To say the Need for Speed franchise has been struggling to find it's identity for years would be somewhat of an understatement. The series has been handled by numerous developers during its lifetime, with mixed results. Last year's entry was panned for it's egregious and dastardly implementation of microtransaction-fueled progression. EA did later tweak the game, but the damage was done, and the player base moved on. I was once a massive fan of the series, but like many, I think it peaked during the Underground era. I've only dabbled with other entries since then and have been disappointed time and time again. I went into Need for Speed: Heat expecting more of the same, but I'm beyond pleased to say that Ghost Games has developed the best in the series since Underground. It may not reach the glorious heights it did all of those years ago, but if EA continues with this foundation, the series could quickly find itself at the top of any racing enthusiasts list.
Carrying on the series tradition of backing up the racing with a story, Need for Speed: Heat starts with you selecting your racer from one of sixteen very diverse preset characters. From there, you're thrown into Palm City and have to make your way to the top of the racing syndicate running rampant in the city. It's your typical "us against them" story and feels like an off-shoot of the Fast & Furious films. The story sees you racing both legally and illegally to build your rep and earn enough cash to upgrade your car with all manner of cosmetic and performance parts. Palm City is racing obsessed; to the point where it feels like the only people living in the city are either racers or law enforcement. It does feel bizarre that the city holds events all day for legal racing, but as soon as the sun sets, the law becomes hell-bent on shutting you down.
The story definitely feels B-grade but its presented quite nicely with some good looking character models (not all are equal though) and clothing physics. I did find it incredibly dumb that the city seems so intent on shutting down racers when the easiest thing to do to eliminate them would be not to hold the day racing events... The story has a strong 'leave your brain at the door and your foot firmly on the floor' feel to it, and while it is fun, it doesn't feel essential.
For this year's entry, the racing formula has received a welcome shakeup, with racing being split up with unique day and night events and race types. During the day you'll compete in sanctioned events which will net you the money needed to keep your car up to pace. Cops won't bother you for driving around or taking part in these events. Once the sun sets, however, everything changes. Cops hunt you down with terrifying ferocity. Seriously, the police in this game are some of the most aggressive and hard to lose I've ever encountered. All night racing and cop chases will increase your rep, provided you can make it back to the garage at the end of the night to bank those points. If you get caught at night, you'll lose a big chunk of cash and rep you've accrued during that run. This creates a nice risk/reward loop that will have you desperately trying to outmaneuver the police to get back to your garage with your precious rep points.
There were several times where I threw caution to the wind and racked up colossal rep scores only to be busted meters away from my garage. It can be frustrating if you get caught to you often, and when combined with the insanely aggressive cop AI and their supernatural ability to keep pace with you at 300 KPH, the frustration continues to mount. Once your heat level goes up a few stages, it can lead to long stretches of desperately trying to outrun the city's super cops. I genuinely think the AI needs some serious tweaking as it sometimes feels borderline impossible to escape once you've got five cops and a helicopter on your tail. I also encountered several times where I had to take down a police car by ramming it. I had to restart one mission, in particular, five times because no matter how hard I ploughed my car into his, his health bar wouldn't budge. It took me far too long to work his health down while trying to stop him from doing the same to one of my allies, to the point where it felt broken. In the end, I think I only passed the mission by sheer luck and had to stop playing for a while after because it got me so worked up. I also encountered the same thing during several cop chases where no matter how many times and how hard I hit them, their health refused to budge. This, combined with the relentless police AI, lead to me dropping far too many F-bombs in my lounge. My neighbours have now been giving me dodgy looks ever since. I do think this can be tweaked, and in the end, I developed a strategy of quickly making a b-line to the nearest ramps to ditch the police. It's not ideal, but I'm sure Ghost Games will be hard at work on a patch as we speak.
Now for the fun part. The racing. Need for Speed: Heat leans more into the arcade side of racing where drifting is king. It's wonderfully easy to throw your tail out at 250 km and slide around a corner sideways. The roster is jam-packed with over one hundred beautifully detailed cars, ranging from tuners and high-performance race cars to bulky off-road four-wheel drives. The selection is fantastic, and each car handles uniquely and excellently. I've only played a lot of one other racing game this year, and the fun I had with Need for Speed: Heat had me promptly uninstalling that other racer off my PS4. It just feels so solid and fun, while still providing plenty of challenge and room for your skills to improve. It did take me a while to come to grips with the way the game handles drifting, as it's a bit different to what I've encountered in the past. To drift, you have to release the accelerator quickly, and then hammer it back down as you turn. It does feel a bit strange not having to use the break for the majority of corners, but I quickly got used to it and found myself pulling off some spectacular slides.
