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NASCAR Heat 2002 (PS2) Review


Screens (12)
There are a few things that remind me I'm living in the South. First, the hotter than Hades summer months. Next would have to be the fact that I can look out my front window and see the guy across the street working on his deer blinds or shooting at a fake deer with a bow and arrow (huntin' season is approachin'). Lastly, it's the huge fanbase NASCAR has generated down here. Of course NASCAR racing has grabbed the attention in regions other than the South, but we bubbas still claim it as our own.

Capitalizing on the huge support NASCAR gets, Infogrames has released NASCAR Heat 2002 for the PlayStation 2. Last year, Infogrames surprised everyone with the exceptional double shot on the Dreamcast: Test Drive V-Rally and Test Drive Le Mans were two unexpected racers holding the Test Drive moniker. NASCAR Heat lacks the Test Drive label, but it certainly maintains the same quality standards as the other titles.

NASCAR Heat 2002 one ups the competition, EA's NASCAR 2001, by providing a couple of extra cars in the field. With 24 cars on track simultaneously and featuring a full damage model, NASCAR Heat 2002 races for the checkered flag in search of victory. There are 19 real tracks and 25 drivers to test out in several modes of play. It even carries the endorsement of Rusty Wallace, proclaiming it to be the best NASCAR game ever. We will have to see about that.

Presentation/Graphics : 85
Fans of NASCAR who played EA's NASCAR 2001 had to suffer through some of the worst graphics that will ever see the light of day on the PS2. The game was plagued with a stuttering half-field image whenever the rear view mirror was activated. It almost made the game unplayable. By contrast, NASCAR Heat shows the time between that launch title and now was spent learning how to program for the PS2. The game runs at a consistent pace with no apparent slowdown or pop-up.

NASCAR cars are always pretty pieces of work. The colorful cars are slapped with every sponsor under the sun. In Heat you get updated paint schemes for all the included drivers. The decals have good clarity on the shiny surfaces of the cars. When you get up close to the vehicles you forget you're playing a game and marvel at the life-like textures of the cars. Of course, the car models lack the details of the cars in GT3, but with 24 cars compared to 6, you have to make sacrifices.

Tracks have a fair amount of detail. The color scheme is natural and works well with the game. Track surfaces have realistic texture and color, and in places like Las Vegas the off-track landscape is right on. When rushing by the concrete barriers at top speed you can clearly read the words on the wall. Where the graphics take a nosedive is in the pits. You pit crew look like they've escaped from Goldeneye on the N64. The blocky figures bring out poorly textured tires that lack detail.

Once you escape the pits and are back out on the track, you can race with one of four views. There are two third-person views and two first-person views. The first-person views include a bumper view and an interior driver's view. The interior view shows the dash with static gauges but a working steering wheel. At any time you can pull up a rear view mirror.

For the most part the game's graphical design is a winner. The bottom of the screen displays key data such as speed, gear, and engine RPM. The shoulder buttons controls other important data, such as tire condition stats, damage info, and race info. As cars take on damage they physically change. Body work gets crumpled and engines smoke. If you drive with the interior camera you can watch as brown smoke billows from your hood. The only thing lacking, and it's a biggie in my book, is a fuel gauge.

Presentation/Audio : 80
If you like the sound of cars you'll like the audio in Heat. The sweet sound of the 8-cylinder engines running at 7000 rpm hums along as you complete lap after lap. The game does a great job at mimicking the engine sound. What's unfortunate is that the sound of the engine overwhelms. There is tire squeal, but it is almost inaudible over the loudness of the engine. Real drivers can physically tell when a car is losing grip. We virtual drivers need a little clue, and sadly the tire sound is buried deep.

The game does a good job with impacts. The sound of your car grinding against the concrete wall is fairly realistic as is the metal to metal rub against an opponent. Other than that about the only other notable audio comes from the spotter. The spotter does a great job at telling you where your opponents are in relation to you. If racing in the more difficult mode, you'll learn to keep an open ear for every one of the spotter's calls. He'll let you know whether a car is high or low and whether it's clear or not. The spotter's voice is the only one in the game. Heat lacks the commentary that EA's effort provides. I personally miss the extra color commentary.

