Game Review: NASCAR Heat 4

Game Review: NASCAR Heat 4

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Sports video gaming this decade has had its share of accomplishments and disappointments. The laziness of EA Sports, 2K?s reliance on virtual currency, and the lack of a good NASCAR, wrestling, or boxing video game, have headlined some of my personal frustrations. And as much as sports games developers have been pissing me off, there are great strides being made in the gaming industry. The graphics, the new ways to play with friends and other people online, and the realism represented in some games are astounding.

So where does NASCAR Heat 4 measure in the sports gaming pyramid? Before I give you a definitive answer, it?s important to understand NASCAR video games have been beset by leaving the major game publishing realm and entering into the secondary market. Electronic Arts carried the NASCAR license up until 2010 when they dropped the series. Instead, EA wanted to divert more attention to making Madden as awful as possible over the course of the next several years. As EA does.

NASCAR didn?t return to the gaming market scene until NASCAR: The Game was released in 2011. EA Sports? NASCAR 09 was released in the middle of 2008. Three years of no major NASCAR video games. Eutechnyx revived the series with an acceptable effort for a smaller studio but some big gains needed to be made. Eutechnyx kept churning out NASCAR games until 2015 and none of those desperately needed improvements were forthcoming. Eutechnyx got the ax and 704 and Monster Games stepped in for 2016 to date. 704 was originally Dunsberry Martin Racing but rebranded to 704.

704 picked up where Eutechnyx left off and didn?t have too much to offer outside of a passable NASCAR racing sim. After playing one of the last two NASCAR Heat?s (I honestly can?t remember which one) I still felt there was much more to be desired in the actual racing.

There?s nothing more important than the actual racing in a NASCAR game. Obviously. Every sports simulation video game developed today has the monumental task of attempting to deliver a virtual version of a sport onto your gaming console. So it?s only correct I open this review by talking about the strides made by Monster Games in the racing department since the last time I played.

The Racing

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Getting racing AI to race at a competitive and balanced level is the core experience of a NASCAR game. In NASCAR Heat 4, Monster Games has delivered a great set of options to enhance and modify your racing experience. Not only are you able to modify the difficulty of your driving experience, but you can also modify the style of race-based upon what style of race suits you.

Do you want the version of NASCAR that real-life NASCAR executives are trying to push where the racing is crowded and compact? There?s a modifier for that. Do you want racing to be more based on your personal skill and ability to drive around the track? You can adjust your settings for that as well.

What I?ve appreciated about the design of the racing is that it?s not overbearing or oversensitive but there is a definite amount of skill required to master. That?s the balance most video games try and often fail to achieve. Based upon that statement alone, NH4 is an easy recommend for any racing fan young or old. The barrier to entry is fairly easy except for one major caveat.

Adjusting your race car could use a more intuitive menu system where the menu explains what certain adjustments do to your car. Other racing games have done this in the past and I would assume some still do in present. I had to look up online guides made by the wonderful people of the internet to explain how certain adjustments would affect my car.

Outside of that, most race tracks drive clean and straight forward with the occasional exception. Navigating road courses has been the bane of my existence but I might just have Bubba Wallace syndrome. Superspeedways can also be frustrating if you have a low-rated bad car and lose the draft.

One of my biggest complaints with past installments of NASCAR Heat was that you could slam into another car and neither would wreck. NH4 does a much better job of simulating collisions. I haven?t seen enough AI collisions yet to be truly satisfied but it?s not a deal-breaker.

Dirt racing might honestly be my favorite mode in the game and I wish there were more online servers running them. The physics of dirt racing is awesome and the cars drift with relative ease on most tracks once you get the hang of it. I will admit it took me a couple of races to really get used to the maneuvering of the dirt races.

Let me explicitly state this section is my experience of running against AI mostly in career mode on a high difficulty setting. Let me also qualify that statement by saying I?m a lunatic and just because I run on high difficulty doesn?t mean I?m good at the game. But that?s the rub, I believe NH4 was developed well enough that if I do get better at the game over time, I can be a worthy competitor against the toughest of AI.

Race winning burnouts are a big let down. Barely any smoke billows up and I?m still hurt that NASCAR game developers can?t seem to get a true handle on this desperately needed feature.

