Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
During my time with Need for Speed Heat, the latest entry in the venerable franchise from developer Ghost Games, I couldn’t stop contemplating how the Need for Speed franchise as a whole feels like it has run its course. To be clear, Need for Speed Heat is a functional and super-detailed arcade-style racing game which can be plenty of fun under the right circumstances, especially if you’re playing with friends. However, it also doesn’t bring a whole lot of ingenuity to the table, instead coasting on the laurels of beloved entries like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, and even in that regard it comes up short more often than not.
Existing fans who enjoyed the collect-a-thons, tense multi-car races, and cop pursuits that defined earlier Need for Speed games will feel plenty of nostalgia while playing Heat, but they’ll also likely be disappointed by how half-baked those features feel. Need for Speed Heat comes off as Ghost Games’ attempt to cater equally to existing fans and newcomers looking for an accessible entry point. Unfortunately, a dull story campaign, poorly-balanced cop chases, and a general lack of polish will undoubtedly drive away all but the most dedicated virtual car enthusiasts.
Need for Speed Heat is set in a fictional Miami-esque locale called Palm City, a place where street racers gather every year to participate in the SpeedBreakers Festival. For reasons left unexplained, the SpeedBreakers Festival is comprised of two distinct event types, legitimate (or as “legitimate” as street races can be) races during the day, and more showy events (mostly just more races) which are held at night.
Palm City’s local law enforcement also acts as the antagonistic wrench being tossed into the otherwise fine-tuned machinery of how the festival operates. Led by a newly-appointed Police Lieutenant named Frank Mercer and his cartoonishly villainous flunky Shaw, Palm City’s police force is mostly benign by day, but if they catch someone so much as hop a curb at night they’ll hunt that lawbreaker down with extreme prejudice.
Heat’s opening story cinematic hammers home just how committed Mercer and Shaw are to eradicating Palm City’s racing scene when they’re shown contemplating the outright murder of a racer they’ve captured. The game’s narrative tries as hard as it can to frame law enforcement as cold and over-zealous, whereas the racers are just fun-loving rebels who want to burn rubber in peace. Into these simmering tensions steps Need for Speed Heat’s protagonist, an unnamed customizable racer who has the most boring and clichéd backstory ever. They’re an unknown up-and-comer, you see, and all they want to do is prove themself.
Fortunately, players can layer their own custom touches onto Heat’s otherwise bland protagonist. After picking from a cast of stock male and female avatars, players can tweak their avatar’s hair style, hair color, clothing, and accessories. The avatars themselves are set in stone, but players can switch between the different avatars anytime they wish.
Of course, Need for Speed Heat’s avatar customization pales in comparison to the level of detail in which you can trick out your ride of choice. Virtually every major car brand appears in Heat, including BMW, Mercedes, Ford, Dodge, Audi, Nissan, Ferrari, Plymouth, and Honda to name a few. Players start out with a pretty basic ride chosen from a limited stock of four or so cars. I went with the humble yet scrappy Nissan 180SX (I drive a Nissan in real-life and it too is humble and scrappy), and even with that basic car the amount of customization options was dizzying.
With performance tuning, Heat players can purchase, swap out, and upgrade different car parts, determining how well their vehicle handles in the four main performance quadrants, Race, Road, On-Road, and Drift. There’s also a unique ‘Live Tuning’ feature which lets players tweak parameters like steering sensitivity and downforce on-the-fly while they’re cruising around Palm City. Eventually, players can purchase additional cars and trick them out so that they cover a gamut of different performance styles.
It wasn’t long before I got my hands on a slick Nissan 370Z (I’m a Nissan guy, sue me) which had noticeably better stats than my 180SX, though it wasn’t quite as good at drifting. Rather than let my 180SX gather dust in my garage, I instead leaned into the drifting angle (no pun intended), swapping out parts until, barely five hours into the game, I already had a solid racer and a scrappy drift master on my automobile roster.
When it came time to visually customize my rides, I discovered a level of cosmetic car customization that was equal parts intimidating and awe-inspiring. As long as you’ve got the cash to burn, you can make some truly unique visual loadouts for your vehicles, customizing everything from basic stuff like the car’s paint job and decals down to the most minute of details. For example, looking at a car’s wheels alone you can adjust the tires, the rims, the calipers, and the brake disks, and that’s just the *wheels.*
If your only goal with Need for Speed Heat is to show off your flashy customized rides to your friends, you’ll definitely appreciate what’s on offer…assuming you’re willing to put in the work to earn those flashy cars and customizations.
