It takes a special kind of person to appreciate NASCAR racing. Not just anyone can tolerate watching the same cars that you can find on our highways do loops for hours on end. But NASCAR is America's number-one motorsport, and NASCAR games have traditionally been strong performers in the video game sector, so it comes as no surprise that Infogrames would try its hand at a handheld version of the perpetual left-hand turn. Unfortunately, NASCAR Heat 2002 seems to mostly offer the things that people dislike about the sport, rather than the elements that cause thousands of people to pack their coolers every weekend and head off to watch the next big race.
One aspect of NASCAR Heat 2002 that's above reproach is the number of gameplay modes available. The arcade mode allows you to jump straight into a circuit of races using any of the eight real-world drivers included in the game. You can drive as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, and Steve Park, though the differences between each of the drivers is practically impossible to discern. The single race mode allows you to choose a driver and track to simply get some practice time in while managing tire wear and other realistic conditions. The beat the heat mode presents you with a series of challenges that increase in difficulty as the mode progresses. There are also a variety of multiplayer modes, including a four-player option using just one cartridge. However, just one track and one car are available. If you choose to play multiplayer with more than one cartridge, you can select from all the game's cars and tracks.
The heart of the single-player experience is the career mode. You begin by attempting to qualify for a team and then jump into the grueling NASCAR circuit. At the conclusion of each season, your performance is evaluated and the team will decide if they should keep you on or drop you in favor of another driver. If you perform particularly well, you'll receive offers from other teams with faster cars, better pit crews, and better tires. In this way, you can work your way up through the ranks and win the NASCAR cup. There are 18 different teams to drive for, and if you perform poorly, you'll be dropped down into a lower group until you get your career straightened out. For a handheld game, NASCAR Heat 2002 has plenty of options to keep players busy. But they're all nearly ruined when it's time to actually play the game.
NASCAR Heat 2002 plays from an isometric perspective. Because it plays from this awkward angle, pressing left on the directional pad always causes your car to turn left, while pressing right will always cause it to turn right. The control scheme is reminiscent of that from the Resident Evil series and is completely inappropriate for a driving game in this era. Making matters worse, too little of the track is seen at a time, forcing you to memorize each bend and turn to keep from swapping paint with the guardrails. Eventually you'll be able to navigate the tracks fairly well, but getting to that point can be extremely frustrating, and the payoff is not worth the hassle.
While the game makes use of the NASCAR license to deliver real drivers and tracks, their visual representation leaves a great deal to be desired. Other than the basic track layout, it's nearly impossible to tell the difference between racing at Darlington or Michigan International. The cars are so small onscreen that it's difficult to tell one car from another. In the end, the license is used as something to legitimize the game instead of enhance it. With all due respect to NASCAR and its fans, crashes are arguably one of the most exhilarating parts of the sport. Unfortunately, the crashes in NASCAR Heat rarely amount to more than fender benders.
With its varied gameplay options and official NASCAR license, NASCAR Heat 2002 could have been a great game. But the dated graphics and the surprisingly inept gameplay make for a bad combination that really hurts the game. So much more is possible in the racing genre on the Game Boy Advance, and hopefully Infogrames will realize the power of the NASCAR brand and bring a better game to market next year.