NASCAR Heat 2002 features an interesting blend of racing styles. It can feel like a simulation while at the same time creating the illusion of an arcade racer. The physics of the game definitely lean toward the simulation side, but the weak damage model spoils the feeling of a true sim and opens the game up for the arcade-style crowd. While it will appeal to fans of NASCAR racing (and those PS2 owners who are looking for a solid NASCAR experience), it will probably appeal more to the less hard-core racing fan and to those who can ignore the game's slim damage model.
The game has four single-player options immediately available. Two of these are the requisite single and championship race options, without which no NASCAR game can function. The other two modes are the beat-the-heat and race-the-pro modes, which are the more original options of the four. Race the pro lets you go head-to-head with the ghost car apparition of one of the 11 drivers available for this mode. This mode also lets you tweak the realism setting for each match by letting you visit the garage to customize your car.
Beat the heat is the mode that the NASCAR Heat series of games is most known for. In this mode, you progress through six tiers of difficulty, with each tier containing six challenges for a total of 36. The first and easiest tier contains the more simple actions to complete: from a single turn to a pitstop or even the use of the brakes. The first two tiers are essentially a training mode to get you up to speed and let you learn the control of your car, while the later challenges are much more difficult and become as challenging as the championship mode.
There are a total of 25 drivers that fill out the cast, as well as 19 Winston Cup tracks--just shy of the actual 23 tracks that exist in reality. Several of the most well-known drivers populate the list, including Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and Rusty Wallace. Also included in this list is the late Dale Earnhart Sr.'s real-life replacement, Kevin Harvick.
The control of the game is tight even on the default setting. Boosting the realism to "expert" makes the game control much more realistically and is consequently much more difficult to control. On this setting, the AI drivers receive a considerable boost in skill, but you may also customize your car in a number of different ways. You can adjust the weight and camber, as well as tweak the shocks and springs or adjust the tire pressure. Each of these adjustments actually makes for a considerable change in the way the car handles, and it may take a few sessions in the garage before you find the settings that work just right for you.
While the physics complement the game with their feeling of realism, this feeling will be tarnished when you encounter your first wreck in a race. While the spectacular cartwheeling and spinning--both of which have been seen so many times on real-life tracks--is present, the damage and punishment that the vehicles should take as a result is seen but not felt. On the normal setting, it's entirely possible to throw your car in reverse, spin around, drive headlong into the oncoming pack at a combined speed of 300 miles an hour, and still complete the race. And while your car will sustain more crippling damage in expert mode, it will more than likely still be able to complete the race. The car models reflect this damage graphically, however, with crumpled fenders and scratches on the finish. When enough damage is taken on the front end of the car, smoke and steam will billow out in a nice effect and can cloud your vision if you're using one of the chase camera views.
Graphically, the game is fairly impressive. All the car models are nicely detailed, with all the actual logos and advertising that were seen on their real-life counterparts during the 2001 season. The tracks are all very true to form and do a nice job of reflecting the real thing. Tire marks left behind on the wall from accidents will remain visible for the duration of the race as well. The textures used in all the tracks and backgrounds are obviously made to be seen at high speed, which is to say that if you were to examine them closely, they would look a little washed out. The game chugs along at an acceptable rate, but in the larger crashes or when a large pack of cars pass by the grandstands, the frame rate can dip noticeably. Luckily, the game maintains its speed, so the slowdown will most likely not make you lose control of your car.
In the audio department, the game treads water but never does anything particularly exciting. All the cars have a similar drone after a while, as is to be expected, but the sounds of the crowd fluctuate along with the events in the race. Tires screeching and engines revving are the audio backbone in this game; even the music is left behind with the menus. What little music is available is merely acceptable, but after a while, it serves well as an initiative boost to get you back into the race and away from it as soon as possible.
NASCAR Heat 2002 boils down to being a good NASCAR game that will appeal to both the hard-core fans of NASCAR and the borderline fans who haven't yet found a NASCAR game that appeals to them quite enough. The extra racing features in the game probably won't win over any gamers outside those groups, but they will add to the fun that NASCAR fans will assuredly get by playing this game.