Pedal to the Metal
Need for Speed Heat’s driving controls are streamlined for the sake of accessibility, but learning how different cars handle is still a challenge, especially if you switch between different performance quadrants. Personally, I struggled at first to master the game’s drifting mechanics which involve having to quickly tap and then hold the accelerate button as you move into a turn. A later tutorial mission helped me nail down the finer points of drifting, I just wish it hadn’t come after several previous races where the game already expected me to be a drifting expert.
Once I got drifting down and put a few races under my belt, things started to click and I was having more fun, especially after I purchased my 370Z and started smoking my AI competitors in all the early-game competitions (Need for Speed Heat allows for both offline and online play, with AI opponent skill determined by three difficulty levels). It was only after I took in the full scope of the game’s progression mechanics and police pursuits that the tedium started to set in.
Every activity you can pursue in Need for Speed Heat, be it hunting down a collectible, completing a daily challenge, or participating in a formal race event, awards one (or both) of two different currency types: Bank (money) and Rep (short for reputation). These two currency types feed into each other by determining which cars and parts you have access to and which story missions and race events you can participate in. Even if you save up enough Bank to buy a car or part, you need to reach that car’s or parts’ requisite Rep level to unlock it first.
The Bank/Rep system also feeds into Heat’s Day/Night system. At any point the player can manually toggle between Day and Night, with each of the two options having its own race events, story missions, and side missions (called ‘Racer Stories’). Completing race events awards Bank during the Day cycle and Rep during the Night cycle, which means you’ll spend a lot of time flipping between the two times of day and grinding race events in both.
Upgrading your car and purchasing new cars is also key since each car has an overall numbered rating dictated by its type and parts. As you progress further in Heat’s story campaign, new missions and race events with higher recommended car rating levels open up, creating a constant loop of grinding for Bank and Rep so you can purchase better cars and parts in order to complete tougher events and missions before you rinse and repeat.
Side tasks like drifting events, long-jump challenges, and speed traps (where you have to drive through a marker after reaching a certain speed) help to break up the monotony of grinding through races, but race events are still the main method through which you earn both Bank and Rep (most of Heat’s story missions are also just races with some minor story flavor injected into them).
Another element which shakes up the usual racing routine is the roaming cop cars that will initiate a pursuit if they spot you during the Night phase. In theory, Need for Speed Heat’s police pursuits act as a dynamic wildcard meant to keep players constantly on their toes. Police will initiate a pursuit at Night the moment they spot you, even if you’re not actually moving or you’re in the middle of a race. As they chase you, your ‘heat level’ will slowly build, making the police more numerous and aggressive, but also upping your Rep rewards if you escape. The bad news, however, is that escaping from these pursuits can be a frustratingly difficult endeavor that’s often not worth the potential gains you’d otherwise make.
If the police bust you, you lose a percentage of your total Bank (often reducing you down to $0 during the early game) and you naturally miss out on the bonus Rep you would have gained if you escaped (you still keep any Rep you earned before the pursuit began). With my infamously bad luck, I’d often encounter a cop while driving back to a garage to cash in my Rep, triggering a pursuit I didn’t want to play through followed by an inevitable busting and loss of Bank.
I can see the spirit of what Ghost Games was going for with the whole police pursuit risk/reward dynamic, but in practice police pursuits just feel more irritating than engaging, especially since they frequently occur in the middle of a formal race, oftentimes stealing a potential victory out from under you once the mayhem begins.
Finally, the lack of polish I noticed while playing Heat was noticeable, consisting mostly of pop-in textures and spawn glitches, but not totally game-breaking. They still happened frequently enough to distract me from the game’s glitzy cars and sunny seaside setting, making it painfully clear that Heat could have used a little more time under the scrutinizing eyes of QA testers.
To its credit, Need for Speed Heat does an admirable job of conjuring a by-the-numbers racing fantasy where players can build up a stable of sleek rides in their quest to fight back against Palm City’s overzealous anti-racer law enforcement. While the game looks good on the surface, though, it does virtually nothing to push the Need for Speed franchise forward in a meaningful way, making the entire experience feel rote and pointless. Couple all that with Need for Speed Heat’s performance issues and grindy gameplay, and you’ve got a racing game that, for all its accessibility and flash, doesn’t really have any soul.