Monster Games also needs to get a handle on car damage so that if a car gets into a serious wreck, one pit stop won?t immediately make it all shiny clean and new again. The damage physics are decent if you bump into walls and other cars, but I?ve always thought if you get into a big enough wreck, you should have to deal with the consequences and simulate the rest of the race as your car is taken to Dale Jr?s vehicular graveyard.

One last glowing commendation I have to make before I dive into career mode is that on several tracks the high line is an actual groove that drives (somewhat) realistically. If you drive a high line at a speedway, you can get a good run off the corner and either pass or keep up the drivers running the inside line.

Career Mode

Image for postfrom NASCAR.com

I don?t have a wealth of experience with NASCAR Heat?s career mode so it?s mostly a new experience for me. I do remember in the previous versions the installation of the awkward real-life driver interactions where they talk at their iPhones as if they?re talking to you. As maladroit as these goofy video interjections are, I appreciate the effort 704 and Monster Games has put in to separate their product from being a banal and low effort in presentation as Eutechnyx was.

Career mode?s main feature is racing through the NASCAR ranks where you can join a team or create your own. It?s a return to form to the EA Sports glory days like in NASCAR ?05 Chase for the Cup. There?s still a ways to go for Monster Games in the presentation department to even reach the ?05 threshold, though they at least briefly mention you do have an agent who is actually a real-life agent for Joey Logano (shoutout to Warren Vigus). But everyone knows that it?s about time that Ace Moneymaker, one of the great all-time characters in gaming history, makes his return to the NASCAR circuit. (Ace Moneymaker is a great Twitter follow by the way.)

Driving for other teams using their cars and equipment is an easy, clean, and efficient way to get racing and not have to worry about designing or improving your car to an appropriate level. As any sports fan would lament though, you definitely want to have your own team and design your own car and make it the best. NASCAR Heat 4 has a pretty mundane but effective system to do that where you hire engineers who improve your cars? aero, engine, and suspension.

The presentation of the races is still bare-bones and it would take a significant investment for the NASCAR Heat series to take steps toward the 2K?s and SIE?s in the industry. There are little menu features like statistical race history that NH4 could and should beef up on.

The ally and rival system is appreciated but needs some balancing. It?s all well understood that if you make a rival, they will probably want to wreck you, I get that. But the AI in NH4 will stick on you like that scene in Star Wars Episode XI where Luke and the stormtrooper interlock their speeder bikes. This pretty much almost instantly ends up in one or both cars wrecking.

I haven?t gotten deep into career mode as I?m splitting time between the Truck series and the Xtreme Dirt Tour, but so far it?s a valiant effort that needs more love and care to get to the level I want to see NASCAR games at. I will say that NH4 isn?t too far behind Codemasters F1 series, though I would give Codemasters a definite edge. Codemasters has had more time and may have slightly more resources at this stage of their company than I would expect 704 and Monster Games to have. Codemasters has delivered on a consistently well-made product. 704 and Monster Games are approaching the plateau of having a high-quality racing sim but there are still many improvements to sand the sawdust off the rough edges.

Online Racing

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Speaking of rough edges. Online racing isn?t a great place for sim racing. Let?s be honest and upfront about this. If you wanted to see a reason for why world peace could never be brokered, hop into an online lobby in NH4 and attempt to have yourself a clean fun race.

It?s a mess. I can?t blame this on NH4. I?m more concerned with what they put into the offline product. I see the online functionality as a mere offering of what every sports franchise has done this decade. I haven?t dealt with game design issues like online lag to frightening levels though you?ll see a car get glitchy on occasion.

The difficulty of online racing is trying to not get wrecked by your fellow racers who can never get through the first lap without a global catastrophe occurring. Most lobbies typically don?t have cautions on, or else the entire race would just be immediate cautions.

I?m not even sure what the solution is to fix bad driving. When you don?t get caught up in a wreck at the start of an online race, it?s a decent experience. There?s not really much to strive to outside of just beating your opponents. Incentivizing racing well and finishing high while penalizing poor driving should be a future feature for the next Heat installment.

Wrap Up

If you can live with the minor annoyances and the simplified presentation, NASCAR Heat 4 delivers on the racing experience as good as I?ve ever played. The graphics are clean, the racing is competitive and intuitive, and the career mode is effective in delivering on authentic NASCAR racing.

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