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Review: ‘NASCAR Heat 2’

nascarheat2There was a series of events during the running of the Daytona 500 in my “NASCAR Heat 2” season mode that pretty much boils down my experiences with the game in a nutshell.

As the laps ticked down in the final stage, I had methodically worked my way up through the field when practically every AI-controlled car decided to come to pit road under green at the same time — something that never, ever happens in an actual NASCAR race.

As one could imagine, this caused a massive pile-up. As I veered off the track and onto the infield grass in hopes of avoiding the carnage, my eyes were drawn to a car flipping over and over and over again down the track. It was the No. 33 of Jeffrey Earnhardt, and it was the kind of crash that any driver would simply be happy to walk away from in one piece.

Yet Earnhardt didn’t walk away. Or even get out of his car. Nope, he stayed strapped into his ride and went on to race the final 15 laps, finishing on the lead lap, just outside the top 10.

All I could do was put down my controller and shake my head.

Look, “NASCAR Heat 2” is a really good game and an improvement over “NASCAR Heat Evolution” in every possible way. The graphics are better, the controls are tighter, the career mode — which features all three national touring series — is terrific for a first try, and online racing with a full field of human players holds up surprisingly well.

But everything “NASCAR Heat 2” gets right is compromised by moments like the crash at Daytona and other, similar head-scratching oddities. Whether it’s cars not pitting under the caution between stages (but pitting immediately after the race goes back to green?) or caution flags not being waved for multi-car crashes, I can’t recall a race in which something weird didn’t happen.

And it stinks because “NASCAR Heat 2” is thisclose to being an all-time great racer. For example, during a Camping World Truck Series race in my career mode, I started at the back of the pack and used a different pit strategy to gain positions on the track over the course of the first two segments. This time, the AI-controlled trucks pitted when they should have and ran a relatively clean race, save for an incident involving Matt Crafton that should have put him behind the wall but instead only cost him a couple positions in the running order.

I short-pitted early in the last segment, trading track position for a chance at a win if the race stayed green the rest of the way. As luck would have it, the final laps were caution-free but I overestimated the amount of fuel I had in my truck. Realizing I was in danger of running out of fuel, I backed off the throttle in an attempt to save as much as possible. With one lap to go, my commanding six-second lead was quickly evaporating and when my engine started sputtering coming out of Turn 4, I knew it was going to be close at the finish line. I coasted across the line less than a second before the second-place truck. It was the only win of my Truck Series career and one of the most satisfying victories I’ve ever had in a NASCAR game.

These are the moments I want to experience and talk about in “NASCAR Heat 2,” but I simply can’t overlook all the other things. I’m hopeful that the team at Monster Games will recognize some of the game’s bigger issues — especially those involving caution flags — and find a way to fix them with a patch.

Even with its flaws, I’m still enjoying “NASCAR Heat 2” more than any NASCAR game I’ve played. The action on the track is superb and the ability to race in all three of NASCAR’s national series is a treat. There’s even a local split-screen mode, which very few games are including these days.

With some minor adjustments, “NASCAR Heat 2” could find itself contending for a championship. In the meantime, it will have to settle for the occasional visit to Victory Lane.

“NASCAR Heat 2”
Developer: Monster Games
Publisher: 704Games
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC ($49.99)
Rating: E for everyone
Score: 7.4/10