How to tell one Nascar game from another - the cover art!
Nascar is an odd sport in that there aren't too many 'casual' fans. You either love it and follow it religiously or could care less. The hardcore fans can pick out the intricate drama of ultra high-powered vehicles cruising within inches of each other trying lap after lap to gain an advantage. One minor mistake can cost an entire race.
Of course, many of us just see a bunch of cars going around in an oval for a couple of hours. I have to admit, I'm pretty firmly in this category. However, while reviewing Nascar Heat 2002 , I am taking into consideration the numerous death threats I received the last time I covered a Nascar game, so trust that this review (like any good review) is written with total objectivity in mind.
If you're new to the Nascar scene and your looking for a racing game for the PS2, there are some things you should know. Stock car racing emphasizes driver skill and endurance as opposed to car type and modifications. Due to heavy restrictions, all stock cars must be similar in style and performance. If you're seeking something with cars that are a little more customizable and say, a track with a right turn every once and a while, than you're better of with something like Gran Turismo 3. Out of the 19 tracks in Nascar Heat, 17 of them consist of the driver traveling counterclockwise on an oval shaped track.
This is old news, but it makes the experience much different than other racing games. Nascar races test patience and mettle rather than quick twitch skills, so consider yourself forewarned.
Still, Heat is a solid game. As far as Nascar games go for the PS2, the only other competitor is Nascar 2001 by Electronic Arts, and Nascar Heat is the better of the two.
The graphics are eye catching. Where EA's Nascar used poor car models and backdrops, those in Heat are much smoother. The game flows nicely without slowdown, despite the number of cars on screen.
Heat also provides more in-game challenges such as "Beat the Heat." In this mode, the driver is faced with several challenges that increase in difficulty. This is a great training ground that helps the players familiarize themselves with the car.
From that point, though, the options are similar to other Nascar games. You pick your Nascar hero and can compete in either a single race or enter the Championship, which allows you to compete in an entire Winston Cup season. It's nice and long and should satisfy fans.
Nascar Heat provides you with arcade or simulation control options. In the Normal mode, the car has much more control and is best suited for beginners. Nascar veterans will definitely opt for Expert mode, which attempts to capture the real controls of a stock car. The physics are right on and you'll need to use common techniques like drafting and downshifting if you want to succeed.
To make the game even more realistic, your car will be damaged if obstacles are hit. So if you're used to purposefully crashing into something in order to make sharper turns, you might want to revise your strategy - before you know it the car may be too damaged to compete, although seeing Heat's crash physics can be entertaining.
Unlike many other racing simulations, Heat offers a first-person view that includes the steering wheel and dashboard. Not easy to drive with, but it's there. There are a few other angles as well, all of which are fairly standard.
While stock cars are similarly built, there is still some degree of customization available. Most of the modifications are for control purposes. You can adjust the weight, shocks, springs and even tire pressure, whereas engine modifications that would increase speed and power are not an option.
Nascar Heat is a decent game, but it's still just good ol' Nascar. While it is to some degree better than Nascar 2001, in many ways it is almost the same game (aside from the new foil cover). It features the same oval tracks, same types of cars and the same types of options. Nascar fans - you know who you are - this one's for you, but the more casual racer might want to seek out racing jollies elsewhere.