Need for Speed Heat Review
The Need for Speed franchise is one of the longest running (mostly) arcade racing game series around, with plenty of genre-defining classic entries throughout its prolific multi-decade history. Sadly, the last standout entry came nearly a decade ago with the Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit reboot; the output this console generation has been mediocre at best. Though the latest entry, Need for Speed: Heat, doesn’t come close to reaching the lofty heights of the series’ best games, it does feel like things are getting back on track, offering up a solid and sometimes thrilling - albeit largely unoriginal - helping of open world arcade racing, drifting and police chases.
Heat takes place in the fictional Palm City and surrounding countryside, a Miami-esque locale that offers up a decent mix of urban, industrial and rural regions to drive around. The game continues the trend of featuring a storyline complete with cutscenes, though for the first time you will have the chance to choose from a group of player characters and customize your own clothing, similar to Forza Horizon 4. The story sees you getting involved in the thriving scene of underground street racing during the night, and legal circuit racing during the day. The plot focuses on dealing with a group of corrupt cops who are making life difficult for the racers and impounding their rides for their own shady purposes, while making a name for yourself in the Palm City racing scene.
The story, characters and story missions are generally the weakest part of NFS Heat. The characters are annoying, poorly voiced and they will rather frequently make contact to bug you about progressing the storyline when you are driving around the open world. Story missions that focus on racing other crews can be fun, offering up some of the most creative and challenging routes in the game. Others are incredibly frustrating, such as missions where you must protect another member of your crew from the police. Often to get to story missions, you will need to drive behind another character at annoyingly slow speeds for a few minutes as they spout dialogue, which is a puzzling design choice and not at all enjoyable. Fortunately, the story missions and story in general comprise only a small part of the experience.
The main twist that underpins Need for Speed Heat is the division between racing at night and during the day. You switch between the two via menu, rather than waiting for time to pass. At night, the police will be out in force, looking for any illegal street racing activity. You will be racing at night for reputation, effectively experience points needed to level up and progress through the game to unlock new cars and crucial performance upgrades. Once you start taking part in races or other activities at night, you will start to gain reputation points, but also a heat level, similar to how police wanted levels work in Grand Theft Auto. You don’t actually ‘earn’ your reputation until you drive to a safe house to end your night, with your heat level acting as a multiplier for the reputation you earned that night. The longer you stay out, the more reputation you will earn, and the higher your heat level and reputation multiplier will become.
However, you will also have to contend with cops becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. You can see the location of police cars on your map at night, making them fairly easy to avoid unless you deliberately want to start a chase. However, you won’t have the luxury of avoiding them during race events, and chases will continue after you complete a race at night. Once in pursuit, the cops in Heat can be quite difficult to deal with, smashing into you and trying to corner you. If they surround you for long enough, or do enough damage to destroy your vehicle, you will get busted, earning only the base level of reputation for the night without any multiplier and losing a significant amount of cash.
This proves a great risk-reward mechanic that isn’t overly punishing, but still makes for some incredibly thrilling chases at night as you try and escape the cops to cash in a large amount of reputation. As your heat level increases, the cops become more numerous, and eventually start putting down spike strips, calling in armored Rhino vans, and even helicopters with spotlights that track your location. Your best bet for losing them is to remember the location of jumps scattered around the map that cops will struggle to follow you over. You can also attempt to ram into cops and crash them, though this is only really viable at low heat stages when you don’t have too many on your tail. There are repair stations scattered around the map you can drive through to instantly restore your car’s health, but these can only be used a few times each night. Generally, I thought the tenacity of the cops was at a right level, as they pose a serious threat without being impossible to shake off.
When you want to actually purchase and start using the new cars and upgrades unlocked by increasing the reputation level, you will need to do some legal racing during the daytime to earn money. You can take part in circuit races, drift events, time trials and off-road races to gain income, as well as open world activities like smashing billboards, going through speed-traps, jumps and drift zones to earn star ratings. You won’t need to worry about cops or traffic on the roads during the day like you will at night. In general I appreciated the option for more straightforward racing during the day to get a break from the high intensity night-time events, and really liked the structure of the game, which allowed for some really long play sessions without fatigue; but there are a few issues that hurt the experience significantly.
