The job of a reviewer in the modern age can be a difficult one. Don’t get us wrong; we love critiquing games, and we wouldn’t trade our profession for any other. With that said, though, there are things that complicate matters somewhat, especially with the rapidly advancing march of technology to contemplate.
For a case study on what we’re talking about, look no further than 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas. When the game was initially released, it was a buggy mess, full of game-breaking glitches and physics issues. Over time, the game was patched, and its reputation grew with each subsequent frantic fix on the part of the developers. Now, Fallout: New Vegas stands as one of the most beloved entries in its series, but on initial release it was undeniably a broken product.
The question is thus: how does one review that game on its initial release? The responses to New Vegas were mixed. Some reviewers refused to give the game a score, citing its obviously unfinished nature as reason enough to wait for scoring until it was in a presentable state. Others lauded it for the game it would eventually become rather than the game it was at the time, which is a dangerous road to go down. Others still gave the game low scores, choosing to judge New Vegas in the moment.
All of these are valid approaches, and they beg the question of what to do about NASCAR Heat 3. NASCAR Heat 3 comes to us from developers Monster Games, who have handled the official NASCAR series since 2016 (and originally since 2002, although there was a long period where other developers took the franchise over). None of the game’s problems are anywhere near as difficult to handle as Fallout: New Vegas; in fact, there’s really only one glaring issue which is holding back an otherwise solid racing experience.
Let’s not beat around the bush: NASCAR Heat 3 has some pretty weak sound design. That might not sound like a deal-breaker, and believe us when we say that it usually isn’t, but in a game which wants to have professional presentation in its every other aspect, bad sound mixing can be a serious problem. It’s pretty immersion-breaking to hear sounds badly balanced or under-mixed, while others still just feel like they’re frankly of poor quality.
It’s a shame, too, because the game is otherwise a very solid addition to the NASCAR franchise. Monster Games has past form with these titles, and it shows in every aspect of the central driving experience. Car physics are hefty and believable; there’s none of the floaty anti-gravity weirdness of V-Rally 4 here. The verisimilitude of the physics leaves a bit to be desired, so if you’re a racing purist you’ll find plenty to foam at the mouth about, but the game is fun and engaging to just play, which is a surprising hurdle for many developers.
Off the track, things are a little more mixed. There’s a nice variation of modes on offer, with a couple of new options joining old favourites like the Career mode and split-screen multiplayer. There’s something warming and comforting about a game which allows you to connect a second controller and join your friends on the couch for a spot of competitive racing. We’re still waiting for the asymmetrical multiplayer mode which allows us to be the person who sits in the passenger’s seat and tells the driver when to turn, but we can dream.
Said Career mode has undergone some changes this year. It’s deeper and a little more involved, with drivers starting from humble small-town beginnings and going on to sign with some of NASCAR’s biggest names. In addition to playing as a driver, players also have the option to begin their own team in Owner Mode, where you can hire staff, build a team and coach them to victory (or defeat, depending on how well you play).
In addition to new Career stuff, there’s also a robust and well-implemented online mode which allows players to compete with one another in regular tournaments. If you’re not up for that structured a challenge, though, NASCAR Heat 3 supports 40-player online racing, which holds up remarkably well; we never once experienced a technical hitch or lag while we were playing, and although your mileage may vary there, it’s still an impressive feat given that bigger games have struggled with smaller server loads.
Some other minor improvements have been made to the game since last year’s instalment. AI has been tuned up, so it’s more responsive and realistic. There’s still the occasional hitch here, and it’s entirely possible that seasoned NASCAR players still won’t be troubled by an AI that really can’t match up to the skill and ingenuity of a human opponent, but that’s to be expected, especially given the (comparatively) low budget that Monster Games has to work with. Customisation has been given a minor overhaul, with pre-defined car configs available to those who aren’t too bothered about getting stuck in to the nitty-gritty of mechanical customisation (like us).
Unfortunately, although the game’s modes and central driving mechanics are reliable and robust, it’s seriously let down when it comes to presentation. The visuals aren’t great, with some muddy textures and questionable lighting and effects at times. Again, this can be forgiven; the devs aren’t Sony or Microsoft, and this was never going to be Gran Turismo in terms of its polish. Still, one might expect something a little less low-fidelity than what’s on offer here, especially in an era where indie gaming is giving us frequently breathtaking vistas on very little cash indeed. There’s also the aforementioned sound design, which is the poorly-recorded elephant in the room; since it’s so ubiquitous, it’s hard to un-hear it once you’ve heard it.
Still, we mentioned Fallout: New Vegas earlier because that game had many of its technical issues patched out over time, and the same could still happen to NASCAR Heat 3. The central gameplay loop is satisfying and fun, which is more than can be said for many bigger-budget titles, and there’s enough on offer here to keep NASCAR enthusiasts and newcomers alike occupied for many an hour. If the devs polish up the presentation and get the AI up to speed, there’ll be a contender here. As it stands, it’s a little too muddy to fully recommend, but NASCAR lovers will still be hard-pressed to find their beloved sport represented significantly better elsewhere.