“Y’all from the states, right?” The other five people in the online lobby reply with words to the effect of “S’up bro” while I remain silent. Yup, I’m definitely playing NASCAR Heat 5, as if the generic soft rock currently blasting out of my TV and the seemingly endless list of oval circuits hadn’t reminded me already.
The last NASCAR Heat game I reviewed was Heat 3, and with its poor vehicle handling, dull career and dated visuals, I wasn’t a big fan. Have two years for the yearly franchise managed to make the requisite steps forward? I’ll cut to the chase (that’s a NASCAR pun, people). The answer is no, not quite.
For the uninitiated, NASCAR is a stock-car racing series based in the USA. Known for long, fast, and sometimes dangerous races around predominately oval circuits, with some ‘road courses’ thrown into the mix too. NASCAR Heat 5 is the official game of the series, based on the 2020 real-life NASCAR season. That means all the cars, drivers, sponsors and tracks. Which is one of the biggest advantages of Heat 5.
I know that sounds slightly strange, because you would expect everything to be present, but with NASCAR the sheer volume must be a massive task alone. We have the very top, main, NASCAR Cup Series, but also the feeder NASCAR Xfinity Series and the incredibly-titled NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series below that, plus the bonus of some non-asphalt racing in the entry-level Xtreme Dirt Series. All in all, that’s 34 locations and over 120 liveries to recreate.
There’s a large selection of modes to boot too. Split-screen multiplayer is welcome, alongside online, a dedicated esports areas, single races, plus a lengthy career. On paper then, NASCAR Heat 5 offers tremendous bang for your buck.
Even when you start driving, things are positive. Once you have selected your victory anthem – I plumped for ‘Funk 02’, but ‘Misc 01’ ran it close – you’ll realise the Xtreme Dirt cars move around more than in previous games making them easier to drift in a style more representative of the real thing. Tyres wear down over 100 lap races, hoods crumple against concrete barriers and your pit crew diligently fix up your ride. Sit back, relax, drive in circles using a gamepad as the hours slide by.
Except, should racing be relaxing? Fun, sure, but also competitive adrenaline-fuelled edge-of-your-seat stuff. A combination of timid AI rivals and lackadaisical handling characteristics put paid to any excitement. NASCAR Heat 5 is more massage parlour than theme park.
With all the introductory assists turned on, such as automatic braking, those who don’t happen to be Joey Logano can get up to speed quickly, but things start to go awry once you look for a little more depth in the handling. There seems to be a point, mid-corner, when applying more steering lock doesn’t change your line. There’s no understeer, no oversteer really either. Turn into a corner too quickly results in a visit to the wall, but if you enter at the appropriate speed and then to play with the car in the turn, nothing much happens. The effects are exaggerated when you use a steering wheel peripheral, which in the case of my Logitech G29, felt strangely hollow. No, this is a game you’ll probably stick with a controller for.
Car set-ups can be refreshingly easy. You can simply slide a bar along, choosing either ‘tight’, ‘loose’ or somewhere in the middle, with more detailed settings available for purists. Tweaking these options never really make substantial changes to the way the cars drive, though. Then you see a crash and these big, brawny and heavy (nearly 1500kg) cars go flying into the air like they are filled with helium. Takes you out of the moment, that.
The biggest culprit holding this game back is the career mode. As is de rigour for a licenced tie-in of this ilk, you start out from the bottom and make your way up to the top, or you can dive straight into the top class if you fancy.
The first option presented to you is signing for an existing team or creating your own. If you decide to join an existing team, you will be able to beat sponsor objectives and earn dollars for good results. Except, you can’t spend your winnings on anything. There’s no car development, nor team management. You just plod away, racking up wins plus cash and with nothing to spend it on. It’s bizarre.
Opting to create your own team unlocks the ability to hire mechanics and buy cars, plus spend your earnings on upgrading departments and employee skills. The whole system, however, lacks depth. Once you get used to the layout, you mindlessly process a couple of tasks and then move on to the next race. You can even press a button to auto-assign team members on upgrades in-between races. In an age where F1 2020 has developed a rich My Team career, Heat 5’s attempt feels like it’s a generation behind.
Beyond that, the career is just a characterless void. In NASCAR Heat 4 – which was a big visual step-forward over 3 – real-life racers would sometimes pop up in the career to send you a video message. These were often very slapdash, but instead of improving the implementation, for 2020 they are simply removed. There’s a lack of pre and post-race commentators talking about events.
Amongst the bullet-pointed additions for this season include new fonts for car customisation, two new camera angles, more stat tracking, a target time in career practice sessions and a new testing mode which amounts to little more than free practice. Even for a yearly sports title, you would probably hope for such changes from an update patch, not a whole new release.