The first challenge race posed by NASCAR Heat Evolution was a straightforward, back-of-the-pack proposal: Come out of a restart at Fontana and, with five laps to go, win the sucker outright, as Brad Keselowski did last year in a madcap dash to the finish line.
For an added degree of difficulty, Keselowski himself strode into the room, atop NASCAR's office tower in Charlotte, N.C. where I was attempting the restart. He was filming a publicity video somewhere by my right shoulder. I didn't win. I did make the top 10, which, even if it didn't complete the challenge I thought was pretty good, right?
"Come on, come onnnnn," Keselowski groaned when I told him how I did. "I beat mine on the first try, but it took me to the last lap on the first pass. And I was a little disappointed that it took me that long."
In real life, actually, it did. Last year, Keselowski charged from way back after a pit, taking the lead on turn two of a green-white-checkered finish at the Auto Club 400, where all 43 cars finished running. Few races in real life could be more video game than that.
Hearing that it took until the last lap for Keselowski himself, with his knowledge of Auto Club Speedway, to beat that same challenge gave me a little hope for my future in NASCAR Heat Evolution, launching Sept. 13 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. As a complete novice, I drove heavy and loose, after all, passing high and either not recognizing drafting opportunities or not using them when presented. Plus, I just don't know how to race.
Challenge events should provide the best test of NASCAR Heat Evolution's claims
"Advanced tactics are never going to be the same in any game of this sort because those are changing, quite rapidly, and they're very proprietary, you know?" said Keselowski, who is a partial investor in DMR Racing, the publisher of NASCAR Heat Evolution (along with Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano). "But frankly, as a gamer, and a racer, every driver has their own advanced tactics."
NASCAR Heat Evolution's challenge races, all based on real-life events, are as good a place as any to test the promises being made by Monster Games and Dusenberry-Martin Racing as the game closes in on its shipping date. Driver AI is one of those promises, and while I don't know how Danica Patrick or cover star Carl Edwards would actually race against me in real life, I'm guessing they wouldn't stick to the same racing line for the entire event, much less in the last five laps. Both passed me, left and right, like I was towing a U-Haul in the center lane, as I struggled to maintain my own line at Fontana. Then both dove like bloodhounds for the inside.
It's something Sean Wilson, the game's executive producer and a veteran of EA Sports' old NASCAR series almost a decade ago, called out to me earlier in the day. The previous editions of NASCAR-licensed games, developed by Eutechnyx, had drivers racing on rails and accelerating or braking within them. "This is a very racy AI," Wilson said, mentioning that the EA Sports games had three AI lines that all drivers adhered to. NASCAR Heat Evolution has none. Drivers should drive where they would in that situation in a real race.
"You just always knew where they're going to be," in earlier series, Wilson said. "We really wanted a race at Talladega, in our game, to pack up like in real life."
That also means the potential for a Talladega-class wreck. I didn't see many AI driver errors, much less ones leading to a major pileup. Or if one did happen, I was long gone past it. Ed Martin, the president of DMR Studios, which is now publishing the game, said NASCAR Heat Evolution condenses the point-by-point telemetry the racing series gathers for its teams over the course of a season to model the video game drivers' behavior. So a wreck started by a super-aggressive racer is not off the table. But ideally they should be about as frequent as real life.
My hands-on time with NASCAR Heat Evolution showed it was borne of a lets-get-this-right reboot for a major sports license after almost a decade in the wilderness since EA let go of it. It features a career mode, in which one creates a driver and races him or her over multiple series; a single season mode as a real-life driver (and the in-car views reflect this, down to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s skeleton gloves); one-off local races and challenges, and multiplayer events supporting up to a 40-car field. Martin's eyes brightened and he gave a very technical explanation when I asked how they pulled that off (relay servers, basically) but the bottom line is, you don't have to worry about someone with a slow connection junking the entire race.
