Warning, I’m gonna tell another homespun story about growing up. But there was a dirt track east of town that I could hear with my bedroom window open on any summer Saturday night. The times I went over there, I’d watch those motorized trashcans in the modified division sling around the corners in dramatic, crowd-pleasing slides, then fishtail into a straightaway dive for the line.
The past two weeks, I’ve tried to recreate this mental picture on my PlayStation 4 as NASCAR Heat 3 has expanded dirt racing significantly in the main game and its career mode. Racing on dirt this year is a little more controlled and more understandable than its debut last year when the real life Eldora Speedway was added to the game along with the Camping World Trucks series. But in NASCAR Heat 3 novices’ lap times and qualification spots will quickly plateau in the traction-assisted setup; driving without traction control, though faster, takes nonstop management.
I suspect the either/or proposition dirt racing poses is partly because the game’s handling, in all series (there are now four) and surfaces is across-the-board more stable. It’s nowhere near as volatile as I’ve seen in the past, where the slightest slip as I battled understeer in the corner would instantly mean a date with the wall. Moreover, opposing drivers can take more contact and recover from a bump or a rub that in the past two editions would have seen them vanish in a plume of tire smoke.
The racing action in the revived NASCAR Heat series has always been strong — once I negotiated the learning curve it poses. This year, on pavement anyway, there’s a shallower path to getting around the track cleanly, racing in a pack, and exploiting the drafts created by traffic all around you.
Dealing with dirt
On dirt, though, it felt like I was faced with a choice: Have a great qualifying time and position, and suffer through the race, or start further back and have a puncher’s chance at the front. The traction control assist is why. It effectively prevents those elegant drifts and slides sustained throughout a corner. The car very quickly rights itself and then goes back into two or three more semi-drifts, cutting speed considerably.
What’s the problem? Take out the pacifier and learn to drive without the traction assist, right? Well, OK, and after a few warmup laps I can drive a great time in qualifying (I was using the session qualifying format). But in a race with traffic, trying to defend and pass, it doesn’t take much to go into a deep oversteer and a total spinout, where bot racers typically go around at the fastest possible speed without sliding.
To me, NASCAR Heat 3 seems to ask a lot for a style of driving seen only on the lowest rung of your career progression. It isn’t to say dirt racing is unworkable, it’s just to say those new to it will need to spend a lot of time on the track learning how to race dirt competitively. Fortunately, NASCAR Heat 3’s career supplies track time in spades. It’s not just that a career driver starts out in the low-level, fictitious Xtreme Dirt Tour (which the game scrupulously reminds you is not an official NASCAR series). Players now have the option of developing a racing team, ultimately fielding entries in all four of the divisions the game offers.
Players may still race as a driver only, but they’re missing an extra layer of fun and an interesting context for all of these hooning activities. At the outset, I was a hot-seat driver on dirt, then started my own dirt team and used the cash I made as a fill-in on the Camping World Trucks series to pay for my garage, my mechanics and my vehicles. Managing a team connected my exploits as opposed to being just another race to complete.
Last year’s NASCAR Heat 2 expanded the career, giving the user a more competitive origin without sacrificing the realism of beginning a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup career at the back of the pack. But the engagement was strictly in an event-to-event progression, with so little off-the-track involvement and a barebones presentational wrapper.
That’s not to say life outside of a race or qualifying is much more interesting in NASCAR Heat 3, but managing a team whose success actually does depend on what I was doing in other divisions — winning sponsor bonuses, taking home large purses, etc. — did add meaning to my lower-level exploits beyond just earning my stripes.
Stock-car racing tycoon
The way a garage is managed means no longer building toward a supercar that never loses its perks or attributes. Players buy a chassis suited to a race type and then hire workers to prepare it for the next race. These workers will be able to improve one of three areas (and can be trained to improve it more) but only to a point that is short of the vehicle’s overall maximum. To really max out a car, it will take at least two weeks of preparation. Figuring out this rotation takes a little effort and expense, but I appreciated the challenge, plus the demand of constantly maintaining my fleet as opposed to just leveling it up in linear fashion.
NASCAR Heat 3’s career continues a rivalry system where drivers can be friendly or antagonistic toward you depending on whatever beefs you get into at the track or through social media. It’s still a little thin and not much of a diversion. Drivers ranted at me for the slightest bit of bumping in the dirt series (which is hypersensitive of them) and it took forever for my insulting replies to actually push them into a “rival” state. Similarly, I couldn’t really see what the benefit was to being on someone’s good side. My overall popularity translated to some extra merchandising cash after each event, but it was even more negligible than the paltry bonuses paid for meeting multi-race goals, which often were less than a fifth-place purse.
Those who venture into NASCAR Heat 3’s career will be delighted by all the racing that’s offered. But they should realize they are in for a full time investment — especially if the events are going to be long enough to feature the stages format and pit stops. Once again, there is no way to simulate a race, whether because it’s a track you don’t care for or if you’ve got better things to do in another circuit. The result is it will take several days of dedicated gaming before your driver sniffs their first hot seat (heh heh, that was deliberate) on the Monster Energy series. If NASCAR Heat can’t introduce some kind of simulation capability, it should at least give players the options of starting in a higher series.
Otherwise, those who pick up the game to see how new things are handled, like the Bank of America Roval 400 coming up on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s new layout, need to try them out in one-off modes. The handling and the setup options are most noticeable and most effective in stock car racing’s top series, and for those who aren’t knowledgeable in how to make the adjustments there are now seven presets to give drivers a faster and looser, or slower and more stable ride. These only are available with the traction assist off. But they are a nice midpoint between that and the completely do-it-yourself setup NASCAR Heat 2 required.
It’s been satisfying to watch Monster Games and 704 Games take NASCAR, as a video game pursuit, from a labor of love novelty to something that offers respectable depth in the multiplayer and career modes where most folks spend their time. There are some staple features of sports video gaming, like background simulation in career, or simply more presentational polish, that NASCAR Heat 3 still either lacks or only marginally supports. But on the track, forgiving some rendering and other visual imperfections, the real reason for playing this game — the qualifying, the racing, the wrecking and the winning — is true to its sport and as enjoyable as ever.