Coming off the back of 2017’s abysmal Need for Speed Payback, whatever enthusiasm I’d had left for EA’s signature racing series felt like it was running on fumes by the time that Need for Speed Heat had finished downloading. Here’s the big surprise though: Need for Speed Heat is actually a damn good game, even if its still drifting around a corner of familiar tropes and clichés.
It’s a fine-tuned beast, a massive improvement over Payback and a game that liberally borrows plenty of inspiration from past titles and takes off from the starting line like a greatest hits collection of past highlights. It has the eclectic biomes of Carbon, the thrill of the chase from Most Wanted and the cheesy underground narrative from its 2015 reboot, all rolled into one tight package that makes this the best that Need for Speed has been in a very long time.
It’s just a pity then, that Need for Speed at its best still can’t keep up with the rest of the genre pack when all their cylinders are firing at full throttle.
First, the good! Need for Speed Heat doesn’t stray too far away from its handling model, still offering plenty of arcade influence with vehicles that can be set up to perform the way you want them to. Heat prioritises the driving across a collection of core disciplines: Stick to the line racing, pure speed sports, off-road rallying and painting entire roads with rubber via good ol’ drifting.
That last discipline has had a subtle but massive change to how you initiate a tarmac tattoo, as you’re now able to charge into a corner, lift the gas pedal and then stamp it down again to ballroom blitz around a bend. It may not be for everyone, but that slight change makes for a more organic and exciting method for maintaining speed and and coming out of a corner with maximum cinematic flair.
Beyond that, Heat’s other big trick up its sleeve is how it handles the night life. By day, you’re participating in the totes legal world of professional racing, working your way up the ranking and earning enough cash to keep the upgrades flowing and your garage stocked. At night, you’re a deleted scene from a Fast ‘n Furious spin-off, a racer looking to be the best in the underground scene as you build your reputation up.
It’s well worth engaging in the more illegal pursuits that define the midnight hour club and the various crews dotted around the Miami-esque Palm City, as levelling up your notoriety will result in better cars and gear being made available to you when the sun rises in the morning. The catch here, is that Palm City happens to be policed by a squad of hot pursuit fuzz, a thin blue line that won’t hesitate to run your yobbo butt off the road if they catch a whiff of your exhaust pipe.
Here is where Heat engages in that Most Wanted legacy, as the risk and reward of outrunning the cops is too good to pass up. Leave them in the dust, hit a safehouse and you’ll bank a nice chunk of Reputation points that can help you ding a new level faster. Get caught, and you’ve just gambled away a significant portion of your earnings for the night.
It’s a brilliant fight or flight mechanic, one with shades of developer Ghost Games’ Burnout added to the mix as your vehicle can only sustain so much damage before you’re forced to hit a petrol station for a quick repair (only three times a night kids!) or risk being completely totalled. The problem here, is that the entire mechanic of being busted comes off as completely broken. It’s not unusual for you to be boxed in by the cops, and even when you’ve managed to escape their automobile cube and started your getaway you’ll be magically jailed because reasons.
That infuriating mechanic and a story so cheesy that I think that Heat may be lethal to anyone with a lactose intolerance problem aside, Heat still wants you to have fun and revel in being an outlaw. While it may have inherited most of its garage from Payback, the art of purchasing vehicles and bringing them up to spec is still loads of fun.
For anyone looking to get good real fast, you’re able to apply some light CaRPG mods with cash (think along the lines of The Crew 2 and a whole lot less than Payback) and build a more nimble racing vehicle with an overall level system that has convinced me that there must be a showdown race with Oryx from the Destiny games since we’re dealing with car light levels.
For anyone looking to be a bit more hands-on, Heat’s garage is packed full of options. You can tune your ride on the fly, fiddle with the most minute stats possible and spend hours in the bodyshop wrapping your vehicle with enough decals to qualify for a graphic design war crime. Palm City itself is a luxurious location, made up of exactly the racing hotspots that you’d expect it to have from a sandbox in this genre: Long straights of highway drag races, twisting corners around skyscrapers and drift-paradise mountain hills to work your way up.
All that, and a few other handy stretches of land that are just begging to have an impromptu race set up on it. Need for Speed Heat is an enjoyable romp, one devoid of loot boxes and full of some of the most exhilarating chases that the franchise has to offer but it’s not without fault. Its selection of cars is sadly lacking in the classics department (and the Toyota department now that I think about it), the limited soundtrack quickly gets old and the visual representation is like…well like day and night.
This isn’t a knock on the game’s overall aesthetic, as DICE’s Frostbite engine still sparkles at first glance, but daytime sections feel somewhat plain when compared to the more dynamic neon-infused racing set at night that is highlighted by 2019 gaming’s most popular colour, hot pink. There’s also a sensation of Need for Speed Heat being lapped by its contemporaries within the genre, giving the feeling of this game being more of a direct to DVD effort when compared to something like Forza Horizon 4 which is still the unequalled benchmark of the racing celebration scene.
And yet, I hope that Heat is the template for future Need for Speed games. It can go the distance when backed into a corner, and when it doesn’t exist as an apology for Payback with its numerous fixes, it’s a pulse-pounding flip of the coin that has you driving on both sides of the thin blue line, generating torque and infamy while you clench your glutes as you try to evade justice.
Last Updated: November 12, 2019