There’s 15 laps to go at California’s Auto Club Speedway and I’m lined up on the outside of Row 2 in Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford. It’s been a long race and an even longer day, thanks to an early brush with the wall that forced me to the pits for repairs and left me a lap down. A timely caution allowed me to get back on the lead lap and I’ve spent the last 100 laps or so picking my way through traffic back toward the front of the field.
I was still sitting outside the Top 10 when this latest caution flag flew. Knowing it may be my last chance to put myself into contention for the win, I elected to forego fresh tires and took only a splash of fuel, hoping to gain ground on pit road. My strategy worked and the stage was set for an epic final run to the checkered flag.
When the green flag dropped, Kevin Harvick immediately shot to the lead and began to pull away, leaving myself, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson to battle for second place. And battle we did. Over the next six laps we put on a racing exhibition, trading positions and trading paint on every straightaway and in every turn. Then my decision to skip taking tires came back to bite me. As my tires went away, so did my grip on the track and my ability to hold my line. As I drifted higher and higher up the track, I had to back out of the throttle to avoid hitting the wall. That was all the opportunity my competitors needed and I could only watch as our three-way dance turned into duel between Logano and Johnson for second place. I ended up hanging on to finish 7th, a satisfying end to what could have been a disastrous race.
It is in moments like this that “NASCAR Heat Evolution” shines, delivering all the thrills and excitement I could hope for from a NASCAR game. The give-and-take with the AI is amazing and watching as other cars search for the fastest line is a sight to behold, especially after suffering through competing against opponents that were seemingly on rails in last gen’s NASCAR titles. Each race feels organic and fresh, a tribute not only to the AI but to how accurately the individual tracks have been recreated. Indeed, the action on the track is exactly the kind of experience I’ve been waiting for since the glory days of “NASCAR Heat” on the PlayStation 2, a mix of sim and arcade racing that is challenging without becoming frustrating but above all, unbelievably fun.
That’s not to say everything is perfect once the flag drops. A number of omissions and odd design decisions — the lack of any and all replays, the inability to adjust your car outside of simulation mode, no practice sessions, etc. — are like a loose lug nut that spoils your chance at victory. This trend continues off the track, too, with the need to unlock tracks and championships, a chore that can be accomplished in a matter of minutes, but a chore nonetheless.
The career mode captures what it feels like to compete for one of the sport’s underfunded teams as you struggle to keep up with cars from Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and other top organizations. The journey from also-ran to a spot in the Chase takes time as you’re constantly working to gain sponsors and earn money needed to upgrade your facilities. Each upgrade gives you a small boost, like 1 percent more horsepower, and these tiny upgrades do seem to impact your performance, which in turn leads to higher finishes, more money and better equipment. It’s an addictive loop that continues to keep me coming back for more, but a mode that could stand to be fleshed out with the ability to add teammates, improve your pit crew, etc.
Beyond career mode, you can take any of the 40-plus real drivers through a full or partial season or just jump straight into the Chase. Online is a rather bare-bones experience that supports up to 40 players and holds up well enough, though the real challenge is finding a group of people that want to race competitively and not just cause chaos.
Evolution is a process, and “NASCAR Heat Evolution” is a terrific first step toward building a winning franchise. With a solid foundation in place, hopefully the development team at Monster Games can work on adding some much-needed bells and whistles, which would go a long way toward taking the series back to Victory Lane.
“NASCAR Heat Evolution”
Developer: Monster Games
Publisher: Dusenberry Martin Racing
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One ($59.99)
Rating: E for everyone