Need For Speed Heat
The last five years have been a bit rough for the Need For Speed franchise. 2013’s Rivals delivered a tremendous experience across all platforms, but the reboot a few year later fell short of expectations both as a racing game and as a storytelling medium with its mix of FMV and in-game action. Payback offered up a Furious-style movie plot, but was hurt by some free-to-play mechanics and loot boxes making it harder to upgrade – even though it delivered a very good racing game at its core. Now, Ghost is back with a new setup for the series that ties several things from its past together into the present.
The game’s story goes for a touch of regular movie setup ala Payback, with more of an emphasis on a traditional gaming-style progression system. The core plot involves the cops being against night-time street racers with Lt. Mercer despising them and encouraging illegal activities to either beat people or kill them to send a message, while his second in command Shaw is even worse. He’s younger with more of a point to prove and is willing to go to more extreme lengths to get things done. The gist of everything is that the cops will go after you at night and do anything they can to stop you, while during the day, you’re fine.
This ties into an interesting risk/reward mechanic for the core game. Racing during the day is a much safer option, but it offers up less of a payout. Racing at night reaps greater rewards, but at the risk of having the cops get involved at any time outside of a race and losing cash. You can outrun the cops or, to have a bit more fun, engage in some Chase HQ-style action. They have health meters and knocking them out either with Burnout-style takedowns or having them crash into one another or large obstacles. Cop chases are easily the most outright thrilling parts of the game as you can wind up with just about anything happening.
The first chase I got into saw two coming after me only to knock out one, with the last cop being a good hit away from defeat. However, because I didn’t take him out in time, reinforcements were called and two other officers came after me and cornered me – resulting in me losing that battle. Efficiency is a big part of escaping chases and not having to either lose money due to being caught or spending a ton of money to bribe them so they’ll leave you alone. A single bribe doesn’t cost you more than an average race’s winnings, so it might be worth grinding some easy circle track races for cash to set aside for bribes.
One neat wrinkle is that while you can upgrade your cars at any time at a garage, you can only buy new ones during the day at a dealership. This means that you can choose to either go with a lot of upgrades for a single vehicle in case you do wind up getting busted or losing money to bribes, or choose to stock up on vehicles and then upgrade them as you need to later on. Vehicles can control in completely different ways, including some of the starter cars having a steeper learning curve. Fortunately, you are given the chance to see stats – but can’t test drive things. This leads to a bit of trial and error because you can easily wind up with a car you don’t want to use and can’t upgrade to your liking.
Fortunately, once you find a vehicle type that you enjoy, Heat truly shines. The core racing action is the best it’s been in this series since Rivals. Every race is thrilling no matter what time of day it is, but night time driving has its own allure. Reflections off of rain make each turn feel more dangerous, while the ever-present neon light indicating the track add a sense of style that no other game on the market has. The checkpoints take a similar appearance which is great, because it looks a lot better than the usual green outline of a gate and injects a lot of personality into things visually.
The core racing action is exciting and the AI drivers manage to strike a balance between wanting to win and not doing so in an unfair way. You won’t wind up with two people trying to spin you out in a race, but still have to race carefully. Unlike most racers out there, you don’t have a rewind mechanic here. So while Need For Speed may not be thought of as a serious racing series, the fact remains that winning a race here requires more core skill because you don’t have those crutches to rely on (although you can usually turn off rewinds in games that use it, to be fair). Starting from the back and working your way up to the front remains thrilling and Heat is the best-playing NFS game in part thanks to that thrill being here. It’s easy for a game to make that quest to the top easy, but it isn’t the case here. It’s a skillful challenge and a fair one – so you never get discouraged.
Visually, Need For Speed Heat is fantastic despite a few shortcomings. Car models look tremendous, with a lot of detail throughout. The real show-stealer lies in the environments, which not only have a lot going on in them visually with unique buildings being used most of the time, but also using lighting brilliantly. Racing during the day feels completely different than it does at night because every part of the world is bathed in sunlight. This adds another layer of challenge because you may have your view partially obstructed by the sun ever so briefly – but it doesn’t hurt the overall experience because it is for such a small period of time.
The sound design of Heat is fantastic, with a sound mix that makes everything click into place no matter what you’re doing. In races, you’ll hear every vehicle’s engine roaring around you. During chases, you’ll not only have that, but hear sirens blaring as commanding officers demand backup – or you get the thrill of sending them down and out and not hearing sirens anywhere close to let you know you’ve escaped. The game’s soundtrack is a nice blend of genres, with rap, rock, and some faster-paced music thrown in for good measure. Not much of it sticks with you after playing, but it’s solid in-game fare.
Need For Speed Heat is a return to form for the series and the best entry this generation. The racing action is top-shelf and the day to night shift in gameplay focus keeps things fresh. If you tired of just racing, go into the night for some chases and more rewards alongside an increase in risk. If you’ve felt burned by the last two entries in the series, Heat is exactly what the franchise needed. It’s a great blend of Underground-style racing with a touch of story ala Payback. It’s a gorgeous-looking game and plays like a dream, with back and forth races and exciting car chases. Longtime series fans will find a lot to enjoy, while newcomers will be able to find out why the series has been held in such high regard during its highest points over the last 25 years.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a digital copy of Need For Speed Heat for the Xbox One provided by Electronic Arts.