NASCAR is a motorsport that is currently hunting for an audience. Faced with steadily declining viewing figures and an aging fanbase, the series has tried changing the rules with bonus points and adding gimmicks such as stage racing, all in the aim of reinvigorating the pinnacle of stock car racing.
The sport is still massive and the Daytona 500 race alone gains a TV audience in excess of 9 million viewers, but when the reigning team champions cease trading due to sponsorship issues, then perhaps all is not well.
A video game that captures the exciting elements of NASCAR — the extremely close action, racing line strategies and of course, the odd bump draft — and provides an engaging and authentic feeling experience could do wonders to gain new followers. Sadly, NASCAR Heat 3 is not that game.
As you would expect of a yearly sports franchise release, all the official cars, teams, drivers and tracks from the real-life NASCAR series are present, including the new and exciting Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. Then again, it doesn’t bode too well when the track icon when selecting where to race still displays this circuit as an oval.
The career mode is expansive, bigger even than the amount of Bud Light a typical NASCAR spectator would drink. Americans love value, and NASCAR Heat 3 goes all in on giving you a lengthy career. New for this year is the addition of the entry-level ‘Xtreme Dirt Tour’ series, which is followed by the now-traditional Camping World Truck championship, the Xfinity class and finally the full-blown Monster Energy NASCAR Cup. Whereas F1 2018 has a ten-season career mode focusing solely on the main championship, the NASCAR Heat 3 career spans the three support classes plus the top league across the decade, which adds more variety.
The magnitude of the career mode isn’t just down to the sheer number of years, but also the surprisingly in-depth team management. You have to sign agreements with potential sponsors, meet their race objectives to receive bonus payouts, upgrade your cars, facilities and team personnel, plus make sure you are attracting new offers for the next season. These are interspersed by video messages from people in the NASCAR scene.
Your car is noticeably slower than the competition in the early part of a season as you are behind the development curve. Applying the right team members to develop the engine, aerodynamics and suspension is key and so is spending your race winnings wisely on team training. Some of the menus for this are clunky and you’re required to do the exact same process after each and every race, which makes the team management feel like a chore by your second season. There’s also not much here in the way of an original idea.
The main issue with the career is that you spend a whole season building up your own team through training and investment, and at the end of each year, if you get promoted to the next level, you have to start from scratch again. I can appreciate buying a new car and upgrading it from the start for the new vehicle class, but having to hire an entirely new staff roster, workshop and even a new team name each time your progress makes part of the grind seem completely worthless and subverts the system. You can just select to drive for an existing team if you prefer, which could be rather appealing.
This is a relatively minor quibble, however, when compared to NASCAR Heat 3’s Achilles’ heel: the way the game drives. In the world of motorsport, NASCAR vehicles are not exactly what you would call state-of-the-art, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with handling that analogous to that of a mobile game. It almost feels like you would get better results from motion control from the first generation Wiimote, possibly while using one of those £5 fake steering wheel add-ons!
Perhaps the developer has gone down the route of making the driving as easy as possible to reach a large audience. If so, that brief was missed because the handling is so devoid of precision that, when in a close field of cars all doing over 180 mph, a casual gamer will find themselves pinballing off the side of one car and another. This game does not have to be a simulator, but it does have to make you at least feel epic by masking your inabilities or go for a full-on drift-around-the-corner arcade style. Sadly, this is neither.
Using a modern steering wheel provides zero feedback, even on a dirt surface, leaving the steering feeling extremely light, just like a worn out Sega Rally 2 arcade machine. Sadly, the handling model on that 20-year-old game is more rewarding. I’d recommend you use a controller to play this game.
When you watch real NASCAR, the massively powerful rear-wheel-drive V8-powered cars like to oversteer on the limit. Push too hard, and they can spin out. In Heat 3, get on the throttle too early in a corner and you simply understeer in the wall, especially when racing in the lower classes or on an oval. It’s dull and uninspiring. The only way you can get the car to rotate is on the smaller, tighter, tracks by jamming on the brakes while turning. Even then the throttle simply neutralises the ordeal into front-end plough. The game is not a visual treat either, very much looking like it’s from a bygone era. As you drive around ovals, you can clearly see textures loading on the track in front of you.
Recently, Zak Brown’s (the current McLaren CEO) Motorsport Network corporation invested in the developer, 704Games, while the licensing agreement to make the game was extended until 2029. I can only hope they start again from scratch and work on the driving experience.
At least the online racing is stable and outside of the main career there is an interesting challenge mode based on real-life NASCAR moments, including video of the actual events you are trying to replicate. You can even choose a cheesy section of music to play as your ‘Victory Anthem’ and thankfully turn off the fake Led Zeppelin and Queens of the Stone Age imitating menu soundtrack.
Ultimately, there is a difference between being easy and not very good. NASCAR Heat 3 is severely let down by the anodyne on-track action. Lacking any sort of driver enjoyment undoes the hard work put into the officially licenced lineup and career path options. Even for a racing game fan, this game is as dull as dishwater and extraordinarily derivative.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One and PC