To gauge your progression throughout the game, races will have recommended vehicle power scores that correlate to the performance of your vehicle, similar to aggregate gear scores in loot games. You can increase this number by buying more powerful cars, or upgrading existing ones. The problem is that the same number is used for different types of races, but this ends up clashing with the performance upgrade system. Though engine upgrades will always increase performance, other parts like tires and suspension will only increase your car’s overall score if you spec for on-road performance. Putting on off-road tires or suspension that improve your speed for cross-country events will drastically reduce your car’s performance number, but off-road races still use the same aggregate number as on-road races to gauge difficulty. The same is true for drift parts but to a lesser extent.
As a result, I had a really hard time upgrading a vehicle to a point I could use it in off-road races. The AI performance seems directly tied to the aggregate car score number – if your vehicle is significantly higher than the recommended car score, you should be able to win the race easily, but if it is significantly lower, doing well in the race will be impossible as AI will rocket ahead of you with incredible acceleration. To unlock events in each race category, you will need to complete a story mission which you must win. It took me until quite late in the campaign to unlock and upgrade an off-road vehicle to the point I could win this initial race even though it is made available relatively early on; having separate scores for each category of a vehicle’s performance i.e. Drift, off-road and on-road performance seems like it would have worked much better.
On the other hand, it is hard to find fault with the visual customization options. You can alter pretty much every aspect of your car’s body and appearance, from bumpers, trim, spoilers, hubcaps, paint and decals and pretty much everything else. This aspect of the game harkens back to Need for Speed Underground and should thrill anyone who wants to spend a lot of time making their car look just the way they want. However, you will need to spend precious in-game currency on these cosmetic upgrades.
In general, it felt like the economy was balanced in favor of daytime racing to earn money. I ended up spending at least two-thirds of my time with Heat doing traditional daytime racing, which is ultimately the less interesting part of the game. Circuit racing in particular can be a bit bland; the handling in Heat feels heavy and slightly unresponsive, with drifting around corners generally being the way to go, over finding the best racing lines. The handling works best when you are blasting along freeways at ridiculously high speed, using nitrous to edge past opponents - something you get to do lots of at night with sprint races, but not so much during daytime events. In order to earn enough money to purchase and upgrade the cars I wanted, I found myself having to grind on the same circuit races multiple times which became tedious. This also meant that I was only ever able to unlock and try a relatively small number of cars; there are a lot of different vehicles in the game, but I only used a small fraction of them during my playthrough.
This problem might have been avoided if the online component of the game worked better and offered an alternative means of earning money. You can choose to play Heat online, at which point you will be loaded into an instance with a few other players. The problem is that interaction with other players is very limited. When you start a race event, you can ‘challenge all’ which will send an invite to other players in your game instance, but I had very limited success with this, at best getting into races with one or two other human opponents; but usually no one accepted the call and I would end up racing against AI as usual. I almost never received invites from other players to join their races.
The only memorable interactions I had was joining other players' cop chases in the open world. However, in offline mode you can pause the game to plan your route - to get to repair stations or spots you might be able to lose the cops - this isn’t an option in online mode as you can’t pause the game. Your only hope for getting any enjoyment out of the game’s online component is if you have several friends with the game and form your own party to play together.
One thing that is harder to fault with Heat is the visual presentation. The game looks fantastic, especially at night, with what might be the best use of the Frostbite engine outside a Battlefield game thanks to great lighting, reflections and a vibrant neon colour palette that comes alive in the darkness. Just the right amount of motion blur and a subtle camera shake when going fast leads to a fantastic sense of speed; sprint races at night where you are whipping along freeways during a downpour, trying to stay ahead of an opponent, lose the cops and dodge traffic were some of my favorite and most thrilling moments in a racing game in recent memory. The game ran at a rock solid 30fps on my base PS4 with no noticeable slowdowns. The car audio is also quite good, with engines sounding powerful and some nice details like the whoosh of nitrous and whine of a turbo charger. The soundtrack is the only real weak point in the presentation, with a mix of mostly obnoxious hip-hop and rap that lacks variety and quickly got turned off in favor of my own music.
Even though Need for Speed Heat borrows rather heavily from the Forza Horizon series, and suffers from a stingy economy, poor story component and a flawed vehicle performance metric that is used for progression, it does feel like the series is getting back on track. The mix of high intensity night-time racing with cop chases and traffic dodging, and more laid back daytime racing makes for a good variety of gameplay, with a solid, weighty handling model that works well once you get used to it. If you have been itching for arcade style open world racing game, and don’t mind racing against occasionally suspect AI opponents, Need for Speed Heat should do the job nicely.