NASCAR Heat 3 is the latest title to bring the thrill of NASCAR to our living rooms. Despite having a bit of a stigma outside of America for ‘only turning left’ Oval Racing is one of the most popular classes in sim racing. How does NASCAR Heat 3 stack up against the front runners?

Now, of course, NASCAR doesn’t just involve turning left and going straight. There’s a lot more to it than that, even without mentioning the road courses. NASCAR Heat 2 brought a good game but ultimately fell short of what’s available elsewhere. This time around, NASCAR Heat 3 makes some good moves towards the front of the pack. With significant boosts to the career mode and multiplayer coming through this time around.

Career mode in NASCAR Heat 3 has been expanded and brought to the next level, with simple, yet effective additions. The first of which is dirt racing. Now yes, we had Trucks at Eldora last year, but this time around, we have a full dirt series to start in. Like before, you’ll start out as a hot seat driver, filling spaces for existing teams when they need it throughout the first season. Following that, you’ll be offered a drive for the following season, or, for the first time, be able to start your own team and pave your way to victory.

When you start your own team, everything is down to you. You’ll choose your team name, sadly from a list of presets, and then choose your sponsor for the season. After you slap together a fresh paint job, its time to buy your first chassis. Now ideally, you’ll be needing a chassis for every type of circuit you come across. Short track, Speedway, Road Course etc, all require their own chassis to be genuinely competitive. You can run any chassis at any track, but you’ll suffer a performance penalty for doing so. Starting out, you’ll have no choice, so planning ahead with your purchase is a must. You’ll be able to spend your earned currency from races on new chassis’, improving your facilities, hiring new mechanics and training them up.

NASCAR Heat 3 Dirt Screenshot

Before a race, you’ll be able to start your preparations. These take the form of workflows for your mechanics, where you can schedule work on your chassis’ before a race weekend. Starting out, you won’t have enough mechanics to focus on all three areas (Engine, Suspension, and Aero) so you’ll have to choose where to invest your time. As you develop, you’ll be able to hire more staff and train them to get their stats up. Your facilities determine what level you can upgrade your chassis too. Chassis’ start at a base of 70, and have a max of 100. you’ll need to work on your chassis over 2 weeks to get to that level, and they reset after every race. This entices you to look ahead on the calendar and to max out your facilities.

While your running as a competitor in the dirt series, you’ll be able to run as a hot seat driver in the trucks. This continues as you advance through the career, you’ll be able to run in the series above as a hot seat driver. This gives you a taste of what’s to come as you advance, and also a chance to earn yourself a rather large paycheck. This becomes one of the fastest ways to start improving your team, and the more championships you enter, the more you’re going to want to take advantage.

You can choose as your progress what championships you enter each season. Want to run dirt alongside the top flight? You can. Want to run every single race possible? go for it. It’s rather refreshing to have so many options. Best of all? you can run your own team, join an existing one, or mix and match. You can run your own dirt team while racing for Penske, or take a seat in the trucks while running your own Xfinity team. There’s a great deal of control here, you can even avoid owning a team entirely should you wish to do so. Owning a team, however, adds a lot to the team, and removes the issue of feeling like you’re earning money with no purpose, one of the biggest gripes I had with the previous title.

Career mode sadly still suffers from the ropy storyline elements added to the title. The little, recorded messages are really little more than another menu to spam next through and come across as a little cringy. Certainly, not the quality of production NBA Live 19 has put into a similar system. The ‘Tweets’ from racers also seem to be little more than needles menus. Not only will they accuse you of aggression for a slight door dive, but responding to them with aggression seems to take an age to start a rivalry. It’s going to take you a lot of slaving away to start a rivalry here. Meanwhile, NASCAR itself sees rivalries between people who eat breakfast differently they’re that common. The system is my only real gripe with what is, a rather decent career mode. What it does do is highlight the little-improved presentation, which I’ll get to in due time.

NASCAR Heat 3 no. 18 Screenshot

NASCAR Heat 3 has all the modes you’d expect, career, single race, etc, but what really sets it apart is the return of the challenge mode and the strides the title is implementing with regards to multiplayer. Challenges live up to their name and provide a great deal of challenge to players looking for something a little different. There are 36 challenges in the game at release, which can be expanded with the monthly DLC packs if you’re willing to part with a rather significant chunk of change. These additional challenges are available if you purchase the Hot Pass for $29.99, or you can pay for each pack individually at $12.99. Quite steep, for what is effectively some challenges and paint schemes.

Now with regards to multiplayer, you’re not going to get anything close to the level of realism you’ll find in iRacing, and this isn’t going to be the go-to oval simulator anytime soon. But there have been some moves made in the right direction. The netcode is solid, there’s still a couple of issues here and there, but that’s nothing that doesn’t happen in more established sims either. Once or twice every 3-4 races with one car having a little moment is pretty damn consistent. What is most impressive about the multiplayer, is the push towards eSports.

The competitive online system has created a bit of a platform for NASCAR Heat eSports, and it seems that both 704Games and Monster Games are moving towards the concept. In NASCAR Heat 3 players can qualify weekly for a chance to make it into Group A on Saturday and Sunday. Players able to finish in first place races conclude on Sunday, will win a trip to Miami Florida for the Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, November 18. It’s a nice move to play these around the real-life championship, and hopefully, this will not be the end of it.

With regards to the general gameplay, NASCAR Heat 3 is a solid representation of stock car racing, with a decent level of accessibility. Setups are more manageable this time around, with 9 presets added to the title, ranging from stable to loose. Generally, a looser setup is faster, at the expense of stability, so this allows you to find a balance during practice that works for you. With this step forward, I would like to see more control given to the player. The ability to manage starts and restarts, as well as manage pitting completely would really add to the title. It breaks the immersion quite a lot right now when a menu pops up during cautions, so the ability to control your actions completely would be a fantastic addition.

NASCAR Heat 3 Number 12 Screenshot

All of this now leads me on to my major gripes with NASCAR Heat 3. The graphics and presentation. Graphically, NASCAR Heat 3 is simply blown out the water by its rivals, with Forza and Project Cars offering considerably better-looking titles. Everything looks somewhat matted, and dull. While this fits well for the tracks, the cars simply look flat. It’s a real shame, because it neuters the bright, vibrant cars of the NASCAR grid, and takes away any sense of them being special. In a game where cars are king, it’s very disappointing.

Then there’s the presentation. NASCAR Heat 3 is death by menu. Gloomy, grey menu. Everything and I really do mean everything, takes place on a grey-base menu. The fluidity of Forza titles is a distant dream here. Everything looks dark and can take some trawling through to find what you’re after. The title doesn’t look inviting. To be honest, it looks old. It’s a real kicker for what is the latest title in the franchise. Worst of all is the insistence on using extremely questionable photos to represent characters within the title. They really cheapen the look of the title, and I’d rather see them double down on the graphical style than try to shoehorn in some real-life elements.

NASCAR Heat 3 is a step in the right direction for the franchise, with an expanded career mode and improved multiplayer, NASCAR fans will have plenty to enjoy. While this isn’t going to knock iRacing off its perch as the go-to NASCAR simulation, it’s got enough to offer single-player fans to keep them interested. It’s just a shame the package looks so dated.

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