Along with the Police AI needing a serious tweak, the games other racers are either slow or overly fast. More often than not (on medium difficulty) you'll find yourself blasting past all but one of your competitors. The one outlier can somehow race so much better than everyone else and will pull hundreds of meters ahead of the pack. You'll have to race perfectly to have any hope of catching them, and it feels completely unrealistic, even compared to the games far-fetched premise. Further to that, I kept my eye on the radar when racing and noticed some of the other racer arrows would stop altogether when not on my screen, leading me to believe there is some strange sort of rubber-banding at work here. It can be frustrating at times when you're racing perfectly but still can't even catch a whiff of the car in first place's exhaust fumes. I tried dropping the difficulty to easy to see how this affected the AI, and it went from one extreme to the other. I was suddenly rocketing kilometres ahead of the competition, to the point where I would overlap the majority of them in every race. I wouldn't recommend dropping the difficulty to easy as it takes away so much of the fun of racing. I really hope Ghost Games make some serious tweaks to the AI because as it stands, it causes far too much frustration at times.
On top of the day and night racing, there are the typical open-world activities to expect. From drift challenges to speed traps you need to hit certain speeds through, to billboards that need destroying, there's plenty of side-activities and races for you to take part in. It's here that my favourite part of Need for Speed comes into play. The tuning and car customisation. You see, if you want to enter a drift event with the car you use for racing, you'll have a hard time getting high scores. You'll instead have to change certain parts like your tyres, drive-train and differential to ones with high drift stats. This makes a notable change to the handling as your car will whip its tail out with even the slightest turn. I loved having to essentially learn to drive again as drifting requires deft throttle feathering and steering. It can be a bit annoying having to go to the garage to change parts for specific race types, but I remedied this by buying a few cars and tuning each independently for drift, street racing and off-road racing.
I'm happy to say the microtransactions are nowhere to be seen in Need for Speed: Heat. Instead, you earn everything in-game and earn more than enough cash to keep your cars up to spec without spending a dime of real-world money. I found the progression to be more than adequate as new parts are unlocked at a fairly frequent pace. I also absolutely loved the fact that the game allows you to do full engine swaps (provided you have the money), so if, like me, you get attached to your starting car, you can upgrade it so it can keep pace with the fastest cars in the game. It may not be very realistic, but when so many other racing games force me to buy a new car to keep competing, it felt refreshing to feel genuinely connected to my ride. The game even goes so far as to allow you to adjust things like the sound of your exhaust and the camber of your wheels — these little additions to customisation further cement that sense of ownership over each of your vehicles. I do wish I could view all of my cars together in the garage though, instead of just one at a time.
On the cosmetic side, the game's customisation is superb. Each car has a customisation rating from one to ten, with ten meaning it has a large number of custom body parts to choose from. I would have liked to have seen just a few more options for some of the cars, but even then, I spent hours upon hours finely adjusting the details of my paint, body and decals. The customisation is excellent, and if you're willing to put the time in, you can create some absolutely stunning rides.
Palm City has plenty of variety and is a pleasure to drive around. The Miami-inspired city looks beautiful and washed out during the day, with night offering a stark contrast of bright neon lights. Graphically, it's not the best looking game, but the car models look incredible at times. I would have loved a cockpit view when racing, but the standard camera has some neat features. Say you drop a doughy in the street, the camera picks up on it and pulls back to offer you an impressive view of your ride. Or if you hold accelerate and brake at the same time when stationary, the camera will zoom in on your real wheel in all of its smokey glory. It's a great little touch that really shows off your car and is something I'd love to see used more in future games.
One of my favourite things about the [Underground series was the soundtrack. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about Heat. The soundtrack here is heavily Latin-American, and Hip-Hop influenced, with the majority of songs making me feel like I was in a Mexican Nightclub. I've got nothing against the music and understand how it fits with the setting of the game, but it just wasn't for me. I can see some people enjoying the more dub-steppy tunes, but if you're anything like me, you'll be muting the game's music within the first hour. The car engines sound great for the most part, so turning off the music, just made me appreciate the rattle and roar of my tuned exhaust all the more.
I'm a bit torn on Need for Speed: Heat. While I loved the customisation and found a lot of joy in the racing mechanics, the game's bonkers AI and lack of anything truly new, left me feeling a bit hollow. The story is laughably unrealistic at times, but the world is a blast to race through. If anything Heat feels like the course-correction the series so desperately needed. If you've been looking for something to fill that Underground void, [i]Heat/[i] may not fully satisfy you, but it will leave you hungry for the next course. If Ghost can tweak the AI, I'd be much more willing to recommend it.
The story feels a little silly but the racing itself is a joy to play. This is the course-correction the series so desperately needed, and I can't wait to see Ghost Games build on this solid foundation for their next entry.
+ Racing feels fun and arcadey.
+ Plenty of content to keep you busy.
+ Difference between day and night racing is great.
+ Tuning makes a real difference to handling.
+ Upgrades come frequently.
+ One of the best car rosters I've seen in years.
- Overly aggressive police.
- Bugs where I could not damage cop cars drove me mad.
- Story feels very silly.
- Soundtrack is not my cup of tea.