NASCAR Heat 4 is, in many ways, the same game it was last year.
The career mode is largely the same, as is online multiplayer — the bread-and-butter modes of play. That may sound disappointing, but I wasn’t let down after spending a significant amount of time trying to learn what had changed. Heat 4 is more true to life in its racing, and how you have to tackle that challenge changes everything about the game, in all modes of play.
What used to work with this series is no longer applicable. Trying to, once again, solve Pocono Raceway’s inscrutable banking and scalene layout, I googled a setup from NASCAR Heat 3 and punched that in. My tires were absolutely trashed by the second lap. I had been told by the development team that I’d have to rethink just about everything I used to know about how to set up my cars on these tracks in order to win, and now I’d seen proof of that claim.
Finding the right setup is critical
The way setups worked in Heat 3 and previous editions allowed drivers to do things that worked almost like exploits: You could introduce extreme cambering on different sides of the wheelbase, for example, to preserve tires throughout a race.
Professional esports drivers like HD Motorsports have had Heat 4 for a month, and after their own first-lap blowouts using Heat 3 configurations, they’ve gotten real-life guidance from their teams’ crew chiefs and racing directors on how to set up the car this year. Everyone has been forced to go back to square one to figure out what works and what doesn’t with the new rules.
That’s great for professional drivers with dedicated teams, but a technical know-nothing like me is left clicking through a serviceable tight-to-loose slider that makes global adjustments to the car, then fiddling with broader controls like the difficulty and driving assists to stay competitive.
That will do for now, but I’m still eager to learn more. NASCAR Heat 4, like its predecessors, still assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of its players. You can either hit the books away from the game to learn what all these changes will do to your car, or you can lose. Or you can spend the time learning how your car will operate with each change, and still lose. Heat 4 places the focus squarely on the two most important aspects of high-level racing: the preparation, and the execution. Having a perfectly tuned car will only get you so far; you still have to drive it, after all.
But this latest release does add some welcome updates to the formula, even if there hasn’t been a major overhaul. There are little things, like the addition of day-to-night changes for late-afternoon or late-season races, or the way the engine roar now reverberates off the course wall the closer you hug it. Gravel rattles off your car’s undercarriage when driving on a dirt course, and wrecks look — and crucially, sound — a lot more impressive than in past releases. Ping-ponging overreactions to contact have been smoothed out as well.
This helps sweeten what can still be a rough-performing game on launch consoles, where mud tracks from the last lap on dirt vanish in front of you, and speedway and superspeedway surfaces stutter as they whiz by above 160 mph. Screen tearing and frame drop is much more pronounced for launch consoles on rolling, dipping tracks like Atlanta Motor Speedway or Dover International Raceway, and those flaws can and will hurt your driving. Those playing on an Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro should have the advantage.
Fan-friendly features mean more fun
Customizations, many fan-requested and some overdue, also helped me take my mind off some of these lingering imperfections. The biggest, fan-friendliest assist is in Career, where players may now start at any level of competition. The previous games had you grinding through hot seats at the lowest levels, taking multiple seasons to get to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup. You can now get to the good stuff much more quickly.
There’s more personality in the car liveries for created teams, including all 99 numbers to slap on the door. That feature had been limited in the past to avoid conflicts with real-world racing teams, but that conflict doesn’t actually matter much online. Now, online drivers can have a stronger, more versatile brand identity even if they share a number with an existing real-world team.
In modes outside of Career, you can now race any car at any track, outside of dirt tracks and their modified cars. That means that in the online, one-off, or single-season modes, road course enthusiasts have three more tracks where the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series does not race in real life.
But dirt racing is also significantly improved ... or maybe I was just racing it wrong when it debuted last year? A 704Games developer told me last week that the dirt courses are their second-most popular series, online, after the NASCAR Cup, and it’s not just because it’s a break from the precision and small movements demanded of speedway driving. I found it easier to get into and maintain the corner-hugging slides that define this brand of motorsport, perfectly aligned to rocket up what passes for a straight at this level. The fictitious Jefferson dirt road course is still an enormous challenge, but with greater predictability in the vehicle behavior it’s at least fun now, even when racing in the middle of the pack.
Tony Stewart, the former NASCAR Cup champion and owner of dirt track Eldora Raceway, shows up in the game’s fictional Xtreme Dirt Tour series, and it’s easy to see why Stewart has gone back to dirt in real life. It’s fun! Stewart even became my created driver’s best bud under the career mode’s reputation system, which has a little more effect in Heat 4.
That’s good, because I don’t want Tony mad and wrecking me. Drivers I pissed off in Heat 3 would crowd me, bump me, and generally disrespect me on the track, but happier ones didn’t give me any boosts. They do now, thanks to a drafting partner feature that calls out when you have someone giving you an assist from behind. Moreover, the AIs will seek out such arrangements, sometimes opportunistically, but more so if they are friendly. Early in my career, racing the trucks, I made nice with Jennifer Jo Cobb, who swept in behind me on Pocono’s front straight and gave me enough of a boost to get under Austin Wayne Self, who hates me, in turn one on the last lap.
Developers say that the racing AI is less grooved into three pathways around the track and more searching for open-ended ways to get through traffic. That’s kind of funny, because the game’s executive producer made sort of the same claim to me for 2016’s NASCAR Heat Evolution, and the studio’s co-founder said driver tendency in the first game was directly informed by real-life performance data.
In any event, such a thing is hard, if not impossible, to measure empirically, especially as the ways in which AI drivers pass me depends on how well I am driving. But I did see a lot of three-wide racing, and not just because I butted in where I shouldn’t be. I heard my spotter calling out someone peeking on the outside as much as the inside.
The most visible change in racing comes from the tire wear, where the fall-off from fresh to worn tires is much more pronounced. It threw a greater (welcome) challenge at me on high-speed, high-banked raceways, where in Heat 3 I often didn’t have to do much more than sit on the right trigger, even in traffic.
Holding my line late in a race, especially when a driver in front of me checks up or decelerates, is a lot more demanding, as it should be, because that’s where the racing is for an oval-based motorsport. Caution-lap pit opportunities are a much more precious thing, where last year I could count on overtaking cars late in a race without them. Now I’m lifting off the gas in corners a lot more and compensating for a much looser ride as the tires degrade.
I do wish that, in Heat 4’s screen-filling setups menu, there was at least some indication of what suspension or camber changes should be used for — e.g., that this will marginally sacrifice speed in exchange for greater stability (helping me solve Pocono) or that will be better for tire management (at the extremely demanding Atlanta Motor Speedway).
It will take a much longer time than the week I’ve had with NASCAR Heat 4 to see how much I’m able to grow, as a driver, within these new parameters. I feel like the structure is still there, however, for a game that will challenge a player’s strengths and minimize the effects of their weaknesses, much in the way that the F1 or MLB The Show series both accommodate and push me. NASCAR Heat 4 may not look different, at first, but it doesn’t take long before I can feel just how much better it has become.
NASCAR Heat 4 will be released Sept. 13 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a final “retail” download code provided by 704Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.