Hasbro Interactive didn’t exactly garner the love of simulation fans when it announced over 18 months ago that it would no longer publish military simulations. Almost immediately, hard-core gamers began berating the company for its decision, usually getting in a jab or two at kiddy software titles like Furby or Mr. Potato Head in the process.
Hasbro Interactive might have given military sim fans reason to howl, but you certainly can’t say the same of racing-sim fans. Late this summer, Hasbro promises to deliver not only the long-awaited Grand Prix 3, but also the highly impressive NASCAR Heat. Though the press demo we’ve been playing lacks several important features that will be included in the final version, it offers a tantalizing taste of what might be the most realistic, well-rounded NASCAR Racing simulation ever to grace the PC.
If pedigree means anything, NASCAR Heat can’t miss. The sim is being developed jointly by Monster Games (which gave us the excellent Viper Racing nearly two years back) and Blue Fang Games. But what’s more important than the company names are the people behind them. Handling producer chores at Hasbro Interactive is Ed Martin, who was responsible for Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing Online series. Monster Games was founded by Rich Garcia (the first employee at Papyrus after it was founded by Omar Khudari and Dave Kaemmer), who wound up working with Martin as lead engineer for the NASCAR Racing Online series. And Blue Fang Games was founded by Adam Levesque, John Wheeler, and Lou Catanzaro – the producer, lead engineer, and lead artist respectively for Papyrus’ NASCAR titles through 1998.
With so many Papyrus folks working on NASCAR Heat, you might expect NASCAR Heat to slavishly follow all the conventions set by the NASCAR Racing games. But Martin feels that, as good as NASCAR Racing is, it can be improved on in several key areas. “Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing series is a flat-out sim,” he says. “The gameplay pattern is pick a car, pick a track, set some options, drive fast, and turn left.
“NASCAR Heat has both a sim side, called expert mode, and an easier-to-drive normal mode. The idea behind normal mode was to open the game up to people who aren’t hard-core sim fans – to give them something that’s approachable, yet challenging, and make it adjust to them. So, while it’s somewhat artificial, it’s a ton of fun because for the first time the average NASCAR fan can grab the game controller and have a competitive racing experience out of the box. And it always dangles that carrot out in front of them, constantly challenging/pushing them to get better.”
Designing a racing sim that’s inviting to newbies, yet realistic and deep enough to satisfy the core audience, is something of a Holy Grail for developers, and in pursuing that dream it’s all too easy to wind up leaving both sets of consumers unhappy. Like many producers, Martin doesn’t want to frighten off new sim fans with a game that doesn’t make provisions for their limited skill levels.
Take car setup, for instance. Learning the ins and outs of car setup can be intimidating, as Martin is well aware. “The ‘overwhelm’ issue was a guiding edict behind normal mode,” he says. “We don’t want to scare people away, but we also want to offer more and more depth as people get better at the game and for those that are already experienced racing gamers when they buy our game. So, in normal mode, the car setup options are limited, while in expert mode, they are very detailed. In fact, the garage is a facet of the game that our chief technical advisor, Bobby Labonte, essentially designed. In the end, if you can adjust it on a real Winston Cup car – physically and legally based on NASCAR rules – you can do it in NASCAR Heat in expert mode.”
Even in the press demo, it’s easy to tell which mode you’re driving in: Normal mode offers stick-like-glue traction, forgiving damage models (especially to the engine), and a pack that veterans will slice through like a hot knife through butter until they reach the frontrunners. But if things get too easy before you’re ready to step up to realistic 3D physics (a first in NASCAR sims – Papyrus has modeled only 2D physics in the NASCAR Racing series), you can always adjust the strength of the field for an even wilder ride. For veterans, NASCAR Heat’s expert mode offers a highly realistic physics model that punishes you fully for mistakes like heading too deep into turns before easing off the throttle or forgetting how drafting works when you swing out from behind someone’s rear to pass. An especially nice touch is the modeling of G-forces as you accelerate, brake, and turn, with your perspective moving in the appropriate direction based on the action.
On top of that, says Martin, the AI for computer racers will adjust automatically to your performance. “The game really does adjust the driving style of the AI – and it constantly adjusts throughout the race,” he says. “Let’s say you start a race at the back of the pack of 43 cars. Most people will find it pretty easy to get past some of the cars toward the back. But as you move up, you’ll find stiffer and more aggressive competition.” And he’s not kidding about the aggressive part either: These guys will trade paint with you almost as soon as the flag drops.
