NASCAR Heat Evolution review

Game Info
Platform PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Dusenberry Martin Racing
Developer Monster Games
Release Date Sep 13, 2016

Playing NASCAR Heat Evolution reminds me of growing up in stock car racing’s homeland.

As a kid next door to old North Wilkesboro Speedway, I learned to appreciate the length of the Winston Cup Series and the meaningfulness that still lay in its back-of-the-pack action. On drives to my grandparents or to see my brother in boarding school, the voice of MRN, the great Barney Hall, was usually on the radio talking up a battle for seventh place in Rockingham between Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte, like they were one and two at Daytona.

Points and money are always on the table for every driver in NASCAR, first to last place, and they also are in the career mode of NASCAR Heat Evolution, a demanding, no-frills racer that insisted on the most authentic rookie season I have ever endured in a sports video game’s career mode. Users must fill in a lot of the story for themselves thanks to a presentation that seems starved for human contact. But standing on the gas and rising out of my chair as I rubbed past Jamie McMurray on the dipping, roller-coaster turns of Dover International Speedway — to get two crucial sponsor paychecks with a 29th-place finish — rates as one of my more memorable sports gaming experiences of this year.

Monster Games and Dusenberry-Martin get the racing right

Users who pick from the real-life drivers and their cars (all are present) in the NASCAR Heat Evolution online, Race Now or Championship modes will have an easier time. They’ll win and make top-five finishes regularly, particularly early on, when an adaptive AI is going light on newcomers. But in the career, I found no real way to be the kind of instant superstar that sports fans are accustomed to in other licensed video games.

Skilled drivers who can handle the tougher simulation physics, and use manual shifting, may be at a better advantage, as the automatic transmission gives up a good deal of momentum. Casual or inexperienced drivers will get beat on like a real rookie in real life, and that’s a brave choice for a team just trying to get stock car racing back into video gaming’s discussion. Monster Games has given stock car fans a charming and meaningful experience.

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That’s good, because there is very little else around the edges of NASCAR Heat Evolution. Standard customization options such as different liveries, creating a driver in the game’s main roster or even racing under your own name in the career are nonexistent (though you can create a full-size avatar, which wasn’t available in the last game. They don’t do much, but you can look at him — or her — in the garage, all ethnicities included). There is no "setup" layer — that is, tuning a car for handling or for speed while sacrificing other attributes to properly answer a course’s unique demands. (Correction: There is one, but it only appears if the simulation physics option is enabled, in any mode.) That is a defining trait of stock car racing, and indeed, the game’s bare-bones broadcast commentary introducing each race often talks about how important setup is in places like Pocono and Bristol. There’s also no stats compilation in the career, though the full results of each race may be revisited.

But Monster Games and Dusenberry Martin get the racing right.

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AI drivers are not grooved to optimal lines on the track, one of the longtime shortcomings of oval racing in video games, including the ancestors of this series. The developers have said that real-life track telemetry helps form the behavior of NASCAR Heat Evolution’s bot racers, which is the kind of thing you hear all the time about licensed sports video games. I believed it, however, when I saw Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher smack into each other repeatedly in the straightaway at Martinsville, shortest track in the series, neither giving an inch.

The courses (again, every one in the Sprint Cup Series is here) all race distinctly and true to what NASCAR fans would expect. I would even call the experience educational. Outsiders mock stock car racing as turning left for two hours, but real fans know that the high-banked dogfighting of Talladega is a solar system away from a roller-skating rink like New Hampshire. And nowhere is this authenticity on display more than at Darlington, with its asymmetrical layout and viable racing options — carrying attendant risks — on flat or banked surfaces. Going high into a turn and trying to hold my line there revealed why it is rightly called The Track Too Tough to Tame.

Video game racing, more than any other genre, must nail every visual detail, and NASCAR Heat Evolution does that too. Every quarter-panel sponsor on every car is in its proper place. Drizzled tar patches highlight the cracked asphalt of Phoenix. The game provides no racing line assist, but that’s fine because pavement that looks blackened by a real weekend of practice and qualification points the way to go. Regrettably, the crowd and race officials are all stick figures, but pit road and the infield are race-day authentic. Big-time race teams have better trailers than the ones sitting 30th in the standings, the ambulance is exactly where it should be at Charlotte, and Daytona is littered with RVs. In replays, cameras mounted in the turns shake as the field parades by, just like on TV.

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There is some frame-rate drop in post-race sequences where the game is calculating a driver’s points and standing, or their "Speed Rating," which informs the adaptive AI according to one’s best performance at a track. A few jagged features at Pocono made it difficult to pick up where I should enter the lake of unmarked asphalt that is turn one there. But in sum, NASCAR’s debut on the current console generation is gorgeous and stable.