Interface/Options : 90
NASCAR Heat 2002 ships with five modes of play. Besides the standard single race, season, and two-player options, there are a couple of unique extra modes available. The Beat the Heat mode is best described as a series of 36 driving tests ranging from passing a certain number of cars to avoiding major pileups and pulling out a top finish. Depending on your result, you are awarded a gold, silver, bronze, or no award. The awards are summed and you are given a running tally of your score. The goal is to go from rookie to champion of Beat the Heat.

The other event, Race the Pro, is a twist on the time trial mode. In this case you select a driver you want to go up against. Each driver has a set of three tracks at which he excels. You are given five laps to beat his best time on a track. To help out, a ghost image of the NASCAR star is shown on track. Many of the trials are difficult and they prove valuable in learning particular racing lines.

Also on the main screen is the options menu. Here you can adjust the sound and controller settings. The game supports the pressure sensitive buttons for gas and brakes. In fact, the options screen lets you change the sensitivity from digital control to soft analog or hard analog. The hard analog requires a firm press of the X (gas) or square (brake) buttons. You can also use the right analog stick for the throttle and brakes. Options are available to adjust the steering sensitivity and dead zone of the steering as well. Owners of the Logitech Wingman Formula Force GP steering wheel will appreciate that the peripheral is supported. The force feedback is exceptional.

At the track another set of options is available to fully customize the race. Opponent strength ranges from easy to very hard in five increments. The length of the race can be adjusted in steps from 3 percent to a full race. For shorter races you can bump up the wear factor (1X to 6X) which affects your fuel economy and tire wear. The rules of the race are set with the flags option. Selecting no flags results in a clean race. If you want infractions and yellow flags to come out, set the flags to black or all. Finally, there is a toggle to set the realism of the game. The default option is normal, and the advanced mode is expert. Unfortunately you can't tune your car in normal mode. To tune your car in the garage you have to use the expert mode which also presents a vastly more difficult driving model.

In the garage, you can customize just about everything on the car. For the added realism, the game lets you adjust the weight distribution on the car (to help understeer or oversteer), shock damping (bump or rebound) and spring stiffness at each wheel, tire pressure at each wheel, left and right side camber, gear ratios, sway bar thickness, brake bias, spoiler angle, wheel lock, and even the amount of tape on the grille. Each time you adjust a parameter you'll definitely feel it out on the track.

I quickly became disenchanted with the menu system in Heat. Moving around the menus is not the problem. The problem is that after almost every race, event, or qualifying session, the game takes time to load and has to save to the memory card. The game is a slow loader.

Gameplay : 92
Keys to a driving game are the physics, handling, and AI. It is in these areas that NASCAR Heat 2002 excels. First, the AI is pretty good. AI cars follow a racing line around the track but at no time do they bully themselves on to it if left in the cold. In fact, it's not uncommon to see AI cars two or three wide on the track. At the same time, they aren't going to get out of the way if you bully yourself in. This isn't like NASCAR 2001 where you cars would swerve away if you got too close. There is some incidental bumping, and if you play in the normal mode the bumping occurs without consequence. The expert mode, which features more realistic physics, can be frustrating. The slightest bump from behind can make your car unstable. If you watch NASCAR regularly you know that not all bumps get a car loose.

The AI does have a tendency to get off the line quickly at some tracks. On some of the super speedways they accelerate off the line quickly. They'll pull away by seconds in the first stretch of the race. On the short tracks and road courses you can keep up at the beginning of the race with proper gear shifting. Another AI problem is pit strategy, or lack thereof. The cars exhibit dumb knowledge and often pit en masse. Depending on the length and wear factor of the race, you may drive with a particular number of pit stops. I often found an AI field that would pit an extra time, which lets you make up time on the field or extend your lead.

