“Speed… I am Speed!”
The vast majority of what I know about NASCAR racing has been learnt by watching Pixar’s seminal work, Cars. The quote at the top of this review is from Lightning McQueen, hero of the film, as it focuses efforts on a sport which basically sees the competitors spend the vast majority of their time turning left, with crashing commonplace. Well, thankfully my knowledge about this all-American motorsport has been expanded by the arrival of NASCAR HEAT 5; the official game of the 2020 season, featuring all the officially licensed tracks, cars and drivers. On the face of it, it should be a game that is loaded enough to bring the real life sport alive in the virtual world.
I have to confess, this is the first of the NASCAR HEAT games that I have played, but it appears that there isn’t a storyline running through the series, so I’m safe to start at the top. There are a few options to go at when you load into the game, the first of which needs our focus being that of the standard career mode, where you can create a driver and start out as a nobody, doing what’s called Hot Seating. Basically, this means that if a team is short a driver, they call on you to drive the car for a weekend, and if you do well for them they will consider offering you a full time drive in the next year. What this translates into is a season spent driving different cars, although some weeks you don’t get an offer, so it’s important to do as well as you can when you have the chance. At the start of the second season, you can then accept an offer from an existing team, or go it alone and build your own, assuming you have enough cash. Starting in the Xtreme Dirt Series, if you place well enough you move up to the next league, racing NASCAR pickup trucks in the GANDER RV & Outdoor Truck Series, and so on, right up to the top where you are driving in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Alongside that is a Challenge mode; almost like an extension of this series, placing you in the racing overalls of real life drivers and giving you a series of challenges to overcome. This might see you needing to overtake everyone and win in the last stages of a race, or to maintain a position and bring the car home in one piece. Based on real life events, this mode can certainly give you a taste of what it means to be a NASCAR driver, and the variety of pressures they face.
In addition to the career there is a multiplayer system, allowing you to race other players from around the world in head-to-head intense competition. At least that’s how it is meant to play out, as in practice, while the netcode seems to work very well and I had no issues with lag or slowdown, I appeared to be racing those with considerably better cars than me. It wasn’t at all unusual to be overtaken and lapped four times in a 20 lap race, despite pushing my asthmatic car as hard as it would go. As you can imagine, this is somewhat upsetting, and I had no real explanation as to why they were so much faster than me. It made no difference which league I chose to race in either: I was always the slowest, and with no way I’ve found of tuning my car I was left a very chastened NASCAR rookie. The other way to play is to just choose Race Now: this will let you choose a track, a car and do what it says on the tin – race now. So, as you can see, there is a lot of content to go at, and this is a good mark for 704 Games.
The ability to create your own car is pretty nice as well. While the livery creator isn’t going to give Forza any sleepless nights, being able to change sponsors, the colours of your paint scheme and even the font of your numbers on the car is pretty good; some truly hideous clashes can be made. Any layer of personalisation is good, and graphically NASCAR HEAT 5 does look quite good, with lots of action on screen and no slowdown. The new cars come across as decent, the liveries look nice however, while the tracks themselves are well-recreated, the crowd models are a bit odd. They look strange enough as you pound around each circuit in the correct direction, but spin out and get a close-up look and it’s all even weirder.
The audio is passable too, although the engine note is a dull drone/roar, and all the cars sound the same, from a two speed dirt racer to a supposedly fire breathing full-on NASCAR – they all have the same engine note, albeit some cars have more gears than others, and that is literally the only difference, how many times the box can be shifted. There’s no real sense of speed either: a dirt series car doing 90 mph feels the same and appears to move at the same rate as a NASCAR doing twice that. After a while it does start to get a bit weary, in all honesty. The music in between the races is nice, with a good selection of what sounds like modern Country and Western tracks; all perfectly pleasant and forgettable.
