If you're sat looking at this thinking it hasn't been that long since you bought NASCAR Heat 4, you'd be absolutely correct. For, reasons, Motorsport Games and the developer, 704Games, has brought out the next installment less than a year later. Almost exactly 10 months later no less.
I'll be honest, that set some alarm bells ringing. Heat 4 arrived towards the tail end of the 2019 NASCAR season, with Heat 5 now arriving in the middle of the post-COVID re-arranged 2020 season. Was it pulled forward? Would it be rushed?
Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case. If you're a fan of NASCAR you're still going to want to play this game, even though a lot of people are going to feel like the content could also have been offered as a DLC to NASCAR Heat 4.
Bottom line: Just enough newness to make it worth playing, and it remains the most complete, enjoyable package for NASCAR fans.
- Good looking
- All official cars, drivers and circuits
- New testing mode
- Recommended setups to use in races
- Long career mode
- No 60 FPS mode on Xbox One X
- Slightly numb force feedback at times
- Still no photo mode
- Really similar to Heat 4
What you'll like about NASCAR Heat 5
If you enjoyed NASCAR Heat 4, then you'll definitely enjoy NASCAR Heat 5. Oh, you want more?
When you get into a cycle of yearly updates to official sports games then first and foremost you just hope nothing breaks and nothing gets worse. NASCAR Heat 5 looks and feels an awful lot like NASCAR Heat 4, from the graphics to the UI to the physics, unless you know you're playing the new game, you could easily mistake it for its predecessor.
But that's fine, because what was already here looked great and raced well, and the same is true of NASCAR Heat 5. If you're a fan of NASCAR, this is hands down the most complete and engaging game you can play.
Heat 5 is packed with 34 official circuits, covering real world locations like Daytona, Indianapolis, Bristol, Martinsville ovals, as well as road courses like Watkins Glen and dirt tracks like Eldora. There are also 5 fictional dirt tracks to race. All the licensed circuits look fantastic, capturing the detail of their real-world compatriots, right down to cracks in the asphalt at tracks like Atlanta and Homestead-Miami.
Likewise, the cars all look epic. NASCAR teams have a habit of changing liveries throughout the course of a year, and presumably some or all of these alternative paint jobs will be offered as is traditional through the Heat 5 season pass. But we're all up to date with the 2020 driver lineup and some of the matching liveries.
NASCAR Heat 5 is a very good looking game, and while the graphics take a hit in the "performance mode" which bumps the frame rate a bit, it's still pleasing to look at. There are some rough edges, but on the whole it's a job well done. On PC with everything turned up to maximum, it's even more amazing to look at. And I still love the animation on the pit stops when your pit crew is running around the car changing tires.
Much of the core game remains what you'd find in Heat 4. The career mode is immersive and long, starting you off looking for hot seats on the dirt tour taking you all the way up to (hopefully) becoming the NASCAR Cup Series champion. As you progress you're able to run in more than one series at a time, as well as running hot seats in the higher tier series. When you get to the Cup Series, either join a team or start your own with the prize money you've earned to this point.
There are a ton of options at your disposal to make the experience just what you're looking for. New players can turn the assists right up and the AI down, while those looking for a challenge can turn all these things off and ramp the AI difficulty up. And any number of custom stages inbetween. Also adjustable is how cars react to contact, which is particularly handy if you're not too experienced in the art of pack racing. The AI is very good in Heat 5, whatever difficulty you set it to, providing challenging, aggressive, but ultimately fair competition.
Pre-race you also now have some easily accessible recommended setups that are literally a slider between tight and loose. You decide how much you want of either of these and move the slider. It's a good way to introduce more casual players to changing the handling of the cars without getting into the weeds.
This goes hand in hand with the brand new testing mode, perhaps the best thing to come to NASCAR Heat 5. Whether you just want to learn a track or you're building your own setup and running hot laps to test it, the fact you now no longer have to go into a race session and use practice is so good. You also get testing liveries void of sponsors which is a nice touch.
