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NASCAR Heat (PC) Hands-on Preview

A few short years ago, there was really only one player in the business of NASCAR Racing titles for the PC, and that was Papyrus. Since then, EA has made the attempt to grab part of the lucrative stock car market, but seemingly couldn't match the success of their PlayStation titles. Now Hasbro, by way of MGI, has thrown the proverbial hat into the ring with the upcoming release of NASCAR Heat.

MGI will be fondly remembered by most of us as the developers of Viper Racing, a very good (if somewhat under-appreciated) racing simulation. There has been a lot of talk that if anyone can challenge the Papyrus empire, these guys just might be the ones. The early alpha version I received for this preview can't really answer that question, but I was able to form some initial impressions of the product, and would like to discuss those here.

First off, there are several things in the press demo that aren't fully functional—multi-player, championship seasons, and the paint shop (among a few others). The code is also in an early form, and will be improved and polished. The AI isn't finished, and some options aren't yet ready for prime time, so this is more of a first-look than a comprehensive preview. As Heat gets closer to the release date, we will keep you informed of the progress, and hopefully be able to bring you a preview of the beta when it's ready.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here's what I've found so far--just some basic observations, so if you have questions contact me at On with the show...

The first thing almost everyone has been asking is "How are the physics?” Sim fans will be relieved to hear that, when set to expert, they are quite good--the best in a NASCAR title to date. There is a real sense of movement in the car, without the wallowy bounce felt in the EA products. This results in a very true to life "feel"--it inspires confidence that you can save a sliding car, but it also makes you realize that you're right on the edge, and that a mistake will really bite you. Overall, the car feels and drives just about how I think a 3400-pound stocker should. Contributing to the overall feel of Heat is the shifting driver viewpoint- it does a great job of representing the longitudinal G-forces in action by simulating the head movement that occurs during acceleration and braking. In addition, the sound does a great job of helping you "feel" when the car is breaking traction and starting to slide. In conclusion, I feel NASCAR Heat provides the best sensation of "being there" that I've experienced, and when a sim gets this right, half the battle is won.

I'm not going to talk a lot about the graphics, since they are usually the thing that changes the most during development. I will say that they are pretty good (you can judge for yourself from the screenshots), and that the framerates are consistently good on my system. There are several adjustments for fine-tuning performance for your system, and a built-in benchmark--this is similar to the benchmark in Viper Racing, and is one of many similarities between the two titles. One concern I have is that I was offered a maximum resolution of 800x600. I've asked Ed Martin, the producer of Heat, if there will be further resolution options in the final version, and I will let you know what the answer is. For comparison, I'd say the graphics are as good as those in NASCAR 2000, but with a much higher framerate. I'll elaborate on this area when we get the final release version.

Good physics and pretty graphics are nice, but mean nothing if the gameplay is lacking--and thankfully, Heat goes on to fulfill the promise of the driving model. In the press demo, the AI was called "incomplete", but what's there is head and shoulders above the CPU competition in any other NASCAR sim. They will race very hard, but without doing stupid things--the AI seems to realize where the human player's car is, and they react accordingly. Not that they're afraid to do a little banging, by any means--but it all feels appropriate, and the result is AI that feels as close to human as any I've seen. Nicely done.

The setup options are plentiful, as you can see in the screenshot, and everything seems to have the effect it should (at least from my perspective). A lot of explanation isn't needed here, other than that the adjustments are present, and the interface is easy to use. The mid-race adjustments are presented in a way similar to what we've seen in the Papyrus series, and will feel very familiar to NASCAR sim racers. The number and effect of the garage options show that MGI is pointed squarely at making Heat a simulation--welcome news for the community.

There are a lot of other things I'd like to mention, but in the interest of brevity, and the need to leave some stones unturned for the final review (I have to think of the future, if nothing else), I'll make do with listing some of the things I like about Heat that weren't mentioned above. There will be more on this title forthcoming, so stay tuned.

·In a realistic touch, there is no fuel gauge. The fuel pressure gauge will start to fluctuate when fuel gets low, plus the crew chief will warn you when you're running low. ·The damage model used is well done. You can damage the engine, suspension, and bodywork, with the effects being cumulative. Finishing a race on a sick motor is possible, just like in reality. ·The replay screen has some very nice telemetry features. ·The Challenges provide a nice training ground for new racers, and some good practice for veterans.

Overall, the impressions I get from this press demo are very positive. NASCAR Heat looks to be a contender for the sim racer's dollar--and appealing to the casual racer on the lower realism settings. They say competition is good for the consumer, so the closely timed releases of NASCAR Heat and Papyrus' NASCAR 4 could be very good for us indeed.

*Note: You'll notice I made no mention of multi-player, which may seem odd--it is, after all, one of the biggest concerns for many racers. With the multi-player not being implemented in this version, I chose to wait until I have something to go on before opening that can of worms. I hope everyone understands my decision.

System used for this preview:
Abit VA6 motherboard, Celeron 466 @ 525 Mhz, 3Dfx Voodoo3 3000, Soundblaster Live! X-Gamer, 40X CD-ROM, ACT Labs Force RS USB

By: Scott Moore 6/21/00

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