NASCAR Heat naturally features options to run single races and enter a championship season, but where it truly expands on the Papyrus paradigm is in its Beat the Heat challenges and Race the Pro modes. Race the Pro lets you race laps against real Winston Cup drivers – not against the drivers’ real-life performances, but their video game performances. “We had a dozen of them spend time playing NASCAR Heat, and we recorded their best laps,” says Martin, “and we reproduce those as ghost-car images on the track so you can go head-to-head with them.”
That’s a pretty cool feature, but even more exciting are the Beat the Heat challenges. These comprise over three dozen scenarios that are fun, challenging, and actually educational in that they gradually introduce you to the nuances of NASCAR. “The final product has 36 challenges, plus three Easter egg challenges,” Martin says. “They range from the early stages of getting around a few turns at Daytona to the latter stages where you’re dropped into re-creations of some of the most exciting, intense, and difficult reproductions of actual events from Winston Cup races. Want to face the last ten laps of this year’s Daytona 500? You can, and it’s very cool!” Each challenge features a video intro by the voice of NASCAR on MRN, Allan Bestwick (who also does race broadcasts for NBC), and a dozen of them include drivers like Earnhardts (Dale and Junior), Jeff Gordon, and even Richard Petty.
Aside from the excellent video tutorials of CART Precision Racing, no other full-blown sim has featured anything like the Beat the Heat challenges of NASCAR Heat. Oddly enough, though, the biggest reason for its inclusion can be traced to video games. “The inspiration for the BTH challenges came from a couple of very diverse sources,” notes Martin, “the first being Gran Turismo. The licensing stuff that they put in there was always one of my favorite features. Not only was it fun and challenging, but it helped you master the game without realizing you were being taught – always the best way to learn. At the other extreme, the inspiration came from Atari (Hasbro owns the Atari brand/line of games). Part of the magic to those games has always been the addictive nature. You start going, and if you mess up, you can quickly figure out why and get back to that point in a hurry – on to the next hurdle as it were. Joined at the hip to that premise is the ‘five-minute rule,’ where it’s really easy to figure out the basics of those games and get sucked into them quickly. We wanted that type of magic in NASCAR Heat: easy to get into, difficult to master, and always quick, addictive gameplay.”
NASCAR Heat will feature 28 real-life teams and 19 Winston Cup tracks – a little short of reality, but a good lineup nonetheless, particularly for a newcomer to the NASCAR Racing scene like Hasbro. Graphically, NASCAR Heat’s 3D-accelerated graphics are almost a match for NASCAR 2000’s photo-realistic cars, but they generally deliver better frame rates at the game’s maximum resolution of 1280×1024. Not included in the press demo, but planned for the final release, is a paint kit for customizing your own cars.
Martin says the minimum system requirements are a P2-233, 32MB RAM, 8x CD-ROM, and a Direct3D-compatible video board (at least 4MB AGP), and that the recommended requirements won’t be much higher – it’s not set in stone, but he says it’ll run just fine on a 350MHz Pentium II.
Martin won’t go into specifics of how Internet matchups will be handled, but he says there are “extensive multiplayer plans for NASCAR Heat and other products under our licensing agreement with NASCAR. For the initial incarnation of NASCAR Heat, we’re locked to eight-player TCP/IP support. Expect more to come down the road, though – remember that Rich Garcia and I were the guys that lead the NASCAR Racing Online Series at Papyrus, so we have a little experience and interest in multiplayer!”
Dethroning Papyrus NASCAR sim kings won’t be easy, but Martin feels there’s a huge market that’s not being reached. “For us, Papyrus titles are NASCAR driving sims. That’s great, and we offer competitive [simulation] features in Heat – better than NASCAR 3, and arguably better than what we’ve seen in NASCAR 4. But we feel there’s a lot more to NASCAR than what Papyrus and EA have done so far.
“Over 100 million people per year watch NASCAR on television or attend events, yet the best-selling NASCAR titles to date have sold about a million units. That means 99 percent of the fans out there haven’t been ‘grabbed’ by the games. Divide that 100 million by whatever ‘believability figure’ you want and cross-reference it against the fans out there that own a PC or a PlayStation [NASCAR Heat is also being developed for the PlayStation], and you’ve got a situation where there are a lot more fans that haven’t bought a game so far than the ones that have.”
Martin feels the declining sales of both Papyrus PC sims and EA’s PlayStation products are further proof- down by around 70 percent and 50 percent respectively – that fans are looking for something new and different. We’ll see if he’s right this August, when NASCAR Heat for the PC hits store shelves. And look for the PS version in early November.
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