienced drivers – though not much of a challenge for veteran stock car guys. However, the satisfactory elements of Heat Evolution are grossly overshadowed by a whole bunch of issues that are simply unacceptable after half a decade spent begging Eutechnyx to give up the official NASCAR license to a more competent developer.
Hardcore sim racing wheel setups aren’t supported thanks to lackluster input device functionality, multiplayer events only caters to the most casual of NASCAR gamers, memory leaks cause massive application stability problems, boneheaded design decisions lock tracks away from the player for no useful purpose, intrusive downloadable content plans force users to pay for liveries that were once bonus unlockable content, and little effort was made to hide the fact that Monster Games literally slapped 2016 car models on 2002 performance specifications – even though the cars are fundamentally different both inside and out. These are just some of the problems with Heat Evolution, and I’m fairly certain the dedicated console racing crowd will discover many more along the way.
NASCAR games may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but after several years of mediocrity there was a genuine chance to put oval racing games back on the map with Monster Games taking over the development of officially licensed NASCAR products. The scenario was something many virtual stock car fans had been dreaming about since the days of NASCAR Nation on Speed Channel and EA’s acquisition of the official license in 2004, and it was incredible to see this fantasy finally come to fruition. Unfortunately, what we received over a decade after doesn’t just fail to live up to our expectations of what a NASCAR console release could be, should be, and has been in the past, NASCAR Heat Evolution desperately needed another year in development. It’s not done, it’s not worth the $60 asking price, and it’s not worth the extra $20+ in downloadable content. It’s using sound files from 2000, car specifications from 2002, and can’t even hold a steady framerate. Do not buy this game.