E3 2001 Hands-on: NASCAR Heat

Infogrames goes after EA's jugular with NASCAR Heat, a full licensed and full featured racing game.

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Fans of NASCAR, rejoice--Infogrames' NASCAR Heat is here at E3, and it's delicious. For a company taking its first foray into the NASCAR license, Infogrames has not only equaled Electronic Arts, but has also beaten the company at its own game.

When it's released this winter, NASCAR Heat will be a fully licensed NASCAR racing game featuring 24 official courses, more than 20 actual drivers, and at least four diverse gameplay modes. Present in the E3 version are single race, championship, beat the heat, and versus play options. Beat the heat tasks you with gaining position from the back of the pack during the final lap of a race. Of special note, the XBox version's multiplayer mode supports both split-screen and online match-ups.

As I wrapped my hands around the XBox controller, the E3 version of NASCAR Heat was ready and willing to pit me against five other players, three of which were located 500 feet away in another building. Even though the XBox's broadband capability is unfinished, NASCAR Heat exhibited no lag or choppiness during gameplay.

I was impressed with multiplayer, but I was floored at how well the game both handled and looked.

In terms of control, there are simulation and arcade options. The arcade mode is superbly user-friendly and relies mainly on your opponent's skill, racing lines, and braking to provide the brunt of a race's challenge. In this mode, you don't have to worry about spinning out or brutally oversteering. Playing through a race in arcade mode, it was immensely easy to stick to the road and avoid bumping the trackside walls. In simulation mode, spinouts were realistic--even sometimes too much so. I went into a slight skid from accelerating over the grass on an inside corner and enjoyed a full-on spinout, thanks to the fender of a passing opponent.

The full game will include a multitude of tuning and parts options, most of which I did not test here at the show. From what I did experience, though, tire types affect your roadside grip and handling in minor, albeit noticeable ways, while a change in suspension transformed my car into an uncontrollably bouncy heap. For lovers of racing lines, one of the games toggle options includes a darkened track area to teach you the ins and outs of each course's special features.

I hate to admit it, but it isn't the gameplay that floors me the most when it comes to NASCAR Heat-- it's the visuals. The game is months from completion, and it already sports 60 frames per second, high resolution, thousands of colors, and photo-realistic racing action. Weekend after weekend, I play a ton of racing games at the arcade. NASCAR Heat looks like an arcade game, but it's not. During a race, the sun slowly blows by overhead, causing shadows to deepen and move. Whether there are six or 16 cars onscreen, the game never slows down or lowers in resolution.

In a kudos specifically to the developers, NASCAR Heat is a testament to mip mapping. As I slammed the pedal down to a blazing 180mph, the track became a blur of concrete and rubber marks. Roadside signs blew by with a slight bit of motion blur, but with zero hint of pixelation or aliasing. On tracks where there is a retaining fence to protect the audience, the fence scales into view without becoming jagged. The game is literally so crisp that you can see your driver through the reflection of the clouds on the back windshield. About the only visual negative that I could see during a race was an ever-slight trace of pop-up in far away buildings off to the side of the track.

In terms of minor detail, flameouts cause flames and smoke to billow from under a car's windshield, while contact with grass or dust kicks up realistically dirty particles. The E3 version of NASCAR Heat includes two racing views for behind-the-car and inside vantage points. According to an Infogrames representative at the show, the final version may include more.

It's difficult to not sound biased when reporting on NASCAR Heat, a game that literally takes the formula that Electronic Arts pioneered and executes it to next-generation perfection. The XBox version, complete with 10-player multiplayer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, will debut this winter.

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