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NASCAR Heat (PC) Review

Background Info


Here is a game that is a study in contrasts – while it raises the bar for NASCAR games in its realism, it has some flaws that may forever keep it off the list of greats…

Presentation/Graphics : 93
The first thing that strikes you about NASCAR Heat (NH) is how attractive the game is. The cars are properly rendered, the tracks look like the real thing, lighting and reflections are just right. And a convenient testing system is in place to allow players to adjust the level of detail and see the effect it has on frame rate, which, after all, is the true test of graphics. With my P2/400 and Voodoo 3/2000 I was able to achieve a frame rate of 28 fps at 800x600 while maintaining high detail on the cars and track by slightly lowering the draw distance and the sky detail with a field of 28 cars. For those of you with truly righteous computers, an option exists for high-resolution cars which makes the game look even better.

Presentation/Audio : 80
Options exist for 8 and 16-bit sound, and I noticed no loss in frame rate for choosing the higher quality sound. Audio is up to par for racing games with good engine sound and a competent spotter to hopefully keep you out of trouble.

Interface/Options : 90
Hasbro provides a couple training challenges that are useful to players learning the game. In Beat the Heat, players are given a variety of different situations such as drafting to pass, avoiding wrecks, or getting through the first turn without causing pandemonium among your fellow drivers. Game difficulty can be set from Rookie to Champion over six challenges that must be taken in order and passed before moving to the next level. They are Superspeedway, Speedway, Short Course, Advanced, NASCAR Race and High Octane.

Race the Pro gives the player the chance to compete against a ghost car to see if you're up to competitive speed. I didn't really like this very much since you couldn't draft the ghost car and you couldn't force him off line into a turn, which is generally the way passes take place. And driving inside another car just didn't feel right to me either… These races are run at either normal or expert skill level and I never even came close at the higher level.

Gameplay : 85
But the serious gamer is interested in true racing scenarios, and NH provides three – single race, season championship and online racing. And this is where the game shines – but unfortunately, it's also where a couple glaring flaws appear.

The amount of adjustment in the game is phenomenal. Realism can be set to normal, expert or hardcore. The last will require a minor edit to a .cfg file but is well worth the minor effort. Normal is like NASCAR 2 -- the car has a numb feeling and is very forgiving of player klutziness. Expert is like NASCAR 3 – you start to get a sense of the car having a suspension and weight. Ah, but then there's hardcore…

Grand Prix Legends is the Holy Grail of racing sims because of its exacting attention to the physics which affect racing cars in motion and the hardcore mode of NH has some of the same sensation without being so difficult as to take the fun out of the game. For example, in the two regular game modes, you can stomp on the gas and brake or drop a tire onto the apron with impunity – the car will continue to go in the general direction it's pointed. But I learned quickly that in hardcore, if you stomp on the gas exiting a corner, the rear end comes right around – just like the real thing. If you don't properly balance the accelerator going into a turn, the car will either understeer or oversteer. Touch the apron and you're history. Hardcore places the emphasis on player skill, and judging from the comments on the newsgroups and the settings used in online races, this setting is the choice of the vast majority of players as it should be. Hardcore mode raises the bar for all NASCAR sims.

Opponent strength in offline races can be set from novice to pro plus a custom setting that seems comparable to the ones in the Sierra games. One hundred was tough in NASCAR 3 and it seems equally difficult in NH. There are the normal adjustments of race length and opponent cars as well as choosing no flags, black flag only or all flags used.

Another nice feature in the game is the ability to set tire wear and fuel usage. The settings range from 1x to 6x and the folks at Hasbro say that either 2 or 3 would be close to real. Some people like pitstops, and setting this to a higher number will force more stops, which adds an extra element to the usually short online races. At 6x, players have to stop for fuel and tires after only 7 laps or so at Talladega. It also radically affects the handling of the cars on short tracks or road courses as the tires wear out more quickly. Pit stops can be set to automatic or manual. In the former, speed and steering are controlled by the game from the time you enter the pit lane until you re-enter the track.

Race views include near and far chase view, a very well done cockpit view, bumpercam and a “chassis” view borrowed from Viper Racing. This last is the one that I use in the game since it provides a broader perspective and shows exactly where you are in relation to the other cars on the track. The glowing drums when you step on the brakes and the wheel wobbling around after you take damage are clever as well.

There's even an animated pit crew awaiting your arrival in the pits. As soon as you stop, they spring into action changing the tires and filling your tank.

