Though the moving gameplay footage released over the past few weeks has objectively left a lot to be desired, showcasing little in the way of physics improvements while boasting new tracks, series, and graphics above all else, 704 Games have managed to notch themselves a small victory with their upcoming oval racer NASCAR Heat 2.
Yes, as we leaked not too long ago, the Camping World Truck Series and the Xfinity Grand National Series will both be featured in the sequel to last year’s horrendously disappointing rush job, but it’s in precisely how these two feeder series will appear that has actually set a new milestone for NASCAR games as a whole, and should give even the harshest critics – that includes myself – a slight amount of hope for the sequel, if not the mindset that 704 & Monster are at least acting in good faith with the franchise. Unlike past NASCAR titles, regardless of whether they were developed by Monster Games, EA Sports, Image Space Incorporated, Eutechnyx, or the almighty Papyrus, NASCAR Heat 2 will include a complete field of real life drivers across all major series featured within the game. Officially licensed NASCAR titles have been appearing on store shelves dating back to the era of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, but surprisingly this will mark the first time in the 20+ year history of NASCAR games to boast a 100% authentic starting grid, right out of the box.
Because NASCAR is not under an all-encompassing concorde agreement like our European readers are familiar with in Formula One, allowing developers to obtain a blanket license that automatically ensures rights to all eleven teams, video game developers looking to re-create America’s most popular auto racing series in a virtual environment must individually track down every individual driver, sponsor, and team owner participating in NASCAR-sanctioned events to secure their appearance within their piece of software.
This has traditionally resulted in very awkward situations in years past, as NASCAR’s notorious silly season, coupled with sponsorship feuds and tight schedules to secure the field of drivers for the upcoming video game, has seen pretty prominent drivers omitted from the roster of opponents in favor of generic fictional cars, much to the dismay of even the most casual of fans. Some of these cases are quite laughable considering the caliber of drivers they involve; despite winning the fall Richmond race in 2004 and securing a spot in NASCAR’s inaugural playoff race, Jeremy Mayfield did not appear in NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup, whereas Roush Racing phenom Carl Edwards, who had won three times in 2007, was nowhere to be seen when the series made the jump to the Xbox 360 later that summer with NASCAR 08. For NASCAR fans, it was akin to booting up Formula One 2016, and discovering Red Bull had been replaced by a fictional racing team, dubbed “Codemasters F1,” with Ricciardo and Verstappen replaced by the names and mugshots of two interns who “looked the part.”
And of course, with developers knowing full well that the two major support series would not be as popular as the Sunday Cup series, several teams had no problem filling a vast portion of the grids with bogus fantasy drivers – killing any sense of immersion in the process. If this sounds outlandish to those not familiar with NASCAR games, that’s because it was, and on the PC, this is exactly what led to such an extensive modding and add-on livery community; Papyrus left out Chip Ganassi Racing in it’s entirety for their final release, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, instead bundling the game with a selection of 20-odd fantasy drivers that all seemed to promote other products affiliated with Vivendi Universal at the time – such as a World of Warcraft car.
On the contrary, 704 Games have published the full list of all 32 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers who will appear in NASCAR Heat 2 this fall, with their Facebook page showing off high-resolution renders for those who want a closer look, though Facebook has obviously murdered their quality. After multiple generations of NASCAR games in which developers shamelessly inserted themselves, friends, and co-workers into major NASCAR release to compensate for a lack of real-world drivers, it’s obviously a fantastic change of pace. Most NASCAR fans thought this would simply never happen, as the complexity of acquiring individual rights to the exact liveries and sponsor packages of over 110 professional drivers seems pretty astronomical for any major dev team to achieve, let alone a team as small and unproven as 704.
Is this one of the benefits of their new location, working directly underneath NASCAR’s corporate offices in Charlotte, North Carolina? Quite possibly, though as I’ve mentioned in the title of this post, this doesn’t exactly mean the rest of the game will receive this level of dedication. Recent gameplay trailers for NASCAR Heat 2 have been fairly lackluster, failing to show any prolific revisions to the game’s handling model and making a very poor display of the truck series at Eldora, so while it’s certainly a cause for celebration that we’ll have a full field of drivers in a NASCAR console game without the need for third party mods, there’s still a lot 704 need to do in an effort to ensure NASCAR Heat 2 is worth your time and money.