NASCAR Heat 5 Review
The same complaint that a lot of annual sports video game franchises receive is (mostly) true with NASCAR Heat 5. This year’s game feels basically like a roster and car paint update compared to previous versions.
The driving model feels a lot better — my cars don’t just spin with the slightest contact, and I’m finding it easier to get involved in drafts and pushes. The game also just looks better, though that could be because I’m playing this year’s game on the Xbox One X, as opposed to the PS4 Pro.
But, ultimately, I feel like I’m playing the same game I played last year; and the year before; and the year before…
That’s not to say that NASCAR Heat 5 is a bad game. On the track, it’s a mostly enjoyable experience. The rush of moving up through the field and trying for your best finish; the heartbreak of inadvertently sliding into the wall and losing all the progress you’ve made; the satisfaction when a strategy call vaults you to a top 5 finish when your car’s actually a bottom 5 car.
My preferred race length is to play 25% long races, with 4-times the tire wear and fuel usage. This gives you a mostly authentic experience, without having to run an entire race. However, due to NASCAR’s silly stage racing, it can still lead to few strategic maneuvers. The game does a good job of letting the player feel how tires get less grip through a run.
My biggest complaint is that it feels like the tire wear doesn’t impact AI as much. Every run ends up about the same for me: I start strongly and pass a handful of cars; after the midway point, my tires start to go and I fall back. By the end of a run, I’ve lost much of the progress I made early on. It feels like a yo-yo, and it isn’t always due to player-error. Race results also sometimes feel random, and are based on where I happen to be when a caution flag is thrown.
There are 4 ways to play the game, basically: Single race, Career, Challenge and Online. This year’s game does add a testing mode that makes practicing different setups easier. It’s a super helpful mode for players who want to be more competitive, but is largely a non-starter for me.
Challenge mode is a nice distraction, giving you the chance to man different cars and try to pull off quick victories, but I really didn’t feel too much reward for completing the challenges. It’s also a barebones presentation — You click on a menu; click on a challenge; read a paragraph about the challenge and go on. Lack of presentation really drags down the overall game.
Online racing is mostly unchanged from previous years. There is a new online challenge mode that gets updated daily, but it’s not much different from the offline challenges in terms of execution. It’s still early days, but when I’ve been online there have only been between 15 and 25 others on at the same time. The game lets each person start up a new room, which means that the players end up split between lobbies. I’ve only raced a couple of times, and each time it’s only been with about 5 or 6 other human players. I haven’t played enough online to issue a verdict, but the overall experience wasn’t positive.
The meat of any racing game, for me, lies in its single-player career mode. I’ve enjoyed Heat’s approach to career, though it’s largely unchanged since Heat 3. You can start off in the Xtreme Dirt Series, working your way up through trucks, Xfinity and then to the top-level NASCAR Cup. You can also decide where you actually want to start your career — this time, I chose to jump straight to the Xfinity Cup. In past years, I’ve started on the dirt and gone up through trucks, only to burn out before I hit the top level.
If you’ve never played Heat and you’re looking to start the career mode, I can whole-heartedly recommend jumping into dirt. Arguably, Heat’s dirt racing is the best thing about the game. It’s fast and frenetic, and really plays off the feel of smalltown, dirt track racing. (Former Heat developers Monster Games came out with Tony Stewart’s Sprint Car Racing earlier this year, and it is a delightful dirt track racing game).
Within career, you can either sign up for another team or build your own. It’s more satisfying — and ultimately deeper — to build your own team. You’ll get to hire new staff members and concentrate on different areas of development. But the cycle remains basically the same: Spend 1 year as a bottom-dweller; your second year sees you get competitive; and year 3, you compete for a championship.
It’s all fun enough, but the game’s barebones presentation leaves the reward for winning lacking. Career mode ultimately turns into a series of loosely connected races. Unlike the other racing game that represents a league that was released at the same time — F1 2020 — NASCAR Heat 5’s career mode is shallow off-the-track.
I haven’t mentioned anything about the sound in the game. Basically…it’s loud engines going around, with your spotter occasionally saying “car to the left” and so-on. With a country-rock soundtrack. So, nothing to write home about.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the Heat games may hinge somewhat on your attraction to NASCAR itself. Maybe that seems like a dumb statement, but it’s true. I was turned on to racing games a few years ago when F1 2017 and Gran Turismo Sport were released. The F1 game made me check Formula 1 out as a whole, and now Formula 1 is one of my favorite sports to follow.
The NASCAR Heat games have never inspired me to dive any deeper into the sport. Maybe that’s not a prerequisite for a great video game representation of a sport, but it’s definitely a failure.
There’s a lot I like about NASCAR Heat 5. The core gameplay is fun, and I love the strategy of deciding when to pit, how much fuel to put in, which tires to change, tire pressure adjustments and so-on. One thing that draws me to the series, as well, is that it’s the only console racing game that includes the Mid-Ohio track, which is about an hour from my house. It’s truly a gaming highlight for me to race around a track that I visit annually.
So, NASCAR Heat is a difficult series for me to truly evaluate. They’re all good, serviceable, fun racing games. If you’re into NASCAR, it’s an easy recommendation. If you just like racing games? This year alone includes the new F1, Project Cars 3 and Dirt 5. There’s also the promise of the new Gran Turismo 7 and maybe even a new Forza this fall. 2020 is a great year for racing games, and this year’s Heat just can’t compete with the heavyweights.