Likewise, the sound is, with one significant exception, very satisfying, pouring out hard-charging engine notes and howling aerodynamics as the vehicle crests 160 mph. The exception is that any collision, whether with another car or the wall, is serviced by a weak chuffing noise. It’s the only in-race detail that kicks the user out of a sense of immersion, but it’s a biggie. Wrecks are essential to NASCAR’s appeal.

Nudges, rubs and other dirty tricks that wiped out rivals were essential to my fight for survival in the career mode, where the user starts with no car worth a damn whatsoever. Racing with longer lap durations gave me a better chance in places like Texas Motor Speedway, or with tire wear (necessitating pit stops) or aerodynamic damage increasing the punishment. You can also change the length of a race in any mode at any time but it’s manual; it would have been a help for the game to add a little to super speedway races while keeping the others short, if the user preferred.

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Still, nothing changed the fact that I might rip off a great qualifying run and start 15th but did not have the car to hold that position. One start at Dover I felt like I was going backward as I receded to my usual motley cohort of 24th- through 30th-place finishers. Some drivers might be frustrated by that; I liked the unflinching honesty of it.

NASCAR Heat Evolution’s career mode offers a rather rudimentary means of improving the car, and though it is a very slow grind at first, I began to notice a compounding effect of improvement about halfway through my first season. There are four trees of improvements, each one gated by a very steep buy-in. Theoretically you can buy anything if you have the money and have unlocked the branch, but upgrades cost so much that I was taking them when I could get them, so the improvement is effectively linear and passive, rather than allowing a driver to build out a package based on his or her style or strengths.

The sponsorship system is rather straightforward, but it offers a chance to feel involved in the race team and, more or less, gamble on yourself. Drivers get a hood sponsor (locked to one of the three manufacturers) and then as they pass milestones on fans who follow them (awarded after each race), more and more secondary sponsors join the menu. They expect things, however, and will only pay if those tasks are accomplished. I bet big on myself at Watkins Glen, a road course where I do well (many beginners do). I didn’t make my qualification goal but I did fight off Martin Truex Jr. for 20th place to make an extra seven grand.

I spent most of my time in career; there are two other specialty modes. Championship is a one-season race (of user-chosen length) with no role-playing or upgrade features. Then there are the Challenges, which lead off with one I could not complete. The user is tasked with going from 24th place to first at Auto Club Speedway, as Brad Keselowski (an investor in the studio) did in real life last year. There appears to be a horsepower advantage with the tougher physics settings; however, that means things like falling from a high bank to the apron do a lot more damage to the car. NASCAR Heat Evolution aspires to be a pick-up-and-play racer for drivers of all skills, and it is that, but not in Challenges.

The AI of the field is adjustable in NASCAR Heat Evolution’s main settings but it still will evolve as drivers improve at each course and acquire a Speed Rating, which gates the tougher tracks (in Race Now) behind point milestones. It should take about two or three hours of on-track driving to unlock them all. The rating system is mainly a background feature, but it did provide some incentive to get out to a new track and really thrash it with a top driver to get myself closer to unlocking everything. (All tracks are present in career and Championship as the season progresses.)

nascar heat evolution review screen 6 Monster Games/704 Games

Online racing supports fields of 40 drivers, which is a nice promise but I did not see many that large even if the lobbies were robust and always running. The mode does not add bots to pad out the fields, which is a drawback on the super speedways. Also, it is a lead-pipe cinch you will see nutty stuff soon into the race, with some troll driving backward. It would seem to me that one lap of that should get a driver automatically kicked. "Relay servers" mean a smooth experience for those with good connections, but if other players are lagging, there is a lot of transporting and teleporting and inexplicable wrecks from those having trouble.

These technical shortcomings or spartan design choices would be a lot more disappointing if I did not look forward to getting back to the track, race after race. I am an inveterate restarter of career modes, but not this one. No way. I would be throwing away so much work and honest investment. NASCAR Heat Evolution teaches me a new respect for rank-and-file drivers, who fight just as hard for what they have as the all-stars banging into each other for the checkered flag.

Wrap Up:

NASCAR Heat Evolution brings the white-knuckle last lap, even for 24th place

"Give ’em a wreck at the finish and they’ll bring a friend," as Richard Lee Petty of Level Cross, North Carolina, observed 30 years ago, in one of the truest things ever said about any sport. That white-knuckle last lap, even racing for 24th place, is NASCAR’s distinguishing product, and NASCAR Heat Evolution brings it to every race.

I would bring a friend to NASCAR Heat Evolution.

NASCAR Heat Evolution was reviewed using a physical retail PS4 copy provided by Dusenberry Martin Racing. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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