The relationship between NASCAR games and NASCAR fans has been complicated at best. I started playing NASCAR games as a plucky seven year old back in 2000 and I have continued to play long into my twenties. I have experienced such gems such as NASCAR Thunder 2003 and 2004, experienced the brilliant mediocrity of NASCAR ‘14 and ‘15 and I experienced the abomination known as NASCAR Heat: Evolution. Nothing prepared me for the flaming dumpster fire that was headed my way.
Back in October, I celebrated my twenty-eighth birthday and my wife had given me $100.00 to buy anything I wanted. I had seen trailers for months detailing the beautiful new graphics and seemingly deep experience of NASCAR ‘21: Ignition. Without hesitation, I pre-ordered the “Champions Edition” featuring Bill Elliott on the cover, and a season pass for all DLC to follow. I then hunkered down for a week and awaited the arrival of my new game.
This was going to be it. For the past five years leading up to the release of NASCAR ‘21: Ignition, the series had an agreement with Charlotte-based 704 Games, and they developed the NASCAR Heat Series. This series was always good, but not great and it never made any sort of advances that set it apart from other games. This new game was supposed to raise the bar, as all new video games in a series are expected to do. Naturally, I had really high expectations. I never expected what I found when I booted up this game for the first time.
I was floored by the lack of private lobbies for league play, the completely clueless AI, the poor Heads-Up Display that couldn’t even accurately tell me how much fuel was in the car. Glitches such as the car randomly slowing and getting rear ended by the pack and more basically made the game unplayable. This is not to mention the fact that there was not even a rear view mirror inside the car or an option to display one.
Despite all of this, I was patient. I told myself that this was just how video games were released now. I kept telling myself, “this has the potential to be the best NASCAR game ever, with the right patches.” Patches are modifications of software placed in a game to improve or add to it, according to PC Magazine. Patches are a very common part of modern game development, and they happen for every single game in order to improve them.
Little did I know, my patience was misplaced.
The first patch was put in the game the same day as it was released. This patch made a few small improvements such as fixing audio and visual glitches and that allowed the game to be somewhat playable, but many of the same problems still exist. To date, there have been seven patches made to NASCAR ‘21: Ignition, and while the game has come a long way since it was released in October, there are still major problems with it. The AI drivers at certain tracks, like Dover and Bristol Dirt are wildly inconsistent and aggressive, no matter what difficulty setting you’re playing. They’ve finally introduced stages, but the playoff points you earn don’t calculate correctly, causing a wildly unfair experience.
Oh, and there still isn’t a rear view mirror and you can’t tell if you need to pit or not, because the HUD still doesn’t tell you your fuel level or the status of your tires.
Motorsports Games hasn’t really done much to alleviate the bad feelings from the community towards this game. At times it seems they have tried to appease fans by introducing the “Legendary” DLC packs, which has brought Matt Kenseth, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Labonte into the game, as well as fan-favorite paint schemes from the 2021 season. The car drives incredibly realistically, and you honestly can feel what it feels like to drive a stock car careening around a corner on most tracks while playing with a controller. The road course racing is the best it’s ever been in any NASCAR game. COTA and Watkins Glen are especially fun tracks to race, when the AI drivers aren’t hitting curbs and flipping over. That’s really more hilarious than game breaking, so I’m personally okay with it. I really think the bones are here for a really great experience, but the developers are incapable of getting out of their own way.
In January, Motorsports Games hosted a “Town Hall” style Q&A to interact with the community and hopefully restore some good will. While a solid idea, it was absolutely a farce. Director of Design Paul Coleman was asked about several quality of life improvements including adding a rear view mirror. His answer, “NASCAR 21: Ignition was originally planned to be a release for “next gen” consoles, but during development, we saw that sales for those consoles were way down. So, we realized that most of our players would be on “previous gen” consoles and we made the difficult decision to scale the game back…we are hoping to add mirrors in the upcoming “next gen” upgrade coming later this year but if you are running on the lower end PS4 or Xbox then you won’t have mirror in NASCAR 21.”
Now keep in mind, PC versions have a rearview mirror in the cockpit view. Also, keep in mind that every single NASCAR game that has been developed over the last twenty plus years has had rearview mirror functionality. The next question Coleman answered was about the HUD, and if they would be improving it, he replied with this gem. “The approach we wanted to take was one of authenticity. I feel as though so many games out there today are just play by numbers, you see all the information delivered to you in the HUD and you’re able to react to it…In the real world, there’s no tire wear indicator and all you get for fuel is a fuel pressure warning indicator before you have to switch over to your reserves. So you have to rely on your crew chief to assist with strategy and have them help you make choices.”
My reaction to both of these answers is the same. It’s all poorly fleshed out corporate spin coated with awful excuses. My fingers are literally trembling with anger as I type this. I don’t understand game development, and I don’t claim to be a computer programmer. I have played these games my whole life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the basic gameplay feature of a rear view mirror. It’s just not acceptable. I sort of understand the idea of realism affecting the lack of features on the HUD, but if you’re gonna do that, provide us with an AI crew chief that can accurately relay what your pit window is and when you should expect tire wear to kick in. In F1: 2021, a Formula One game, this feature has been standard for years, and honestly I think it’s awesome because it adds realism. I don’t understand why Motorsports Games couldn’t add a similar feature.
There were several other questions that Coleman answered in the Town Hall video, but those two stuck out to me as examples of just how poorly crafted this game was from the start. The worst part about all of this, is that this game has absolutely killed league racing for me. That was a large part of the reason I bought the game in the first place. I’ve been racing in various console leagues for a long time, and it has provided me with some of my favorite gaming memories. When the game first released, you couldn’t even set up a private lobby to race with your friends and could only race with eight other random players on a random track. Since then, private lobbies have been added but you still can’t select basic things that provide for league racing, such as custom setups, race length, track selection, and wear settings. A lot of my friends in the community have gone back to the previous game, NASCAR Heat 5, to run their leagues. While Heat 5 is a solid game, it’s mediocre at best and I didn’t really enjoy it all that much. NASCAR ‘21: Ignition has a virtually non-existent multiplayer community, and that’s just unacceptable.
The point I’m trying to really make is that the NASCAR gaming community as a whole has got to make a stand if the next game is on par with the current one. If Motorsports Games continues to put out products like this, we simply can’t just be complacent. We can’t just be glad to have a game to play. We have to show our displeasure with our wallets and not buy these games. Period. Maybe then we can be given a proper game with most of the basic features we are accustomed to, at least. I requested a refund a few days after the Town Hall. Unfortunately I can’t be granted one, because I purchased the game off the PS Store on PS4. Now I just simply stare at the icon for it on my home screen, hoping that the next time I invest in a NASCAR game, it’ll give me the happiness you should expect from the official game of the greatest sport in America.
Featured image from the official Twitter account of NASCAR 21: Ignition