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.
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.