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Review: ‘NASCAR Heat 3’

When you think of team sports, NASCAR probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But while the driver may be the face of the franchise, getting all of the TV time and sponsorship deals, there’s a reason they are quick to acknowledge the “boys back at the shop” when they celebrate in Victory Lane — there is a small army of engineers, fabricators and engine builders who put in hours of thankless work in order to give the driver a car capable of winning on Sundays.

In “NASCAR Heat 3,” the latest offering from Monster Games and 704 Games, the idea of racing as a team sport is explored in the revamped Career Mode.

After introducing a stripped-down Career Mode in “NASCAR Heat 2” that focused solely on your exploits as a driver, “NASCAR Heat 3” gives you the option to create your own race team from the ground up. Whether you choose to stay behind the wheel or try your hand as a driver-owner, your career begins on a fantasy dirt-track circuit that I found far more enjoyable than anticipated.

Racing on dirt isn’t new to the “NASCAR Heat” franchise — the Eldora race in the NCWTS was introduced in last year’s game — but the Xtreme Dirt Tour takes the experience up a notch as modifieds make their debut, competing on a mix of real and make-believe tracks. I really had a blast turning laps around a dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway, but all of the dirt tracks offered a nice change of pace from traditional asphalt.

Regardless of whether you’re racing on dirt or at Daytona, having the right car for the right track is paramount to your success. That’s where your team comes in. If you opt to become a driver-owner in Career Mode, you’ll spend resources — remember all of that money you made in Career Mode in “NASCAR Heat 2” that you couldn’t spend? — assembling a fleet of cars and a staff of employees to get them ready for race day at your shop.

This proved to be my favorite addition to “NASCAR Heat 3.” I loved being able to pick my team, train them up in a particular area of expertise like engines, aero or handling, and set them to work on my car. There’s also a level of strategy involved as you’re limited to using just one chassis for multiple races at a time. Do you spend a bunch of money getting your short-track car maxed out for Bristol and Richmond, knowing you’ll also have to take it to a high-banked super speedway, or do you opt to take a more-balanced car that may not give you any performance boosts, but won’t put you at a disadvantage, either?

It’s a juggling act that does an admirable job of mimicking the challenges facing smaller race teams. Despite my marginal skill as a driver, I quickly learned that not having the resources of Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing made it extremely difficult to compete for wins — or even Top 20 finishes — early on. Of course, experiencing this grind made me appreciate those Top 10 runs even more as I felt like I had truly accomplished something special.

Whether you’re competing in Career Mode, taking your favorite driver through the 2018 season or simply hopping behind the wheel for an exhibition race, the action on the track has never been better. “NASCAR Heat 3” builds upon what was already a great racing engine to deliver an incredibly solid flag-to-flag experience. The cars handle beautifully, allowing for tight racing in traffic. The AI-controlled cars are also more stable this time around, which means you’re less likely to cause a massive pileup if your car does get a little squirrely while running in the middle of a three-wide pack at Talladega.

The AI drivers seem smarter overall — and more aggressive. The AI was quick to take advantage of any mistake I made and would look for different lines around the track in order to get around me. Other on-track improvements I noticed include how the draft is implemented, variable AI pit strategies and the ability to adjust your car’s handling without needing to understand the finer points of tire pressures and wedge.

My biggest gripes with “NASCAR Heat 3” are essentially the same ones I’ve been making about the series since its inception, simple presentation things like an easy way to scroll through the final race results. But the most glaring issue I have, however, is the damage model, which is basically non-existent.

Sure, there are visual signs that a car has been damaged, but this rarely affects performance on the track. I’m sure the developers have a perfectly good reason for not including DNFs or forcing damaged cars to the garage, but I am instantly pulled out of any sense of immersion when I see Jimmie Johnson’s car slam the outside wall at Michigan at 200 mph, yet not give up more than a position or two on the track.

Wrecks, blown engines and mechanical failures are as much a part of NASCAR as injuries are in the NFL. If I can lose A.J. Green for the season to a random knee injury in my “Madden 19” franchise, why can’t I have Kyle Busch drop a transmission at Pocono and finish 39th on “NASCAR Heat 3”? If the “NASCAR Heat” series is to ever evolve into the true racing simulation that it could become, this needs to be addressed.

Issues aside, “NASCAR Heat 3” is still the most complete NASCAR racing game I’ve played. From the dirt tracks to the deep Career Mode, whether racing solo or with friends online, this is the ultimate NASCAR experience. And as the team at Monster and 704 continue to build upon what is a rock-solid foundation, the future looks bright for the franchise.

“NASCAR Heat 3”

Developers: Monster Games

Publisher: 704 Games

Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC ($59.99)

Rating: E for everyone

Score: 8.2/10