There is no shortage of racing titles in the world of video games. Furthermore, titles that connect in some manner to real-world racing bodies have a reputation for placing the brand over the gaming experience. In other words, it can be very difficult to stand out in this segment, or worse, stand out for the wrong reasons. NASCAR Heat 3 from Monster and 704 Games does indeed stand out, but we’re happy to say it’s for the right reasons. In fact, it’s so good we suspect its appeal could spread beyond NASCAR fans to sim racers in general.
Here’s what you need to know right from the start. There’s far more to this title than racing at America’s network of oval and tri-oval superspeedways, and we’re not just talking about the road courses included in the track selection. NH3 offers up a wonderfully comprehensive career mode where you can create your driver and work through the ranks just like the pros did, starting with dirt track racing. Dirt track? Yes, sideways-loving dirt-track racing is part of the package.
There’s another cool aspect to career mode, however. Instead of just being a driver in search of a full-time ride, you can start your own team with the money you earn. In that role you can be the driver, owner, and manager, hiring other drivers and crew to build progressively better cars. With better cars you win more races, which lets you build a bigger team, so you can build better cars – you get the idea. And there’s even some significant creative liberty in designing your cars, from colour and graphics to sponsor logos, wheels, and numbers. We suspect die-hard NASCAR fans will love career mode.
This is, however, a racing game first and foremost. If you want to skip details and start trading paint in the big leagues, NH3 will make it happen without delay. Setting up a quick race in the Monster Energy series is accomplished with just a few steps, and broader sim racing fans will feel right at home with the on-track action. The physics lean more towards the arcade side of the spectrum, but there’s plenty of sim feel to make it challenging, especially on higher difficulty levels with assists turned off. Even if you’re just lapping in a practice session, you’ll quickly find yourself testing different lines to pick up hundredths of a second. That’s a testament to the time Monster spent on finding the right balance of fun and function.
We spent much of our time racing on the Xbox One with a Logitech G920 wheel, and feedback through the system was excellent. The game doesn’t support the same depth of feedback adjustment as you’ll find in titles like Forza 7 or Project Cars 2, but those titles lean closer to the simulation world. NH3 doesn’t need that kind of functionality, which is actually refreshing for this level of entertainment. Spend a couple minutes adjusting sensitivity and dead zones to your liking and you’ll be drafting and passing with the best of them. We also turned many laps with the standard controller and found the functions to be comfortably intuitive and easily managed. Best of all, fine steering adjustment with the stick is easy to master in no time, and that's important here because the key to being good at this sim is to be patient. Make subtle moves and look far ahead on the track – just like in real racing – and you'll see the checkered flag.
Gallery: NASCAR Heat 3 Review
As for realism to NASCAR as a sport, the sky’s the limit in NH3. Whether in career mode or setting up quick races, you can make things as simple or complex as you want. That includes hour-long practice sessions, qualifying, and full-length races that require legit pit strategies for tyres, fuel, and if you’re unlucky, repairing damage. On the flip side, you can run a five-minute sprint with no rules – basically your own green-white-checker finish – all day, every day. The same goes for dialing in your car, with in-depth adjustability for tech-savvy racers, or a simplified scale that will automatically set up your car for tight (understeer) or loose (oversteer) handling.
Perhaps the best part of NH3 is its comprehensive online multiplayer capability. Having only been out for approximately a month there’s already a rich community of racers to join in head-to-head battles, and Esports tournaments are cropping up on a regular basis. Sure, the AI makes for enjoyable offline racing, but running in a pack of 36 digital cars at Daytona with human hands directing the action is really where this title shines.
There are a couple downers, but neither is enough to dampen our enthusiasm. NH3 doesn’t look bad by any means, but it doesn’t have the visual pop of other titles, especially when it comes to 4K playback. The graphics almost have a previous-gen console feel at times, but it's not particularly noticeable at speed on the track. More noticeable are occasional framerate stutters that don't slow down the action as much as give it a mildly choppy feel at times. It isn't prevalent online at all, perhaps because there will always be lag issues that crop up so it's not noticed. Point being, these are fussy quips that don't detract from racing action.
Our conclusion? With the holidays around the corner, NASCAR Heat 3 certainly wouldn’t be a bad gift for any gaming aficionado who enjoys racing at home. The title is available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and on PC.