Now we come to the thorny issue of how NASCAR HEAT 5 actually plays. The short answer is poorly, if I’m brutally honest. For a game that is an officially licensed product, being able to get round all the tracks I’ve raced on without even having to worry about using the brakes is a pretty poor state of affairs. You come to a corner (normally turning left, but there are a couple of tracks with right hand bends too), throw the car in, see if it sticks to its line, if it doesn’t, feather the accelerator and carry on around. The rest of the competitor cars corner like they are on rails, with nary a slowdown in sight. It’s galling to use the track, draft off cars where necessary, overtake someone and then have them come back at you in the next bend and go past you like you were stood still. It’s not unusual to lose three places on a bend, and only be able to make up two on the following straight.
It also doesn’t help that the tracks are all so dull. With the exception of one or two layouts, every track is a case of “go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left”. Ovals, ovals with bulges in, different lengths of oval – it’s all very well being an accurate representation of a real-world track, but when the track is the dullest layout possible boredom soon sets in.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that the controls are woolly and imprecise, the steering feels like the wheel is set in treacle, and the brakes – if you do use them – stop you on a sixpence, leading to much hilarity as you try to accelerate again while the rest of the AI cars attempt to drive straight through you instead of avoiding a crash. As racing action goes, it’s not the best. In fact, compared to even the arcade action of Forza Horizon 4, it just feels wooden and lumpy. My absolute favourite party piece is in terms of the traction control, however. You know when you tip a car too hard into a corner, it starts to drift and, despite your countersteering, it goes beyond the point of no return and you just know you’re going to spin? Well, not here. Instead all you have to do is release the throttle, and the car comes back into line beautifully, not even scrubbing off too much speed.
NASCAR HEAT 5 has other foibles as well. When I started my own NASCAR team, I was able to hire specialists to work on the car and improve it. I hired an Engine specialist, and an Aero specialist, and set them to work upgrading my truck. The engine went from 70 to 71: I have no idea what that means, other than 71 is more than 70, so it must be better right? In the first race, the game told me I had a mismatch with the track or something, and that I was not allowed to use my newly upgraded engine. Why give me the option of having upgrades, to then turn around and say that upgrades are bad? I persevered, anyway, and started the race, discovered my truck – with its engine that was too powerful – was four seconds off the pace and I was stone dead last. And then, to add insult to injury, at the end of the race the engine and aero was wound back to 70 as I had, apparently, “Raced too harshly”. I didn’t cross the finish line on my roof, I just drove in a circle for four laps. Short of wrapping the car in cotton wool, its hard to know how I could have been gentler. I didn’t even hit any other cars – they had vanished into the distance.
Even the much touted new “Setup Mode” is a complete waste of time. How much planning of a line through a left hand corner can you need anyway? After much fiddling and faffing about, I found out how to train my crew to upgrade the engine further, and also how to raise the limit of each of the disciplines involved. Even with Engine, Aero and Suspension all raised to 95 – something which cost a pretty in-game penny to do – my truck is barely middle of the pack.
However, the biscuit is really taken with my current favourite NASCAR oddity – the ability to simulate races when you own your racing team, as it alleviates the need to actually do any of the racing. This allows the game to become a team management-lite sim, and honestly it’s more fun to look at it like that than it is as a racing game. Just be aware, you can still get a Harsh Racing penalty when the AI is driving, just to add that little bit more nonsense to the already towering pile.
One last complaint – every single loading screen, and there are many, is an advert for a Fanatec racing product, either the wheel, the pedals or the whole shebang. This is very tedious to behold, and honestly I don’t feel like I’d use a Fanatec product now if they were giving them away, as I am sick of the sight of them.
So, a conclusion then. It’s a bit of a tough one this. I can’t penalise the game for being a recreation of what is. But I do think that NASCAR as a whole will appeal to some, but not others. What I can penalise it for is not making very good sense in the race screens, for its lack of proper tuning to try and make my car faster, for the way nothing is explained very well, and for generally not being above average in terms of being a racer. The actual driving experience is poor, with not much difference between any of the cars, and while there is a lot of content to go at it is a struggle to stay motivated to play through it all. NASCAR HEAT 5 on Xbox One just struggles to be a rewarding game to play, and at the end of the day that’s what we play games for, isn’t it?