In recent years, the world of racing video games has divided into two factions: arcade racers and sim racers.

Arcade racing games, like Forza Horizon 4, are best enjoyed casually with a controller and don’t aim to be very immersive or realistic. Sim racing games meanwhile, like iRacing and Assetto Corsa, are intended to be used with a force feedback racing wheel and look to mimic the feel of driving a real car. This has left racing game developers in a bit of a weird spot: do they develop for the sim racing community, the arcade racing community, or both?

The latest installment in the NASCAR video game series, NASCAR Heat 3, definitely chased the arcade racers of the world. This fun-loving title won’t be poaching away any diehard iRacing fans, but we think this title could serve as a jumping off point for future NASCAR games to do so.

Get Ready to Race...A Lot

Let’s start things off with by addressing the career mode.

When you launch NASCAR Heat 3’s career mode, you’ll be asked to name and create your driver. After customizing your driver’s appearance, you’ll be thrust into Season 1 of your stock car racing career. Season 1 consists of you taking ‘hot seats’ in other drivers’ cars in the ‘Xtreme Dirt Tour’ series, where you’ll attempt to finish in a certain position or higher in order to qualify for a race seat with the team next season.

After completing Season 1, you’ll be given the choice of starting your own Xtreme Dirt Tour team, or signing with one of the teams you successfully completed a ‘Hot Seat’ challenge for. We’d suggest starting your own team – this will allow you to pick a sponsor, car colors and hire employees to prep the car from race-to-race

We’d get ready to do a lot of racing, though. If you want to graduate all the way to the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series, you’ll have to complete and perform well in hot seats for the entry-level dirt-only Xtreme Dirt Tour, Craftsman Truck Series and Xfinity Series. This can take a long time, so if you prefer racing games where you complete a quick race then revert back to a menu where you upgrade and customize your car or avatar, we’d look elsewhere. Luckily there are a ton of tracks to choose from, including all NASCAR road courses. This game is all about the on-track action, so we’re glad we have a ton of locations to race at.

With the focus on actually racing,  it’s no surprise that the car customization is limited. There aren’t enough available sponsor decals, you can’t lay out your own custom paint scheme from scratch and when you eventually graduate to the truck series, the manufacturer you drive for is picked for you. We’d appreciate being able to pick our driver’s overalls, shoes, helmet, gloves etc. as well, especially since your driver is seen standing next to his or her car when you load up a new race. Oh, and you also have to choose from a very small selection of pre-made team names and logos if you choose to start your own team, which is kind of lame. Content like this is more appreciated by players than a lot of developers realize, especially with regards to sports games where players may crave more to do. We would love to see it implemented on a future NASCAR title.

NASCAR Heat 3 manages to add a mildly entertaining off-track product in the way of the fake Twitter interactions with rival drivers, though. Give a fellow drive a bump from behind in the race and they may tweet an insult at you afterward, with the game allowing you to reply with options for ‘Provoke’ or ‘Apologize’. Similarly, pull off a clean pass on them on your way to a top 10 or even a race win, and they may send a congratulations tweet your way.

The focus on narratives and storylines is also present before the start of each race, where ‘qualifying notes’ tell you how some drivers fared in qualifying or after. If a driver is sent to the back for a equipment failure or violation, the game will let you know, adding a bit of personality to the races and the race season.

Read More Racing Simulators: Everything You Need to Know

Aggressive AI

We’re happy to report that the AI in this game can be very fun to race with. They are aggressive and fast in ‘Hard’ mode, but not completely untouchable. Things can get a bit repetitive, with little changeability or fluidity in the way the AI behaves from lap-to-lap, but we found ourselves engaged in several close, hard-fought battles with the AI.

On some tracks and in some scenarios, the AI strikes a sweetspot between being fun to race with and being hard to beat. I do a ton of sim racing, and i’ll happily admit that the XTreme Dirt Tour ‘road course’ race at the fictional Jefferson Raceway with the AI on hard was one of the most fun races with AI i’ve ever done. I think 704 Games now has a great jumping off point with this AI engine for future NASCAR titles.

