Since the day I was born, motorsports have been my passion. I’ve loved NASCAR dating back to the days of the Gen-4 car that so many racing fans miss these days. Later down the line, I developed a love for IndyCar and then, Formula 1.
During the time I’ve watched races on TV, I developed an enjoyment of playing racing games. From the PlayStation 2, the Nintendo Wii, to the Xbox One S, there hasn’t been a gaming system I didn’t play a racing game on, and I’m gonna talk about all the good, the bad and the ugly from my experience.
My racing game career began with the gold standards of the PC NASCAR Racing 2003 and NASCAR Thunder 2004. I can still hear Three Days Grace’s “I Hate Everything About You” blaring at the intro. Ah, good times. My grandmother actually owned NR2003 so I had to go over to her house all the time and played on her computer for hours on end. What made NR2003 special was its physics, the damage model and the creative freedom users had. It was way ahead of its time, which I why you see some YouTubers play it now, and it’s the basis for iRacing.
NASCAR Thunder 2004 is just a classic. It possessed the perfect balance of sim and arcade. The A.I. was competitive if you set your difficulty correct and while the physics weren’t top-notch, you didn’t mind because you thoroughly enjoyed the actual racing that took place.
Electronic Arts followed up the NASCAR Thunder series with two exquisite games in Chase For the Cup and Total Team Control. Again, games that balanced arcade and sim perfectly.
Then, there came this odd era in the late 2000s when EA decided to incorporate ESPN graphics in the NASCAR games similar to what you would see the NCAA Football series(I miss you..).
After 2008, EA gave up the license for NASCAR games and we then were without a major NASCAR game release until 2011. During this time, I filled my racing desires with stuff from the Cars franchise and the glorious Mario Kart Wii. Playing with the wheel on Mario Kart Wii is still one of the best experiences I’ve had in a racing game. I think the turning radius that could be pulled off in the game is one of the most accurate and so much better than trying to feather a console controller joystick.
Maybe I had to do with falling out of love for NASCAR for a short period of time, but I never really got around to the Eutechnyx era of NASCAR games. I did play NASCAR ’15, which was fine, but the A.I. was pretty easy to defeat and I found much more enjoyment out of Real Racing 3 on my iPhone, which felt like a game-changer for mobile gaming. Great graphics, great physics and great A.I. were apparent in this game and I though this could be a route racing fans choose in the future, but this game seemed to be an enigma of mobile apps as NASCAR tried their hand in mobile gaming and failed tremendously.
Still not finding any enjoyment in NASCAR games, I then fell in love with Forza Motorsport 7, which took on many forms of racing and was a visual masterpiece.
Today, I can gladly say I’ve returned to NASCAR gaming in the form of NASCAR Heat 2, 3 and 4. Heat 4 is the best of the franchise. Unfortunately, Heat 5 wasn’t a finished game and it’s impossible to control your car at all unless you do have an entire rig with the wheel, base and pedals.
To make up for Heat 5’s downfall, Formula 1 and Codemasters came through with one of the best games ever in F1 2020. “My Team” is one of the best racing game features ever with the ability to add an 11th team to the grid and bring up a driver from F2. I love the immersion of a race weekend and how I can be in the paddock, make my own setups and actually watch practice as well if I’m not on track. It’s a perfect game, although, there are points of telemetry for the A.I. if I do get aggressive trying to pass in the corners.
Although racing video games don’t have much effect on my love for motorsports, I can credit NASCAR Heat 2 for re-igniting my investment in every NASCAR race weekend when I tailed off in the early 2010s.
The biggest problem with racing games is that it is becoming full sim these days and it isn’t accessible for the casual race fan. Sure, you can customize the experience to your liking, but for the racing purists, we need to have the full simulation rig to feel like we are actually racing. The regular console controller doesn’t really feel like I’m driving a car. Another problem is the lack of respect from online lobbies. Everybody just wants to wreck each other and be stupid and it makes online gaming unbearable.
In the future, I think sim rigs are going to play a major role in racing games if they haven’t already. I’d also like to see a game similar to NR2003 where we could just watch a simulated race play out without having to participate in it, but that is unlikely with iRacing being as popular as it is at the moment.
Racing games are incredibly fun. You don’t just have to play a series-specific game to get into it. You can play a crossover like Forza, Gran Turismo or Real Racing and have a respect for how hard it is to be good at these games. There’s something for everyone to enjoy and hopefully, these racing games can bring in more fans to watch racing series in the coming years.