NASCAR’s next video game is hitting the dirt. Hard.
NASCAR Heat 3 returns to PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One on Sept. 7, and it will bring a new dirt track series to the game’s multiplayer modes, expanding the racing action and introducing the sport’s smaller track, dirt-oval roots to the career mode, the mainstay feature for most players.
NASCAR Heat 2 last year gave closed-wheel racers a dirt option when it brought in the Camping World Truck series to the game (which races a week from Wednesday on the rowdy, unpaved half-mile of Ohio’s Eldora Speedway). Eldora was one of the game’s most popular tracks in multiplayer, said 704 Games’ Sean Burke. As 704 and developer Monster Games looked for ways to expand the series, dirt racing was a clear fan favorite, and therefore the best way to bring in something new, Burke said.
NASCAR Heat 3’s “Xtreme Dirt Tour,” which is a racing series wholly invented for the video game, joins the career mode as a way to give drivers more of an origin story, and also greater variety online. It’s supported by nine courses, eight of which are fictitious. Some are simply dirt surfaces laid over existing racetracks, like Bristol Motor Speedway — which is challenging enough as a concrete oval.
“Dirt is where the bulk of time was spent in NASCAR Heat 3.” Burke said. “You want to have that feeling of losing control but you also want people to feel like they can catch themselves.” Burke said.
I raced an alpha build of the game and though it felt like the dirt events still needed some tuning, it was little more understandable than what Eldora presented in last year’s game. There’s still a sweet spot of over- and under-steer that drivers will have to figure out by trial and error. But it also felt like there’s a more permissible drift on NASCAR Heat 3’s dirt. It’s fun, but “There’s definitely a learning curve with dirt,” Burke agreed.
Eight of the dirt tracks in the forthcoming game are pure fantasy courses. Burke said that some layouts from 2002’s NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona, which Monster Games developed, were brought back and resurfaced for the current game. One that I drove took the field over a dirt layout before finishing down a drag-strip straightaway, a really interesting touch and gesture to the combined layouts that NASCAR must explore as it tries to grow its audience in real life.
So, NASCAR Heat 3 will also feature the “Roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which the game brought in last year as a downloadable content extension. For those not familiar with the trademarked term, this means a multi-turn road course laid out over a traditional oval superspeedway. Charlotte’s Roval event, the Bank of America 500 on September 30, will be featured in NASCAR Heat 3 and the track will be available all other modes too. Like the novelty of the dirt tracks last year, the chicanes and sudden hairpins the Roval features should enhance its appeal as an online challenge.
I was playing on an early build at an easier difficulty but the racing action of NASCAR Heat 3 felt as familiar as the first two games, which I always felt the series got right even if it didn’t have the trappings of other big-budget sports titles. Burke said their hardcore players let 704 Games know, in very clear terms, that it could use a stiffer challenge, so the higher difficulty levels will respond to that. At lower difficulty settings, I still saw an approachable game that any race fan could enjoy with their kids, even if passing four or five cars at once seemed a little out of place.
In the career mode, drivers will now be able to manage a team of up to four different stars across multiple series. The cover for NASCAR Heat 3 is Hendrick Motorsports’ stable of drivers — seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson; Chase Elliott, the up-and-coming son of all-time-great Bill Elliott; William Byron, who made his way into motorsports’ top division thanks to iRacing; and Alex Bowman. Players will be able to take over or create their own motorsports teams, using their real-life racers or putting new ones on them, Burke said.
I didn’t see a career mode in the build I played but it will return, and I was told that it would bring back the formula of winning money in a race and applying that to upgrades to a vehicle (truck or car, as the racing team will own both). Hendrick Motorsports’ cover sponsorship means the venerable stock car racing team will supply free content updates after the game launches in September. 704 Games also has premium DLC plans similar to past years, Burke said.