NASCAR races are known for being fast, furious and exhilarating. On paper, translating a concept like this into the virtual world doesn’t necessarily seem like a tall order. But, it turns out that actually does seem to be the case since NASCAR Heat 3 has turned out to be a pretty le average experience.
Almost immediately upon starting the game, it gave me an odd feeling. That’s due to its menus looking rather tacky. Really, I believe the word “tacky” can be used to describe pretty much this entire experience.
The races are spread out across three main NASCAR disciplines: standard stock cars, racing trucks and dirt racers. I must admit that NASCAR Heat 3 does at least do a decent job at capturing a good sense of speed. The races can be pretty nerve-wracking, as you would expect when hurtling around an oval at nearly 200 MPH.
Slippin’ and slidin’ to the finish line
But, what stops it from being a totally awesome experience is the driving mechanics. You do have the option of using a standard controller or a wheel. I don’t own a wheel, so I went with an Xbox One controller. With this, the game responds alright, but the cars often feel like bars of soap with overcharged engines.
This is especially true with the dirt vehicles, as the loose terrain is nowhere as smooth and grippy as asphalt. The only saving grace comes with the (few) road courses, which offer small slivers of asphalt-track but are still mixed in with mostly off-road sections. When playing in Career mode, you’ll need to get acquainted with this style of racing since it’s your starting point. It’s good practice for learning how to build your handling skills, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t end up in a lot of spin-outs and collisions. Seeing that there’s no rewind feature to help you correct your mistakes like in other racing games, this can make crashes even more infuriating. Having played many other off-road racers, I can say that none of them felt as slippery as the dirt tracks here in NASCAR Heat 3.
The stock cars and racing trucks even gave me a similar feeling. They both handle far better than the dirt vehicles due to their tracks being exclusively asphalt. They’re also faster (with stock cars being the fastest). But, again, they still didn’t feel quite ‘right’. Adequate enough, I suppose—but not a totally enjoyable experience due to the twitchiness.
I think the lack of control has more to do with Heat 3’s weird driving model. The core mechanics of the whole game feels like a hybrid mixture of arcade and sim, but it definitely falls more into the arcade spectrum. The same can be said about other titles like the games in the GRID, DiRT and Forza Horizon series, but I found their driving mechanics much more smooth and responsive than Heat 3’s.
Beyond the core driving mechanics, there are a few other features to make note of. Career mode is set-up like most other racers with you starting as a rookie and working your way up. But, you do at least have the interesting option of simply racing under an existing team or starting one of your own. Team management is rather simple: you hire employees that you use to upgrade three core parts of your vehicle: Engine, Aero, and Suspension. Training employees result in higher upgrade levels, and you must also buy better parts to further improve performance. This quickly turns into an expected grind-fest as prices go up for each upgrade, making you race more and more to earn more cash. That said, I didn’t find managing my own team all that engaging, and once the race season was over I decided to play as just a racer.
There are also a few Challenges that will put you the behind the seat of real-world drivers in recreations of real races. You can get caught up in scenarios like having to take pole position on worn-down tires at the end of 350+ lap race, for instance. The Challenges offer a cool alternative than the standard wash-rinse-repeat oval races, but they’re not super plentiful.
Another small feature is the character and car customization. Surprisingly, the character editor offers more creative freedom, despite the fact that you hardly ever see your own custom model. The vehicle editor only truly consists of color customization, thus eliminating any real opportunity to create your own cool custom paint job like in other games such as Forza. Like I said, the whole experience feels “tacky”, and that also applies to the game’s presentation too.
You could use a makeover
The visuals are simply okay. While the car models look decent, everything else is pretty average. Track geometry is simplistic, and there are no dynamic elements like time-of-day or weather. The most you get is the skybox changing as you go from the practice session to qualifiers and then the actual race. What does change are the lighting effects, due to the position of the sun. Shiny surfaces like the car’s exterior and cockpit dashboard do emit a realistic glow, and a low sun in the evening time looks nice, but that’s about all the visual flair you’re going to get out of NASCAR Heat 3 aside from some dust and smoke effects. Even the damage models aren’t anything special, making crashes only truly imposing if you happen to get caught up in one yourself. Despite the simplistic graphics, performance was hit and miss. I regularly ran into framerate dips down into the 40s and 30s and a few micro-stutters popped up as well.
Remember the menus I mentioned before? So many modern games have UIs with cool animations and effects, but NASCAR Heat 3’s visual and audio elements seem like they were pulled straight out of the late 90s/early 2000s era of racers. The whole UI looks pretty simple, only being ‘spiced up’ with real-world NASCAR footage playing in the background.
But, it’s the sound that really got to me. Almost all of the game’s SFX sound low-quality and very compressed. Even the engine sounds are poor—which is the most important audio element. I doubt they were created through professional recordings, as they seem more like run-of-the-mill generic engine sounds. The stock cars/trucks are particularly disappointing in this regard, as they sound more like toys than speed machines. The dirt cars’ engines are alright, but there still isn’t much to celebrate over. Also, I hope you like hard rock music because that’s what you’ll be hearing before and after each race as you navigate through the menus. In fact, a lot of the songs are racing-themed, which I found cute at first, but eventually just became awkwardly on-the-nose. There isn’t a huge selection either, so it also got pretty repetitive rather quickly.
Take this back to the garage
I’ll admit that I’ve certainly been raking NASCAR Heat 3 over the coals in this review. That’s because, rather surprisingly, it just didn’t seem to capture the whole ‘NASCAR experience’ all that well. Honestly, I’ve only tried out just a bit of everything in order to get a decent sense of the overall experience. But, I was too bored to actually bother slogging through the entirety of the game. (It also didn’t help that I was sent this review code just before launch).
From its sub-par gameplay mechanics to the lazy presentation, the whole package seems best-fit for the bargain bin. If you want a more authentic racing experience, I’d highly recommend playing the NASCAR races in Forza Motorsport 7. They’re just one of many racing disciplines represented in that game, yet it offers a far more impressive experience than that of Heat 3. Otherwise, I can only suggest picking this up on a deep sale, if at all.