Speaking of the pits, pitting is usually because of damage, worn tires, or low fuel. Unfortunately there is no fuel gauge in the game (a huge oversight) and the only way to know if you're low on fuel is a fuel sign which pops up and a call from your spotter. Without a gauge, there is no way to know how much gas remains before you're on fumes. Tire wear is another reason for pitting, and in this case your car setup affects the wear. One of the in-race display options is to monitor tire temperature for each tire. Temperatures are given for the inside, middle, and outside of each tire. By altering camber and tire pressure you can affect the tire temperatures. Finally, damage is another reason for pitting. Damage is accumulated for the body, front spoiler, wheels, and radiator (put too much tape on the grille and you'll run into overheating problems). If you hit a wall hard your wheels will suffer damage. When this happen you tend to drift and must constantly correct. The effect of wheel damage really comes across when playing with the force feedback wheel. With severe damage the wheel will fight you for control, and the feedback is very good. Once in the pits you can change all four tires, the two outside tires, or no tires. The gas option is really weak. You can either fill it up or take a splash and go strategy. Of course, without the fuel gauge there's no telling how much a splash is. Finally, you can repair damage if you wish. Doing so extends your time in the pits. For grins I blew my engine and limped back to the pits. With my engine smoking, the pit crew fixed my engine and got me back out on the track in about two minutes. Completely unrealistic.

The handling and physics go hand in hand. On the normal mode, the game plays easily. The cars have a grip racing style and it's difficult to get loose. I liken the normal mode to the driving model of Gran Turismo 3. At first it's challenging but it quickly makes for easy driving. The normal mode of driving seems geared for your casual racing gamer who wants a fun game but doesn't want to go all the way towards a sim based racer.

When driving you can get a sniff of the draft and accelerate. I found the draft model to be a little extreme. I quickly came up on the car ahead of me in short order. To slow down, you can simply lift off the throttle. Cars slow realistically without the need for brakes. I dive into many turns with a slower car in front of me, and letting off the throttle or lightly tapping the brakes puts me right at his rear bumper. The close racing is exhilarating.

If you want a real challenge, step up to the expert mode. This mode is why I love this game so much. The physics model excels to the point where you feel you're behind the wheel of a Winston Cup machine. On banked ovals if you get the right wheels on the bank and the left wheels on the flat part of the infield expect to get loose. Likewise if you accelerate too fast out of a turn you're bound to lose the back end. Playing with the dual shock controller makes it easy to regain control, but for real excitement use the Logitech wheel. The wheel constantly fights with appropriate force and can be physically demanding.

In expert mode the cars tend to suffer from significant oversteer and are easily upset. I think the developers could have toned down the spins due to rear taps a bit, but overall I like the model. I compare it to the driving model of F355 with the driving aids off or Monaco GP 2 on the Dreamcast. Neither of these games experienced commercial success but hardcore sim fans appreciate these titles. I really hope Infogrames tags this physics model for future racing games.

Because of the sensitivity of the cars in expert mode, I caution against turning the flags on for these races. If you or an AI car hits the wall the yellow flag pops out followed by about 2 or 3 minutes of computer controlled driving under yellow. You have enough time to hit the head and grab a bite to eat. The cautions completely ruin the pace of the game.

The courses in the game range from short tracks like Bristol, super speedways like Daytona, and a couple of road courses. Shame on NASCAR for only racing two road courses (Sears Point and Watkins Glen). The driving on expert is especially fun on the road circuits. On the short and medium length tracks the constant passing is also a blast. And just like real life, racing on the super speedways is boring. Give me the high banks and 15 second laps of Bristol any time.

Replay Value: 90
Whether you are looking for a sim title or a racing game with easier control, NASCAR Heat fits the bill. I am the first to admit that racing where you only have to turn the wheel left can get old, especially on long tracks. However, at short, medium, and road tracks NASCAR Heat 2002 excels. With 23 AI cars on track there is plenty of opportunity to make passes and test your racing skills. Aside from the racing, the Beat the Heat and Race the Pro competitions are both challenging and fun. If you are looking for the best NASCAR racer for a console, this is it.

Overall : 88
NASCAR Heat 2002 features a physics set for both diehard sim racing fans and the casual gamer. Both modes feature solid AI cars and exceptional racing, though the AI cars do suffer from poor pit stop timing. Racing with the easier handling has the unfortunate side affect of not allowing you to tune your car. If you can handle the twitchy racing style of the expert mode, the tuning options are numerous. The game features a good damage model, and the support of the Logitech force feedback wheel adds to the realism of the game. If you want one of the most challenging and best (if not the best) racing games on the PS2, this is it.

By: James Smith 7/19/01

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