NASCAR Heat 5 is in a truly unique position for the franchise. Not only is it the first installment with developer 704 Games being on their own for the series, but it’s also the final one to use the Unity engine that has powered the game since 2016’s NASCAR Heat Evolution.
Releasing earlier than any of the previous games developed by the studio, NASCAR Heat 5 is banking on a finely-tuned racer being enough to draw people in. But is it worth spending your money on, or should you stick with what you have until the next generation comes along?
NASCAR Heat 5 offers you a number of modes to jump into. There’s your typical Race Now, Championship, and Online Multiplayer that you’d expect to see as well as a couple brand new offerings for players.
The first new mode is the game’s Test Session, which allows you to take to the any track in the game, and work on your car’s setup. Whether you want to work on a full race setup or just get your car ready to post the best qualifying laps possible, Test Session offers a quick, and easy way to do so. You can also carry over these setups to other aspects of the game including Race Now and Online play.
The other new mode in the game is an Online Challenges mode that gives you a different scenario each week to complete. As you work your way through the challenges, you’ll see how you match up with other players across the world. It won’t be your go-to mode in the game, but it’s definitely a fun time killer that you’ll find yourself checking out quite often.
it’s simple enough to make the races as easy or hard as you’d like.
Of course, the main mode of the game is the career. Though it’s pretty much unchanged from Heat 4, it’s a fun mode that you can sink yourself into. You can start either at the bottom Xtreme Dirt Tour, or pick a different series to begin your career. Depending on how you want to go, you once again get the option to either be a single driver or start your own race team.
Now, being a single driver on a team with nothing to worry about but your performance on race day is fun, but the real depth of the mode remains owning your own team. There’s something satisfying about building a staff your proud of, and having success with the cars your team has been working hard to improve.
It would’ve been nice, though, to see some added elements to career mode that it certainly could benefit from. Things like a better rivalry system between drivers, or even the ability to hire multiple drivers for your team could put the mode over the top moving forward.
While not necessarily a mode, the game’s paint booth has seen some improvements in the form of the ability to change the shadow fill color of numbers, the car’s material, rim color, and spoiler color. Still, it’s quite limited in what’s offered. Even with knowing some of the reasons behind the decisions, it feels like more could’ve been done to give players more customization options such as adding an in-game design tool.
When driving, though a controller is perfectly acceptable if that’s what you prefer, you will get the most enjoyable experience by using a steering wheel, especially if it has force feedback. With a wheel, you will feel the car fight you at times on the track. You have to learn to properly control your car, most notably when bouncing between the different series as each have enough subtleties that make them feel unique. What’s more is that as the difficulty increases in the game, so does the overall feeling behind the wheel.
Speaking of difficulty, NASCAR Heat 5 has had quite a bit done under the hood to the AI drivers. Cars don’t just line up and stay in what the game views as the “best line”. You’ll see cars spread out on speedways like Las Vegas and pair up on super speedways like Daytona.
Thanks to the game’s sliding difficulty scale, it’s simple enough to make the races as easy or hard as you’d like. And while plenty of games offer a sliding scale like this, NASCAR Heat 5 does a great job of making the increase feel genuine. Instead of an increase just meaning the AI performs in a way that defies logic, the AI drivers become smarter on the track with blocking, drafting, pit strategies, and more.
Despite the aforementioned jump to a new engine after this, there is plenty here that 704 Games should, and likely will, take over in the transition because the AI is the best a NASCAR game has seen in over a decade.
One issue that appears to be solved from Heat 4 is with utilizing a steering wheel on the PC build. In the past, no matter your wheel was, you had to set the in-game degrees to 240° in order to get a proper feel on the wheel. This year, that issue wasn’t present whatsoever, allowing me to get the full range out of my Logitech G920.
As far as issues with the gameplay, mine comes down to just one problem: the controller. No matter what, it rarely feels like you ever get a full feel for your car. Sure, the built-in rumble allows you to feel the rumble strips or the sliding of the tires, but it’s just not enough. As far as the overall handling goes, it’s tough to get the controls just right to steer your car properly with a controller. Whereas other racing titles nail the way a car can fight you or flow with you while using a controller, NASCAR Heat 5 struggles. The only time it felt truly right was when racing on dirt tracks.
All that said, the gameplay is the brightest spot of the game, and will have you wanting to do “one more race” over and over.
NASCAR Heat 5’s presentation is, arguably, the low point of the game. The game is pretty much a carbon copy of Heat 4, which is disappointing to see. The menu system is the same, the pre-race presentation is exactly has it has been with you being shown different raceday storylines, and commentary is nowhere to be found.
Although admittedly niche, there’s still no way to watch a full AI race, and the game’s replay suite is rather limited. In order to turn the overlays off, you have to watch the full race replay which doesn’t allow you to jump between laps like the shorter replays offer.
On a positive note, the lighting and slight graphical improvements keeps the cars and tracks looking stellar, especially when racing under the lights. The addition of two new camera angles — far chase and roof — add some new depth to how you drive with both being easy to adjust to and having their own benefits.
When games approach the end of a generation, there are usually two different things that happen: a studio either goes all out and packs in as many features as possible, or it improves more things under the hood in order to be ready for the jump. With NASCAR Heat 5, it feels like much more of the latter happened from 704 Games in its first run without working alongside Monster Games.
From the presentation to the career mode, much remains the same in the final Unity engine-based game. On the track, however, the driving feels tighter, cars feel more authentic, and the settings alongside improved AI make it so you can have any sort of race experience you want.
There’s plenty that the game could’ve benefited from, but for a curtain call installment, NASCAR Heat 5 is the best offering of the series to date and will keep you coming back for its gameplay alone.
*NOTE: A copy of NASCAR Heat 5 for PC was provided to SGO for the purposes of this review*
Despite a lot of the same, NASCAR Heat 5’s improvements to gameplay make it a fun swan song on the Unity engine.