And then there are the challenges, the kind of do-it-again-faster game mode that Keselowski said reminded him of racing on his cousin's Sega Genesis during a holiday visit. Keselowski and Logano have advisory relationships with the game, and Keselowski said the challenge races got the most of his attention for their quick appeal and replayability. "It was a competition high that I still get to this day," Keselowski said of his 16-bit racing days. "To be able to have something in the game like that is rewarding to me, personally. The challenges segment is a self-reflection of that."
Challenges will pull out events from real-life races and ask the user to recreate them (typically requiring an overall race victory). They're gated by "speed points," which a user acquires according to their finishes in events in all modes of the game. The idea also is that NASCAR Heat Evolution's challenges can be updated as a racing season progresses.
"That, to me, is the right amount of attention span," Keselowski said.
The career mode involves all but three events on the real-life NASCAR schedule, all run under their real-world sponsorships. The exclusions are the Daytona Can-Am Duels that qualify for the Daytona 500, and the series' All-Star Race, because of their variable rules formats. The season concludes with the Chase for the Cup playoff to determine a champion, as in real life.
Drivers will acquire sponsors (real-world ones, too, thanks to NASCAR's all-in licensing of the game) who set performance goals and pay out accordingly. That money gets pumped into racing shop upgrades through a skill tree that has four branches (garage, engine, machining, fabrication). Wilson said it is possible, but it will be very difficult to make the Chase for the Cup playoff in a player's first year, meaning that maxing out that tree should take multiple seasons and fulfilling a lot of sponsor goals.
There's a Season mode which is similar to career, except a player may pick his or her favorite driver and use them, and their car, over the course of one year. The season (and the seasons in a career) can be set to 6, 12 or 23-event or full length schedules, or skip directly to a Chase playoff. Races can run at 2, 3, 7, 13, 25, 50 or 100 percent of their real-life distance, giving players the option of eight laps in the Coca-Cola 600 or the whole shebang, in real time.
In all of these modes, a driver acquires a track rating that ranges from 80 to 105. This governs opposing racers' AI (not necessarily their tendencies, but their effectiveness.) The idea, Wilson told me, is that a first run through, say, Pocono Raceway, will be very easy, with subsequent visits more challenging.
All tracks are available at any time in online multiplayer, Wilson said, and on the schedule in a driver's career mode. But in offline, one-off racing, a beginner will have only the six easiest tracks available, with others unlocking as the driver becomes more skilled. Wilson estimated it would take about an hour of competent driving in the Race Now mode to unlock them all. "It's to make sure we're not just throwing a new user into a course for punishment," he said.
Visually, the build I saw looked sharp and very detailed, with no recognizable framerate drop even in an anything-goes shooting gallery like Darlington Raceway. The PC version will support 4K resolution monitors. The tracks looked fantastic, with fog glowing in the light standards for night races and Bristol Motor Speedway, in particular, conveying what it's like at the bottom of its gladiatorial, half-mile concrete oval.
For now, the game features only the NASCAR Sprint Cup series and its drivers, not the lower-rung Xfinity or Camping World Trucks series. It's possible they might join the game later through downloadable content. Of particular note is the fact that alcohol sponsors, long verboten in racing games because the ESRB dings what needs to be a pristine E-for-Everyone rating, can be brought in through free, age-gated DLC. In the past, these bowdlerized sponsorships could look ridiculous, but for a gamer 21 or older, Keselowski's No. 2 Ford will have Miller Lite on the hood.
The Keselowski car I drove in that first challenge race featured his charitable foundation as the hood sponsor. I stood on the gas and hung on through Auto Club Speedway's first turn and prepared to make my move on the second, where Keselowski made his to win last year. "Still there, still there, go low!" the spotter chirped at me.
Only I finished top 10. For a rank newcomer with zero course knowledge, much less professional driver skill, I was proud of myself. "Heh, that's OK," Keselowski said, then he chuckled and apologized.
"Forgive me, I'm in a position where success is defined, largely, by winning," he said.