By now, Nintendo fans must be used to drawing the short straw when it comes to multi-platform games. With the Switch containing objectively weaker innards than its closest competitors, many third-party devs will need to cut a few corners in order to allow their games to run on the hybrid console. This might come in the form of lower resolution, cut assets, or even the bold decision to bypass a conventional release in favour of the cloud.
Historically across platforms, racing sims have always been spectacular visual showcases. With less to worry about when it comes to complex animation or AI, a lot more focus can be put into making the games look slicker than Fonzi’s hair-do. With this in mind, it brings us great pain to declare that NASCAR Heat is one of the worst looking racing games we’ve seen on the Switch in some time. So much so, in fact, that we’d wager the game would comfortably run on the GameCube or the Wii. It’s 2021, man.
It just doesn’t make sense that a racing game launching on current-gen systems should look so poor. The Switch is home to some pretty spectacular racing games including Need for Speed:Hot Pursuit, GRID Autosport, and Burnout Paradise Remastered. The oldest of these — Burnout Paradise — originally released back in 2008, and it in its original non-Remastered guise still looks significantly better than NASCAR Heat. Here though, the cars are blocky, environments completely lack detail, and the lighting effects are near enough non-existent. To cap it off, the game often dips below its intended 30FPS, so the engine doesn't even run smooth, despite the visual curtailments.
Of course, looks aren’t everything, and one compliment we can give to NASCAR Heat is that it at least features plenty of authentic cars, tracks, and racers. Indeed, with the Ultimate Edition + on the Switch, you’re getting the full Season Pass from the previously released NASCAR Heat 5 Ultimate, which includes four separate DLC packs. These will load you up with more custom paint jobs, in-game cash, and content featuring NASCAR fall-of-famer Tony Stewart.
Starting up the game, you’re given the choice to pick from the 2020 and 2021 NASCAR line-ups (with the 2021 line-up and paint jobs also newly included for the Ultimate + Edition), with these then split into four different series: the standard Cup Series, Xfinity Series, Truck Series, and Xtreme Dirt Tour. The drivers/cars are designated by official photos and paint jobs, but there’s no indication of how the vehicles handle in comparison to one another.
Each race is split into three segments: practice, qualifying, and final race. This gives you the chance to go through your chosen track and learn its layout (which, for 90% of the selection is a basic oval), before qualifying to determine your starting grid in the final race. You can skip right through to the final race if you wish, but in doing so, you’ll be bumped right back down the starting grid.
Once you’re in the race, getting around the track is fairly straightforward thanks to the simplicity of its layout — after all, this is NASCAR. Stray too far off the road, however, and you’ll be given an immediate penalty, forcing you to stop dead for roughly five seconds before you’re able to set off again. This might not sound like much, but five seconds can make all the difference when the majority of the 20+ racers are bunched together, so don’t be surprised to find yourself right at the back of the pack.
With various difficulty settings, you can tailor the experience to suit your needs. On lower settings, you’ve got the familiar driving line featured in most modern racers. Crank it up and this will disappear, and additional racing requirements pop up, such as pitting. There’s enough depth here to satisfy NASCAR enthusiasts, while the more casual racing fans will be quite content whacking the difficulty setting on ‘normal’ for the most part.
In terms of how you play exactly, you’ve got a standard career mode in which you create your own character before taking part in various tournaments to increase your standing within the racing community. It’s basic stuff and nowhere near as comprehensive as the equivalent modes in franchises like Dirt or Need for Speed. Alternatively, you can simply choose to race one track at a time, with free choice of your vehicle and course.
Additionally, the game also features online play for up to 16 players, alongside split-screen local play. In our experience with the game, online play contained no lobbies to join, requiring us to create our own. You can customise which series to play, how many racers are to be included, and more, however at the time of testing this out, we encountered no other players. Indeed, the game gives a handy breakdown of how many total races have been played in the game’s lifetime, with a measly 1198 recorded at the time of writing, and zero active players. It doesn’t bode well for the game’s longevity in addition to the technical issues.
When all’s said and done, NASCAR has its dedicated fans — and they'll find more to enjoy here than others — but the experience just isn’t compelling enough to recommend to anyone else. Part of this is the simple fact that stock racing takes place primarily on oval shaped courses, and while there’s really no getting around this, it doesn't do the game any favours when compared to the more adventurous and unique racing games on the market right now. Even if you're a die-hard NASCAR fan, though, with such poor visuals and performance, NASCAR Heat could feature the most thrilling, complex tracks around, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.
NASCAR Heat feels like a game right out of the mid-2000s. The visuals alone are poor enough — with blocky textures, featureless environments, and a frame rate that struggles to maintain a solid 30FPS — but when you have a completely unremarkable career mode forming the main bulk of the game, there’s really no recommending this to anyone but the most staunch of NASCAR fans. Nintendo gamers have been without a true NASCAR experience for several years now, but if this is any indication of the quality we’re likely to expect, we reckon it should probably retire in the pits.