On the track, the AI cars are exceptionally good, aggressive without being either nuts or robot-like. It's possible to go side by side for several laps without a computer car doing anything foolish, but if you attempt to force a turn where no room exists, you'd best not expect any mercy either. I stuck my nose under a car in T3 at Talladega and got shoved right down onto the apron because I was both offline and half a car length behind my opponent. In real life I would have had to back off, when I didn't, I paid the price, as did about half the field in the chaos which followed…

And if you believe rubbin's racin', this is the best game yet. In Sierra games, you could carom off your opponent with impunity while they seemed utterly repelled by your presence on the track. In NH, contact is a part of the strategy – you can both nudge and be nudged to clear racing room. On the short tracks, sometimes it seems that's the only effective way to pass.

In the original release of the game, there was a problem with damage to cars not being accurately modeled – you could smash head on into a wall at 150 mph and while damage was registered, it had almost no effect on the performance of your car. A patch for the game was released a few weeks ago that fixed that problem and now, especially at the hardcore skill level, damage is both easy to get and has definite negative results. Aero damage slows the car dramatically on the superspeedways. Suspension damage makes the car handle poorly in the turns or pull to one side of the track. And repairing damage in the pits now takes longer as well.

Almost everything can be adjusted in the setups, and a good setup makes a huge difference in your potential lap times. Each track also comes with a default and advanced setup that is a good baseline for your own experimentation.

But in there are still a few problems with the game that stand in the way of this being a truly great simulation.

Foremost, Hasbro cannot seem to solve the problem of yellow flags. It seems the AI cars never wreck on their own, nor do they break down. As a result, you never get a random accident that brings out a yellow and affects pit strategy. And if you cause the yellow through a mishap, often it will simply go on forever. This is a major flaw in the game and caused a lot of disappointment when it wasn't addressed in the patch.

Other problems are less obvious, but still irritating. While the damage model is good, there are times that you'd prefer to be able to turn it off – such as when you're testing new setups. When tires are cool, the car is loose, and that leads to accidents. Yes, this is realistic, but it's a nuisance as well.

Before the start of a race -- online or off -- all the cars, including yours, are under the control of the program – you gain control about 2 seconds before the green flag drops. Not only is this irritating, when you are running a decent-sized field in an online race, the game simply isn't up to the job and the cars fly all over the place, bouncing off each other and the walls, often necessitating many attempts before a clean start takes place.

The paintkit, as usual, isn't very good, but in a move that drew hoots of derision on the newsgroups, the decals included with the game were mostly cartoons rather than real or fictional sponsors.

And, for the myriad of adjustments that can be made to the car in the setup screen, the one that is most common – tire pressure – is not included. It can only be changed by pressing a key while the car is on the track or on its way into the pits. Of course you can pause the game and do so, but this should be on the setup screen with everything else.

Another common complaint is that the game installs itself into two separate directories – the one you pick and another one in Program Files\Hasbro Interactive\NASCAR Heat. It doesn't explain this in the documentation and this causes a good deal of confusion.

At this point, I'd like to mention a utility available on the net that is a must-have for this game -- Internet Race Finder, available from the Blackhole Motorsports page. Like VROC for Grand Prix Legends, this program gives you a list of available races and details such as the track, number of participants, skill level, etc. and a chat function as well. To join a race, just click on it and you're there…

Replay Value : 85
With the number of adjustments that can be made to the difficulty of the game, you will never lack for a challenge in NASCAR Heat. And the ability to play online is a bonus. The problem – or maybe it just seems like one to me – is that there seems to be very few leagues using the game. For me, the appeal to a racing game isn't so much running against computer opponents or in random pickup races, but running against your friends in regularly scheduled races leading to a championship. For some reason, this is not happening with NH, at least so far.

Overall : 88
NASCAR Heat surprised me with its quality. I hadn't even considered buying it – I was waiting for NASCAR 4 – until I downloaded the demo and was very impressed by the realism and the graphics. I think Sierra might have been caught off guard as well since their latest NASCAR game was delayed after Hasbro's release of this game.

I just wish that the details of NH were as good as the foundational components such as the physics and graphics engines. The yellow flag bug will ruin a great offline race. Computer opponents who never crash or breakdown remove a critical element of realism.

And so, for the time being Heat is best as an online game. Certainly human beings are random enough to make any race an interesting one. While stories have circulated that the parent company is abandoning its computer gaming projects, it seems to me that the game has sufficient popularity to warrant continued work on patches to solve its flaws. And if they do so, there will be a place for NASCAR Heat on my hard drive for some time to come.

By: Paul Hamilton 11/14/00

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