NASCAR is not the most universal of motorsports. For many it is just seen as turning left until someone crashes, but there is an artistry and a skill to NASCAR racing along with occasional right turns too.
With COTA, Watkins Glen, and Indianapolis Road Course on the 2021 calendar, NASCAR 21 Ignition had the opportunity to provide a highly unique piece of gaming. Could it create compelling oval racing while also giving players the track racing that is of such high quality everywhere else?
This review was conducted on PC with both wheel and controller. The publisher did not provide a review copy.
Let's start with the on-track action, which isn't that bad.
Oval racing is far from my favourite category, but NASCAR 21 Ignition does a decent job of emphasising the deft touch required to race in a pack.
With steering that requires you to angle to go straight and then hold the wheel level for banked corners it can require some getting used to. Once you are more familiar with how to control it, you can have a good oval race. The AI jockey for position well, and you can feel the difference between being in the draft and out. That said the pack rarely separates into a lead pack and secondary one. If you race for long enough it can string out into one long line of cars, which is no good either.
On the road courses things are less impressive. The AI feels on rails, while the car becomes a handful, especially with assists turned off. Of course flying through COTA and the Daytona Road Course is always fun but there are markedly better experiences out there for those circuits, especially for PC players.
There are plenty of weaknesses in the AI too, as they just won't stop if you are sideways on the road. They also won't bump in packs and generally feel less "alive" than most other AI opponents out there.
Overall, the racing just doesn't do it for me. Sitting behind my wheel making marginal steering and throttle inputs for lap after lap is not particularly fun.
There is also an incredible number of drawbacks throughout the game.
NASCAR 21 Ignition is priced like a AAA title, but feels like something you would come across in a bowling alley arcade.
Menus are incredibly basic, setups are practically non-existent, and there are plenty of options you would expect to find that are just missing.
The biggest problem with the quality of life on the game is that it is just barely wheel compatible. You can drive with a wheel (in our case the trusty Thrustmaster TMX) but you can't navigate the menus with your wheel on PC, so you'll need your mouse and keyboard close to hand. There aren't even any key binding options though, so even if you do go racing on a wheel, pausing the game or setting pit options is out.
On controller you need to use medium steering assist or just getting from one banked turn to another is practically impossible. Even there though, you can't rebind your layout to suit.
The intro to the track becomes incredibly repetitive quickly, with your crew chief handing you a tablet to make your setup selections on. It can take an age to get out on track, which feels awful. There is also no penalty for corner-cutting anywhere.
If you take on the Daytona Road Course you can just happily cut out the chicanes and carry on without penalty, even in Career Mode.
The most basic Career Mode in years
Most Career Modes in racing games have some sort of progression system. Be it MotoGP's rise through the junior ranks or F1's R&D system, you can usually have some sort of journey to the top.
With NASCAR 21 Ignition you simply sign with any team you want, and then go racing. There's no development options, no junior series to win first, nothing.
It's basically queuing a playlist of sessions for you to work through and that's it.
There is also one solitary save spot, so you can't even let a friend, housemate, or sibling run a career alongside you.
NASCAR 21 Ignition might be the worst racing game we have played in a while.
There is a nugget of a good game under the hood, but it is severely limited by a highly frustrating experience. Getting to track is a mess, with menus that are slow to load, annoying to navigate, and lacking basic functionality.
If you get out on track and want to remove ABS or try a lower traction control you have to back all the way out to the main menu. If you select a camera angle in the menus it will not carry through to the track. The AI difficulty level only has a few options rather than an incremental slider, meaning you can quickly find yourself running away with a race or falling way off the pace.
There is nothing special or innovative about NASCAR 21 Ignition. It wouldn't feel out of place on a PS2 with its simplistic presentation and minimalist gameplay. Even with graphics settings set to Ultra the game was visually unimpressive.
Most of my problems with the game can't be fixed with patches. I didn't encounter many bugs in my play at all, the problems are more fundamental. It's like the developers simply didn't try to make a good or compelling game. There is no interesting mechanic to explore, no under-the-hood work to do in Career Mode. It is a title that just go on track and race. That's fine for a true sim title, but NASCAR 21 Ignition isn't that.
Don't buy this game. Don't let your friends buy this game.
RacingGames Rating: 3/10