NASCAR Heat offers a brutally honest driving experience, but with simplistic damage modeling. That's too bad, because NASCAR Heat clearly had the potential to provide the most lifelike stock-car racing experience available.
NASCAR Heat doesn't offer nearly the assortment of drivers that Papyrus' NASCAR Racing 3 offers - only 26 drivers signed on the dotted line to be featured in the game, so when you're facing a 43-car field, you'll see a lot of fictional names at the bottom of the pack. And apparently there was a bit of a problem regarding licensing from sponsors: Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt's cars are emblazoned with their names rather than Miller Lite and Budweiser logos respectively (users have already created accurate cars with the game's built-in paint kit, however). Thankfully, just about every track on the Winston Cup circuit is included in the game - the only omissions are Indianapolis and Pocono. In the game's championship mode, you can take part in every event based on the 2000 NASCAR season save two races at Pocono, the Brickyard 400, and a couple of sprints preceding the Daytona 500.
Two features that set NASCAR Heat apart from all other stock-car sims are its "beat the heat" and "race the pro" modes, and these manage to survive the game's totally forgiving damage modeling better than the single race and championship modes. Beat the heat is basically a hands-on tutorial that puts NASCAR novices in the cockpit at crucial points during races so that they can get quick experience in various driving techniques. You can beat the first few sessions easily, but as you move up the ladder, things get considerably tougher - the computer-controlled drivers are very intelligent in these sequences, and they take much more care to avoid taps and bumps and generally go all out to win. The race-the-pro mode challenges you to beat lap times turned in by NASCAR pros who play NASCAR Heat. It's a lot more fun to beat a time set by a real person who's played the same game you've played, rather than to simply use the sim to beat a real-life time.
Monster Games proved that it could create knockout graphics with Viper Racing, but it's outdone itself with NASCAR Heat. Both the tracks and the cars feature virtually perfect textures and details, including accurate shadows cast by grandstand fences and legible logos on tires. If you slam into a wall, the marks stay there for the duration of the race, as do skid marks on the track. Smoke effects also look great, and the game even simulates the effect of inertia, which you can see when the driver's head - and the camera perspective - is pushed back during acceleration. This truly makes you feel as if you're in the driver's seat, especially since the cockpit dash also looks so realistic.
What adds to that sense of realism is the game's excellent simulation of how stock cars handle. NASCAR Heat faithfully models downforce, which I learned the hard way after constantly sliding out of turns at Martinsville - something I rarely did in either NASCAR Racing 3 or NASCAR 2000. Furthermore, if you hit the garage and adjust things such as grille tape, wedges, and sway bars, the effects are truly apparent on the track. There's a "normal" play mode that strips away all this stuff, but expert mode just feels so right that even beginners should opt for it and simply knock down the difficulty setting for the computer drivers. The only problem with the way your car handles is that it seems to be more prone than computer-controlled cars to slide when it's tapped by another car. I purposely nosed into Bobby Labonte's car as we raced side by side, and it took ten seconds or so to finally force him off his line.
Unfortunately, NASCAR Heat really falls flat when it comes to simulating car damage, caution flags, and a few other key areas. The developers clearly wanted to make the game appealing to new players by toning down the damage model, but they toned it down far too much. It's bad enough that no attempt was made to depict smashed hoods and crumpled fenders, but it gets worse: You can actually slide down the track with the underside of your car scraping against a wall and then right yourself and continue on your merry way as if nothing happened. About the only area that's realistic is engine damage from overrevving - I blew the engine a couple of times after some injudicious gearbox-tweaking in the garage. But aside from that, about the only way you'll wind up not finishing a race is to turn around and hit someone head-on at 175 m.p.h. - and even that's not a sure thing.
Furthermore, though you can expect to spin out and wreck in your first few outings in expert mode until you get a feel for how the cars respond, don't get overly concerned about seeing a lot of yellow flags - it takes a real smash-up to bring one out. Again, this is clearly intended to let players keep on racing without enduring constant yellows as they climb the learning curve, but since there's an option to turn off all flags, it seems rather redundant. And while it's nice to keep on racing, not many players want to do it for two hours at a stretch, which is your only option if you plan to finish an entire race, since there's no way to save your game during competition.
Fortunately, the developers of NASCAR Heat have been fielding comments from fans and critics and already have a patch that addresses some of these issues and a few other less-noticeable bugs. But one thing that it doesn't resolve is the problem with multiplayer support: The only way to find opponents is to use fan-made chat rooms and a clever user-created utility for finding NASCAR Heat servers.
Yet even with its problems, NASCAR Heat's thoroughly immersive driving model is very enjoyable, and even running practice laps or chasing the pros is practically worth the price of the game. However, NASCAR racing fans who prefer consistent realism would be well advised to wait on the patch before purchasing NASCAR Heat.