There is a ton of racing action in NASCAR Heat 2’s beefed up Career mode. If possible, a little too much.
This is still a good problem for the stock-car racing simulator to face. Fans have clamored for the return of NASCAR’s other two national series — the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Trucks Series — and many will be delighted to see them again. They triple the real-driver roster and vehicle fleet of NASCAR Heat 2, and they’re integral to the novel, if slow path the career sets forth.
But if Career is your thing, be prepared to grind.
Monster Games and 704 Games put a wrinkle on the classic up-from-nothing story of career modes, which always struggle to combine believability and fun. Players begin as “hot seat” drivers, attached to no team but getting their start with spot duty. NASCAR Heat 2 uses this to give the user reasonable objectives in their opening races. Fulfilling them leads to offers from real-life teams for the next season.
There are 26 races, not counting any of the playoffs, in the Monster Energy NASCAR Series and the junior-circuit Xfinity Series, and 16 races for the trucks. This adds up to a lot of races before the player gets a team in the top-flight division. Even if the tracks change, there’s a repetitive quality to it, especially when I raced the same course consecutively in the trucks and the Xfinity series. And all this racing becomes formidable for a driver who prefers things like longer qualifying and races long enough to require pit stops.
No hot seat offer can be refused, and none of these events are skippable or can be simmed. That’s a baseline expectation in other licensed sports simulations. All this makes the career of NASCAR Heat 2 more rigid than it should be. Monster Games tries to inject a little off-the-track personality, thanks to some messages from real-life drivers, including full motion video for some, but there is very little to do in career except go to the next race as I was told.
An upgrade tree for the career vehicle is gone; I didn’t miss it much, but it was still a choice to consider. Two new elements take the place of upgrades. First, there’s momentum, which is a race-to-race boost awarded for strong finishes and undamaged driving. And then there’s a star system on each team to help hot seat drivers judge the quality of the rides they’re taking. Both of these are an acceptable streamlining that reasonably segregates the field, provides tougher challenge for those who want to work to improve a lower team, and even motivate a driver to trade up to a better one. Unfortunately, it also means the money I earned has no purpose.
About the only thing to manage in career was the rivalry system, which has had counterparts in earlier NASCAR games. It was fun to check that and see who was beefing with me. I laughed when I saw Myatt Snider was MAD at me, in big red letters. This is because we kept qualifying in the same area and I kept bumping and pushing him out of the way, turning him into the wall at Kansas. Piss a driver off too much, and and they will remember it, such as when Snider shoved me out of the way after he had warned me I was racing too hard. I appreciated the social media compliments on clean driving and even the glare when I knew I’d done wrong.
NASCAR Heat 2’s structure of race, rinse and repeat still left me desperate to skip some of the lesser races, drive the bigger events or neater tracks (like the dirt surface of Eldora Speedway, new to the game) and see more of what the mode offered and less of what I already understood. Stock car diehards can be a deliberate bunch, wanting everything in a full race weekend, so they will probably find this no problem. But there is so much else in the rest of NASCAR Heat 2, it made the Career take on a grind-like quality. Some chunky loading times don’t help, either.
Career is a big mode, but it’s not the whole game. Split-screen local multiplayer racing also is back and because of that, all the tracks are unlocked at the beginning (they had been gated behind the “speed rating” a user compiles). The 29 Challenges, shorter scenarios involving famous drivers, are also unlocked and playable in any order. These are good decisions. And the challenges are more interesting, too.
I ran out of gas with Kevin Harvick in Atlanta and won, and survived a nasty pileup in Dover and held on to fourth place with Aric Almirola. This is also the only part of the game with any real commentary (though the spotter does have a few extra lines). Claire B. Lang of SiriusXM’s NASCAR radio introduces each track and scenario, and completing it unlocks a legitimately helpful video, with the featured driver explaining how they race the course. Danica Patrick helped me conquer my fear of Darlington by telling me where she slightly brakes on turn 1, and how close she comes to the wall exiting turn 3, reassuring me that I was in OK position.
The racing action in NASCAR Heat 2 requires such precision, whether on a gamepad or with a driving wheel. That’s what gives the game a suspenseful, lean-in, hang-on kind of thrill no matter what I’ve set for my goal. The racing AI seems to be a little more challenging, slipping into openings and blocking more aggressively. Big leads and multiple passes are found only on the easiest difficulty setting.
NASCAR Heat 2 is still a game where players must challenge themselves to use the advanced options if they are going to be winning and qualifying on anything above easy AI difficulty. The assists Monster Games put in this year now include a stability control system that novices will find helpful. But that assist also seems to slow the car in turns on some tracks. Recovering that speed — particularly for bigger trucks — is difficult even with a manual transmission. Unless I had a good qualifying position, stability control seemed to keep me in the middle of the pack more than passing cars.
The game’s visuals remain a strength, with NASCAR fans sure to notice every little detail, such as the scratches on the rear plexiglass of a truck or the beat-up surface of Atlanta Motor Speedway. The lighting and atmospherics are all appropriate for the time of day these events race, and show off the new tracks in the game, like Iowa Speedway. Still, I did notice some things like shadows drawn in very late when I raced at Chicagoland.
The no-frills quality of NASCAR Heat Evolution meant NASCAR Heat 2 had to show a little more than just great racing this year, and it does in spots. There’s a lot of variety in NASCAR Heat 2, it’s just more immediately seen in things like the one-off races or online multiplayer.
It’s hard to fault Monster Games and 704 though; we’d been asking for all this stuff for years. But it makes me feel like I’m sitting down to a nine-course meal more than a buffet.
NASCAR Heat 2 was reviewed using a “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by 704 Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.