You won’t be able to properly watch these aggressive on-track battles afterward though. The game lacks a true instant replay function, only allowing you to view your races back in short, awkward clips at the end of a race. It’s a silly oversight, especially for an arcade-style game that produces spectacular crashes and wrecks. We’d love to be able to watch and save our full replays for later. We’ll have to wait for the next installment in this franchise, we suppose.

And How Does it Look?

We’ve told you how the game feels, so how does it look?

NASCAR Heat 3’s graphics are a bit improvement over NASCAR Heat 2, but aren’t anything to get too excited about. We’d say they are adequate for a racing game in this day and age.

Some parts are better than others: the rooster tails the dirt cars throw look pretty good and the lit-up tracks under the stadium lights at night are crisp and clear. We like the car models, with the truck series vehicles looking especially realistic to our eye.

The crowd looks flat and blurry if you stop to have a look, however, and some of the menu graphics leave something to be desired. All in all, we think players of this game will be happy with the way it looks on their TV or monitor.

As for the audio – it’s what we’ve come to expect from a NASCAR game. The V8s sound burly and mean enough, but perhaps a bit flat. The exhaust lets out a loud ‘pop’ if you let off the gas suddenly, though, which is a nice touch.

The soundtrack is of the generic rock and roll/country nature and sounds outdated to our ear, but that’s only a personal preference.

Read More Best Racing Simulator Wheels

Driving Feel: Controller vs Wheel

No matter how inexperienced you are, you’ll probably find that NASCAR Heat 3 doesn’t attempt to replicate what it’s like to drive a real stock car.

The cars are almost impossible to spin out – even with all the assist turned off. The dirt track races would probably be nearly impossible for controller users if this weren’t the case, so it makes sense, but it can definitely take away from the experience knowing how much the game is holding your hand.

It’s the same case with a force feedback wheel (I use a Logitech G29). You can drive as hamfisted as you want, or even mash the gas to the floor at the most inappropriate of times, and you probably won’t spin the car out. On some dirt ovals, you can just hold the gas wide open and steer with one hand. The force feedback seems to go away completely if you put in enough steering lock, too, making things feel especially arcade-y.

This is a mass market game aimed at the fanbase of a mainstream sport, so we weren’t expecting a simulation software, but 704 Games may want to add two kinds of handling modes, ‘Simulation’ and ‘Arcade’ for future NASCAR game installments. This will make the game more appealing for both arcade racers and sim racers alike. This is more important now than ever, with sim racing and official esports racing series skyrocketing in popularity as of late.

Our Final Verdict

NASCAR Heat 3 succeeds in being a massive improvement over its predecessor in just about every way. We love the addition of dirt tracks and the Craftsman and Xfinity series. The more aggressive, smarter AI is massive fun to race with. There are more tracks. The graphics are improved. And esports is being implemented when it needs to be.

We think it only serves as a jumping off point for a near-perfect NASCAR game of the future, though. One that considers sim racers and arcade racers alike in its handling engine. One with a true instant replay function. One with customizable driver avatars and a better system for custom paint schemes. One with even more to do off track with regards to building your team up from the ground.

We’d say NASCAR Heat 3 is worth playing for any motorsports fan. It allows you to race a NASCAR truck at Mosport one minute, before wheeling a dirt late model around Eldora moments later. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s hard not to have fun with this title. If you aren’t into racing or NASCAR and just appreciate a good racing game, we’re not sure this title has enough content and customization options to keep you entertained for hours on end, but it might be fun for a quick race here and there.

We are committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using the retail links in our product reviews. Learn more about how this works.

Graphics 7.0
Sound 7.0
AI 8.0
Content 6.0
Overall SIngle Player Experience 7.0