When Motorsport Games announced that its NASCAR franchise was leaving the Unity Engine for greener pastures after NASCAR Heat 5, the excitement was palpable. A new engine meant a new start for what was to become NASCAR 21: Ignition.
Many fans accepted that it was likely going to be a more barebones game due to the transition, but the gameplay potential could easily make up for that. Unfortunately, despite random instances of fun racing, NASCAR 21: Ignition is anything but fun.
NASCAR 21: Ignition Review
NASCAR 21: Ignition is one of the most stripped down NASCAR games in quite some time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. With a new engine completely rebuilt, the focus should’ve been put elsewhere than mode offerings. Still, what is here is pretty disappointing in certain areas.
There’s Race Now, Career Mode, and Online Races to take part. Race Now is your standard quick race mode for those that just want to hop in while Online Races are just that…races online.
Career Mode is the place you’ll spend most of your time playing this game, for as long as you play it.
You start out picking a team you want to join from a list of every NASCAR Cup Series team. From Hendrick’s Motorsports to Roush Fenway Racing, you can go anywhere you want. The one caveat is that instead of driving your own car, you simply replace a driver on the current team. That means if you want to race for the Michael Jordan-owned 23XI team, for example, you’ll simply replace Bubba Wallace.
On top of the frustration that is simply replacing a driver on the team, thus eliminating them from the career mode races, there’s the issue with your car. When you take over the car, it still has the old driver’s name on the windshield decals and, in some cases, social media handles on the side of the car. It’s a little thing to some, but, for me, it makes you feel more like a scab or temporary driver than an actual member of the team.
There’s no moving up the rankings due to only one series being a part of NASCAR 21: Ignition, which takes away mode depth. But, it’s not something worth holding against the team with the other problems throughout the game.
The best mode, and yes I’m calling it a mode because of its depth, is the long-requested Paint Booth.
With the options for custom shapes finally a part of the game, you can design almost any sort of new or old school theme you can imagine. While I may not be the most talented designer, some of the designs others have made are incredible and show the potential of what this feature has to offer players.
The only things lacking are custom image uploading and the ability to share designs online. The former I get for various reasons, but the latter is something I’d expect to see at least by NASCAR 22.
I really don’t know where to begin with the gameplay of NASCAR 21: Ignition, so let’s just dive right in.
Before getting into a race, you’ll notice that there are no stages in the game. Let me repeat that, there are no stages in a NASCAR video game. Stage racing has been a part of the sport since 2017, and shows no signs of going anywhere. So, why was that omitted? Unfortunately, that’s not even the most dumbfounding thing about this game.
When you do go into a race, you get one of two results: a fun, tight racing experience or a buggy mess that shouldn’t have been released yet. More often than not, I was given the second of those two.
Whether playing on PlayStation 5 — remember, the game is an Xbox One, PS4, and PC game that is playable on the new consoles thanks to backwards compatibility — or PC, there are enough game-breaking glitches that render it unplayable.
There is no controller feedback whatsoever, so it’s impossible to get any sort of feel for what’s going on with your car on the track.
There were times where I loaded into the race only to have my view be of the garage area while the cars were on the course racing. Other times, the cars would start moving only to stop in place with the wheels still spinning and the engines revving. And it’s not like this was a one-time thing. It happened over and over again where the only fix is to restart the game, and hope it works this time.
— Mike Straw (@MikeStrawMedia) October 22, 2021
The flag system in the game is completely broken. Even with “NASCAR rules” enabled, Yellow flags rarely come out even when justified, but they sure as heck like to appear when you have no idea what happened. Black Flags, on the other hand, come out quite a bit. Luckily though, you can just ignore them completely and nothing happens. Though, there is the odd time where you’ll get disqualified from a race with no rhyme or reason given. It just ends, and says you’re done. So, that’s always fun.
Now, I always talk about how playing a racing game with a controller is one of the tougher things to master. While some series like F1 have it figured out, others just can’t seem to get it right. NASCAR 21: Ignition is one of those.