Online play has been a little slow thus far since only Gold Edition buyers have been playing during my review time, but one of my favorite pieces of it is the online challenge mode. Currently, it's based on the real-life recent race from Pocono and gives you the chance to change history and take Kevin Harvick to back to back wins at one of three difficulty levels. It's got just over three weeks left on it, so I'm not sure how frequently exactly these will change, but they're a nice addition.
What you'll dislike about NASCAR Heat 5
Let's talk about frame rate. And the lack of a 60 FPS mode even on the Xbox One X. I'm not a game developer, I'm not smart enough to know how these things can be made to happen, but I do know that a racing game without a 60 FPS mode can be hard work. Fortunately, NASCAR Heat 5 does have a performance mode which nerfs the graphics a little and gives you a few more frames, but in quality mode at 30 FPS it really does lose some of its zing.
NASCAR is incredibly fast paced and action packed, and compared to the kind of frame rates you get in the PC version, the console one feels sluggish at times. I should say that 704Games has done a great job at mitigating the lower frame rate with other tactics, like a healthy dose of motion blur that still creates that feeling of speed. But you can't get away from the fact that there's no 60 FPS mode and that's disappointing.
Perhaps the other most disappointing aspect of NASCAR Heat 5 to me is the force feedback engine. I should preface this by saying I do a lot of ovals on iRacing, with its laser scanned track surfaces and extremely realistic handling models. But something that good does help identify where other racers are lacking.
Playing NASCAR Heat 5 with a wheel is superb, it's how I'm playing it, and I only briefly tried a controller to make sure it's as good as its predecessor (and it is.) The physics in Heat 5 are quite good, and in many regards the cars behave how you'd hope they might. If you're too tight, for example, you'll get masses of understeer if you don't go off throttle.
But how you feel these effects leave me a little numb. On the straights there's little information being transferred through force feedback, you're just getting a slight buzz of vibration. This is much improved in the corners, but you have very little idea what the back of the car is doing until an artificial feeling slide. It's still in my opinion the best way to play NASCAR Heat 5 and I've been having a blast, but it's clear that there's still work to do.
Other things to note include the replay mode, which is identical to last year's game and doesn't provide a full race replay option or any choice to remove the overlay so you can get some sweet looking screen grabs. Which also ties in with there being no photo mode, still. This is a good-looking game with some awesome car designs, it's incredible there's no photo mode to capture your in-game memories.
That familiarity with what's lacking is repeated throughout NASCAR Heat 5 in both good and bad ways. Sure, it's a yearly update and to expect too much would be foolish, but this game really feels like NASCAR Heat 4. In a good way, nothing got worse and long-term fans will be able to jump right in and have an enjoyable time.
On the other hand...could this have just been a DLC for NASCAR Heat 4?
Should you buy NASCAR Heat 5?
NASCAR Heat 5 is a complete and enjoyable package for NASCAR fans, or even just fans of well made, fun racing games. It's not perfect, but if you're into the sport it's hands-down the best place to get your virtual fix. It looks great, the career mode will easily give you another year of fun and the challenges should help you keep the action fresh.
It is undeniable though how similar NASCAR Heat 5 is to NASCAR Heat 4. If you put the two side by side the only way you could really tell them apart is if you recognize the 2020 liveries on the cars. That doesn't make the game bad, because it isn't, but it does ask questions over whether or not it's worth your money if you're still enjoying last year's game. With a 2020 livery pack, Heat 4 could be 90% of the way to being Heat 5.
So ultimately whether you should buy it comes down to how much you love NASCAR and you love the series. Considering Heat 5 on its own, it's very good, if flawed in places. As an upgrade over the previous game, though, only you can truly tell if the few new features and tweaks are enough to part with your cash.
NASCAR Heat 5 is available now on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.
Not hugely different to the previous game but a solid package for fans
Much of NASCAR Heat 5 could probably have been applied to last year's game as a DLC, but the new testing mode and beginner-friendly race setup tool in particular are nice additions. This is still the complete package for NASCAR fans.
This review was conducted on the Xbox One X using the NASCAR Heat 5 Gold Edition purchased by the reviewer.
Richard Devine is a Managing Editor at Windows Central with over a decade of experience. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently, you'll find him steering the site's coverage of all manner of PC hardware and reviews. Find him on Mastodon at mstdn.social/@richdevine