NASCAR Rivals Review: Repairing the damage

With Motorsport Games taking over the NASCAR game license from NASCAR Heat developer Monster Games, NASCAR 21 Ignition was meant to be a fresh start for the series.

Instead, it was a colossal car crash, with a barebones career mode, subpar graphics and driving physics, and game-breaking glitches. Game updates have improved the experience since then, adding Stages, private parties, and Next Gen cars while fixing the most serious bugs. But the damage to the series’ reputation is already done.

Wisely, Motorsport Games has sent the series back to the pits for a tune-up and is postponing the next mainline game until 2023, hopefully bringing a better-quality game. As a result, there is no official NASCAR 22 game on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox this year. Instead, NASCAR 21 Ignition received a free 2022 Season Expansion adding the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series cars and drivers.

Motorsport Games has released a new NASCAR game this year, however. Out now exclusively for Nintendo Switch, NASCAR Rivals is the only officially licensed 2022 NASCAR Cup Series game. But can it repair the damage done to the series by NASCAR 21 Ignition?

Turning up the Heat

This isn’t the first Nintendo Switch NASCAR game. 2020 saw the release of NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+, a Switch port of NASCAR Heat 5 with all DLC included.

NASCAR Rivals review
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NASCAR Rivals is essentially an enhanced version of Heat Ultimate Edition+ with new features borrowed from NASCAR 21 Ignition. As a result, Rivals runs on NASCAR Heat’s older but more reliable game engine instead of Ignition’s rFactor 2-based engine.

Graphically, NASCAR Rivals is a step up from Heat Ultimate Edition+, with sharper vehicle models and improved lighting casting reflections on cars giving the game a cleaner look, though there is some visual pop-in. Whether playing in handheld or docked mode, performance is surprisingly stable with no noticeable slowdown - even with a full grid of 40 cars jostling for position.

NASCAR Rivals review
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Being the official game of the 2022 season, NASCAR Rivals is based on the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series, with all the current teams, drivers, and the redesigned NASCAR Next Gen cars introduced this year.

Thanks to its lack of analogue triggers for acceleration and braking, the Nintendo Switch isn’t well-suited for realistic racers. With driving assists on, this isn’t an issue in NASCAR Rivals.

Steering is sharp and responsive, allowing you to execute strategic drafts and move up the pack. But with assists off, controlling the car is significantly more challenging. Without analogue throttle and braking controls, recovering from spinning when the tyres lose traction is more difficult than it should be.

Fun but familiar

If you’ve ever played a NASCAR Heat game, the career mode will feel strikingly familiar. Events are split into practice, qualifying, and race sessions. You can skip straight to the main race, but this will place you at the back of the grid.

NASCAR Rivals review
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When starting a new career, Rivals invites you to either drive for a current team or create your own. Managing your own team is more involving, requiring you to hire staff, upgrade equipment, and manage finances.

As you progress, completing race objectives and keeping sponsors happy will result in contract offers with more lucrative rewards. It’s not groundbreaking but an improvement over Ignition’s lacklustre career, which doesn’t let you create your own team.

Aggressive driving affects your reputation and relationship with other drivers. Ram into an opponent or accidentally spin someone out, and you’ll receive a message from your rival complaining about the incident, giving you the option to apologise or provoke them. This adds immersion but doesn’t noticeably affect their driving style like GRID Legends’ Driver Nemesis system, sadly.

NASCAR Rivals review
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Outside of career mode, NASCAR Heat’s Challenges mode returns with 20 fun challenges inspired by NASCAR racing scenarios, from finishing a race on low fuel to avoiding multi-car pileups.

NASCAR 21 Ignition’s improved paint booth is also included, allowing you to change paint colours and add race numbers and decals from a selection of pre-made designs including sponsor logos, shapes, and stripes to create custom paint schemes. This is a much-needed upgrade over the limited customisation options in last year’s Switch NASCAR game.

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NASCAR Revals review
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Not the complete package

With all the 2022 Cup Series teams and drivers coupled with a revamped career mode, online multiplayer for up to 16 players, and split screen, NASCAR Rivals sounds like a complete package. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Xtreme Dirt, Gander Trucks and Xfinity Series races aren’t in NASCAR Rivals – despite being included in NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+ on Switch. With only the Cup Series to compete in, NASCAR Rivals leaves you feeling short-changed.

It doesn’t help that NASCAR Heat 5 is also getting the 2022 Season expansion with the updated drivers and Next Gen cars as paid DLC, but this won't be available for NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+.

Switch players are getting the short straw here: if you already own NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+ and want to drive the new Next Gen cars on Switch, Rivals is your only option. It feels like a DLC expansion rather than a full-price game. 

NASCAR Rivals doesn’t do anything remarkable, but it delivers a solid NASCAR racing experience on Switch. This is one of the better NASCAR games released in the last few years and a considerable improvement over NASCAR 21 Ignition.

NASCAR Rivals also benefits from being a Switch-exclusive as there’s a distinct lack of serious racers on the platform other than GRID Autosport.

But with no meaningful upgrades aside from the 2022 cars and drivers, better graphics, and an expanded Paint Booth, there’s not enough new content here to warrant the full price tag if you already own NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+.

RacingGames Rating: 7/10

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