There is no controller feedback whatsoever, so it’s impossible to get any sort of feel for what’s going on with your car on the track. The only sense you have are the sounds of the wheels sliding or watching the car bounce. It’s a big failure to not have any sort of feedback in a racing game in 2021.
If you can, I strongly suggest using a wheel with this game. It’s really the only way to have any sort of fun as a controller just doesn’t feel good to control at all. Even with steering assists on with a controller, you don’t have a sense of how the car handles. With a wheel, you can at least get a feeling of whether your car is loose or tight if you are experienced enough.
From an AI perspective, it’s a mixed bag. Some races, you get incredible pack racing with bump drafting and incredible moments. Others, you get AI that likes to not hit the throttle at the start, or they brake too hard in a turn causing you to go right into them, or they’ll intentionally break draft despite the best option being to stay in it to catch up to the cars ahead.
Hell, you’ll see them intentionally drive into wrecks rather than avoid them. Or, they’ll just stop altogether rather than try and finish a race on the last lap.
There are other odds and ends that create friction with the gameplay. For example, setups, as of now, can’t be saved. I can try and make a quick setup change, leave the menu, and go back only to see my changes were never accepted. Setting a default racing view doesn’t matter because the game just sets you to chase came no matter what. Also, the game’s HUD leaves a lot to be desired. There’s no fuel gauge, meaning that I have no idea how I’m really doing in longer races. How does that get overlooked?
Lastly, it’s not a game-killing bug, but it’s annoying nonetheless. Your spotter likes to have spasms whenever you are in a position battle or three wide. He’ll just start yelling and repeating the same things constantly without even finishing sentences. But then, of course, when you actually needed him to say something about a car being in a blind spot, he’s nowhere to be found.
With NASCAR 21: Ignition moving to the Unreal Engine, the NASCAR series has never looked better. Cars look incredible, engine sounds are pretty accurate, and the tracks are pristine. It’s night and day how much better things look and sound compared to the Unity-built games. Not that the Unity Engine is a bad engine, but it just clearly hit its limits with the NASCAR series. NASCAR 21: Ignition, on the other hand, represents the base of what the Unreal Engine can do from a visuals standpoint for the series.
The game also features the return of Motor Racing Network (MRN) to NASCAR gaming. The MRN team gives a nice little intro at the start of each rice, but that’s really the only time we hear from them. I would’ve liked to see and hear more, but I’d expect that’s coming in future years.
There are a few aspects of presentation that are really poor. The first happens down pit road. Why do cars have to back up to exit their pit boxes? Why can’t I see other pit crews? Why don’t I see other cars pull into their pitstops? Everything is just a janky transition where one minute you aren’t in your box while the next, you are. It doesn’t impact gameplay at all, but it doesn’t do anything to help with immersion.
The replay suite is still a limited experience that will have cars appear with damage, even at the beginning, if they got damaged at any point within the race at all.
NASCAR 21: Ignition Review Verdict
It pains me to say this as a major fan of NASCAR and the past NASCAR games. But, NASCAR 21: Ignition, in its current state, is just not very good. Whether playing it on PC or console, the number of issues at launch are indefensible.
When you do actually get a good race going, you see that there’s something there waiting to be enjoyed. It just feels like you have to drive 500 miles in order to get there.
Even if you are the biggest NASCAR fan and want a new game, there’s no way NASCAR 21: Ignition could be recommended right now. Until major updates are released and the game ultimately goes on sale from its $59.99 price point, I’d stick with NASCAR Heat 5 for a more enjoyable racing experience.
NOTE: A copy of NASCAR 21: Ignition for PC and PS4 was provided to SGO for the purposes of this review
NASCAR 21: Ignition
In its current state NASCAR 21: Ignition isn’t a game worth playing no matter how much of a diehard racing fan you are. You’re better off sticking with last year’s NASCAR Heat 5 until major updates are made to a game that should’ve been delay.