After what can only be described as a tumultuous opening number in the form of 2021’s NASCAR 21: Ignition, the developers have gone back to the drawing board for 2023’s lineup of expected racing releases.
Despite this, however, it still managed to send out a racing title. Rivals, however, is solely for the Nintendo Switch portable console.
Much like last year’s hybrid device release, NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+, NASCAR Rivals looks to be mostly derived from the elder NASCAR Heat game code.
A proven title, NASCAR Heat 5, which was published by Motorsport Games and developed by 704 Games, is still utilized today by gaming race fans. That’s part of the reason why Heat 5, released in 2020, will get the 2022 update in the near future.
More of a mix between Heat and some of the, few, finer points of Ignition, NASCAR Rivals is a case of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. Of course, there are some nuances which had me scratching my head. For the most part, though, Rivals feels like what I think a NASCAR Heat 6 could have been.
A familiar single-player experience
This new game includes the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. You’ll find all the current drivers, teams, schedule and cars in the form of the NASCAR Next Gen.
Rivals includes a full career mode, single-player quick races, split-screen multiplayer, online multiplayer (as long as you’re subscribed to Nintendo Switch online), challenges and customization screens for driver and car creation. Local multiplayer via Bluetooth was mentioned during the initial reveal, but will now be arriving post-launch via an update.
If players have ever gone through a career in the 2021 content side of NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+, NASCAR Rivals’ career will feel pretty much exactly the same.
Join a team if you just want to race, or start up a new franchise where you’ll have to wear the team owner hat at times. Starting a team will require hiring people, upgrading cars, balancing finances and managing other aspects of ownership.
Team managers must keep sponsors happy, setting and meeting goals that are attainable at whatever level they happen to be at. The happier they are, the more opportunities arise and the more money they’ll make.
There’s just the Cup Series, no Xfinity, Trucks or Xtreme Dirt anymore… even though you might still see some remnants of those series as a part of the career on certain screens, likely assets that were forgotten. Awkward.
NASCAR Heat 5 and previous titles had all of that. Ever since NASCAR 21: Ignition, each title and the additional update have only been focused on the Cup Series – although, the team has had to develop all-new vehicles.
I know it might be a long shot, but here’s an idea: Now that NASCAR has ARCA under their umbrella, a future title could throw in ARCA as a stock car career starting point. Certainly, it’s something I’d like to see, baking in more career progression.
I’ve looked over the Challenge mode up and down and I can’t make heads or tails of what some of these challenges are trying to imply. For older NASCAR racing games, with challenge-like systems in place, the driver whose car you’d be getting in would be the challenging driver.
That’s not the case for a lot of these Rivals levels, in fact, some challenges are challenged by a driver that’s not even remotely involved in the scenario.
There are 20 of them, ranging from trying to work to the lead, trying to maintain the lead, missing accidents and much more all in between. Some are a good deal of fun, while others feel nearly impossible to complete.
Players receive a challenge rating, but I’m not quite sure what this score is good for. There doesn’t seem to be any reward for getting more than the bare minimum score.
To see amongst friends who completed the challenge better, perhaps, via a leaderboard, would be a welcome addition. Gone are the days when a successful challenge would unlock something cool in the game. For elements like a track or paint scheme, wouldn’t it be cool to see Thunder Plates return?
As mentioned, while the majority of the driving and base of NASCAR Rivals comes straight from the previous NASCAR Heat titles, there is some influence of NASCAR 21: Ignition found within. The menus are all new and while it isn’t Ignition’s layout, it clearly takes inspiration from it.
The Paint Booth is almost exactly ripped from Ignition, with the ability to customize base schemes, place and resize logos and change up the numbers fairly in-depth. This in turn is a step forward compared to last season’s Switch release.
While these options allow for more complex scheme creations, it would have been nice to include some pre-made bases or the ability to share online. It’s a minor gripe I shared when Ignition was released.
GOOD OL’ FRIENDLY, AND RIVALED, COMPETITION
I’ve talked about the peripheries, but how does the Switch controller hold up against previous titles? Is it at least a fun game to drive? The answer is sure, if you’ve enjoyed the previous NASCAR Heat titles.
On the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons, it’s perfectly agreeable, given you find your optimum settings to match your skill level and driving style.
The AI seems more in tune with what’s happening all around the player. The racing looks realistic to a point where AI drivers will spread out or pack up depending on what track and who the drivers are.
Returning to the game is the drafting help feature. No buttons necessary, it automatically appears when a friendly driver gets in front of or behind the player. Adversaries will also look to trip you up, Denny Hamlin on Ross Chastain style. Don’t make too many enemies out there otherwise, they may turn into ‘rivals’. It’s in the game’s name, after all…
More driver assists mean you’ll go slower, but you might have more control. Taking off some of the training wheels, especially on a Joy-Con setup, might be tough at first but it’s worth weaning off of those aids for a quicker pace.
The Next Gen cars have the five-gear sequential set-up, although if you’re not in manual shifting mode, you might run into some weird shifting issues where the car might not get out of fourth gear, also setting the car up to overheat.
Multiplayer is also a battleground to partake in, but these aren’t AI rivals, these are real people. Well, that’s unless you turn on AI, then they’ll still be computer opponents…
Again, nothing new here, it’s the same as the NASCAR Heat days. Just note that if you wreck a real person here, they might swing back even harder. Or kick you if they’re the party leader of the lobby. You can browse a lobby list, and the host can select various parameters in a way a NASCAR 21: Ignition player can only dream of.
Fundamentally, Rivals isn’t groundbreaking, more of a serviceable upgrade. In this respect, it’s no different than what EA Sports with its Madden franchise or 2K with its NBA franchise put out on a yearly basis – essentially the same game, just updated with some new features and content pertaining to the year.
Sometimes, franchises go backwards in development. With the expanded Paint Booth, 2022 Cup Series roster, noticeably improved lighting effects and returning Heat elements, I’d say NASCAR Rivals moved the needle forward ever so slightly while it also could have provided so much more in the same breath.
Solid if unspectacular
It is a shame that this title isn’t coming to Xbox or PlayStation. I’d probably play it regularly on my PlayStation 5 just to get my NASCAR gaming fill. Still, a portable NASCAR game is pretty nifty. It’s been nice to chill in any room of my apartment and play it whenever. I’ll likely pack it for my next road trip.
While NASCAR Heat 4 or 5 weren’t my favorite games for multiple reasons, the foundation was strong enough to withstand a legitimate esports series. The physics are bland, but they work and make sense for the accessible Switch platform.
I think that’s the biggest takeaway for NASCAR fans – having a working game after last year.
I think playing this on a wheel would be a fun thing to do. A wheel does exist for the Nintendo Switch, made by Hori, and I did try it out with Rivals. Unfortunately, while it did work in some capacity with some in-game settings tweaking, it was definitely not optimized. Worked great for Mario Kart though!
This very well could be the end of the line for the NASCAR Heat game base. Of course, it may also live on within the Nintendo Switch platform as well in the future. Whatever 2023 holds, hopefully, any momentum from the good parts of NASCAR Rivals is taken into consideration for future games.
NASCAR Rivals, exclusively on the Nintendo Switch, is available as of 14th October 2022. It retails for $49.99 from major retailers physically and digitally through the Nintendo eShop. A Nintendo Switch Online subscription is required to access the online Multiplayer.
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