NASCAR Heat 2002 features an interesting blend of racing styles. It can feel like a simulation while at the same time creating the illusion of an arcade racer. The physics of the game definitely lean toward the simulation side, but the weak damage model spoils the feeling of a true sim and opens the game up for the arcade-style crowd. While it will appeal to fans of NASCAR racing (and those PS2 owners who are looking for a solid NASCAR experience), it will probably appeal more to the less hard-core racing fan and to those who can ignore the game's slim damage model.
The game has four single-player options immediately available. Two of these are the requisite single and championship race options, without which no NASCAR game can function. The other two modes are the beat-the-heat and race-the-pro modes, which are the more original options of the four. Race the pro lets you go head-to-head with the ghost car apparition of one of the 11 drivers available for this mode. This mode also lets you tweak the realism setting for each match by letting you visit the garage to customize your car.
Beat the heat is the mode that the NASCAR Heat series of games is most known for. In this mode, you progress through six tiers of difficulty, with each tier containing six challenges for a total of 36. The first and easiest tier contains the more simple actions to complete: from a single turn to a pitstop or even the use of the brakes. The first two tiers are essentially a training mode to get you up to speed and let you learn the control of your car, while the later challenges are much more difficult and become as challenging as the championship mode.
There are a total of 25 drivers that fill out the cast, as well as 19 Winston Cup tracks--just shy of the actual 23 tracks that exist in reality. Several of the most well-known drivers populate the list, including Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and Rusty Wallace. Also included in this list is the late Dale Earnhart Sr.'s real-life replacement, Kevin Harvick.
The control of the game is tight even on the default setting. Boosting the realism to "expert" makes the game control much more realistically and is consequently much more difficult to control. On this setting, the AI drivers receive a considerable boost in skill, but you may also customize your car in a number of different ways. You can adjust the weight and camber, as well as tweak the shocks and springs or adjust the tire pressure. Each of these adjustments actually makes for a considerable change in the way the car handles, and it may take a few sessions in the garage before you find the settings that work just right for you.