NASCAR 21: Ignition feels more like a pileup than a fast-paced race – hands-on impressions

Motorsports Games has taken full control of its license to make NASCAR sim games, but did it produce in its first game?

Image via Motorsports Games

The NASCAR Heat franchise was a short-lived one, and the series throughout its short history underwent a number of changes. Namely, the series became property of Motorsports Games, with the last title of the franchise launching in the summer of 2020. Since then, the NASCAR gaming world has been turned on its head, as Motorsports Games went full-throttle towards making a brand-new, state of the art racing simulation. The company ditched 704 Games, and bought the studio that made the rFactor racing games.

Fast forward to October 2021, and Motorsports Games is ready to unveil the first game of its new franchise, titling it NASCAR 21: Ignition. Unfortunately, the flaws of this game makes it fair to wonder as to whether now was the right time.

A bizarre racing experience

Throughout the summer and fall, Motorsports Games touted that NASCAR 21: Ignition would usher in a new era in racing games. Among some of the talking points included a refined racing experience, one that would be powered by the Unreal Engine. The publisher and developer stated that this, coupled with the minds behind the rFactor franchise, would create a game that would have great gameplay, and a dynamic and challenging AI.

The actual product, however, doesn’t seem to reflect any of that. NASCAR 21: Ignition looks visually appealing, especially when using a quality PC or a current-gen console. But that’s really where the positives end.

NASCAR 21: Ignition’s gameplay is riddled with deficiencies. For one, steering in this game feels very off. On some courses, turns just seem flat out impossible, while in other instances, vehicles seem to gravitate towards the wall like it’s metal attracted to a magnet. This could be related to the fact that as of launch date, there is no option to shut off the assist, even though the game’s menus indicate that this is possible,

Second, reeling off fast laps in qualifying rounds seems next to near impossible. The AI takes control of the car for the very early stages of the round before giving you control of the vehicle right when you cross the checkered line to begin your time. This might not seem like a problem, until you realize that you’ve lost somewhere between 10 to 20 MPH during the transition.

Other problems include a lack of a properly functioning AI, and an issue where a caution flag will not be thrown despite a pile-up of cars on the track. Unless you like wacky crashes and train-trailing like sequences, the gameplay at launch is anything but smooth.

An omittance of sorts

Another core issue of NASCAR 21: Ignition is that it just feels that so many other things have been left out of the title. Setups, for one, can’t be customized at all. At the start of a race, you have to pick from one of five setups, ranging from the tightest of ones to the loosest one possible.

Button remapping is not a thing in NASCAR 21: Ignition, and neither is custom lobbies. Unlike in the NASCAR Heat franchise, players will not be able to create custom rooms to invite players and set a playlist of races to participate in. Instead, players are herded into two different online head-to-head modes.

This change is a major one for those who have friends who love NASCAR and games, as well as those who play in leagues. Its omittance from NASCAR 21: Ignition, quite frankly, is just mystifying. 

What does work?

NASCAR 21: Ignition does get a few things right, namely its paint customization mode and parts of its Career mode. Ignition’s career mode does a decent job of replicating the racing weekend experience, as players can go through the various practices, plus the qualifying lap and, of course, the actual race. And, the implementation of contracts and agents does add some needed realism.

While other additions would help, like controlling your team’s Research & Development functions, and seeing your driver celebrate after a win,t it’s far from the top issue at this point.

An overview

After hours with this game, one question hit me harder than anything else: should this title have gone live right now? It’s fair to ask that question regarding a game that falls flat in the most important areas. It doesn’t matter if the menus and AI look good, or if a title has a good soundtrack. Even if the graphics make the game pop, it’s not worth much if the game not only fails to replicate what it’s supposed to, but is also filled with bugs that really drive down the experience. 

It’s also fair to wonder whether it would have made more sense to release a NASCAR game in the spring, when the season begins, as opposed to late October, a time that signifies the end of the racing year. In fact, that probably should have been the mindset, but it’s too late to think about that.

To me, it’s very clear that NASCAR 21 will need more work. No, Motorsports Games can’t put this back in the bottle, but it will need to take its time and clean up the fires that have been created here. The AI needs more tuning, and players need to be given more control of their cars. Setups, speed, and steering are all critical to racing, and having virtually no control of any of these parts drags down the overall game.

It certainly looks like the development team has begun to do that, as a series of patches have already been released. But it will take time, and those who are interested in a new NASCAR game need to be aware that at launch, NASCAR 21: Ignition does not feel like a finished product.