If there was one series that desperately needed a win, it was the Need for Speed franchise – especially after spending most of this decade trying to recreate the magic that was 2005’s Need for Speed Most Wanted. A franchise like Forza Horizon – even with its simulation racing roots has pulled ahead of it, carving their own niches in the arcade racing segment. Need for Speed Payback was an admirable chance that the series took to distinguish itself from the rest, but EA sadly dropped the ball bad and shipped a terrible game. Now, with Need for Speed Heat, it has been a quieter launch, but it feels like an unexpected return to form for the series. .
The story of Need for Speed Heat is forgettable nonsense with terrible voice acting. In a game full of supercars, this Fast and Furious wannabe storyline is a jalopy that should be stripped and sold for parts. You play one of the urban rich who shows up out of nowhere in a city where street racers are terrorized and demoralized by the police in so called encounters. You start at the bottom of the street racing pecking order and you have to work your way up to be the best. All the while building your crew along the way and avoiding Officer Mercer, who’s in charge of the pursuit force. Sadly while the cutscenes are skippable, the terrible voice acting hams it up to the max on the in car radio. With that out of the way, let’s get to the good bits of the game.
With Heat, it feels as though Ghost games has chucked out everything that was not well received with previous iterations. The result is an incredibly fun arcade racer, with a customisation system that harkens back to the first Fast and Furious. Kitting out your Nissan with a sport engine, neon underglows and that giant spoiler really gave us those Underground vibes. You also get to kit out your pre-selected character in a variety of vanity items from the store. There’s no custom character creator, but you do have a bunch of characters you can choose from, all from different ethnic groups. You can lose track of time in the car customiser, and you can take it with you on the go via your smartphone in the NFS Heat Studio where you can admire your car collection and pimp your rides on your daily commutes.
Car handling is top notch, and the priority is given to conveying the power and style. Little things like how your car shudders off the start line is a trick in itself as you have to nurse the accelerator trigger to get a good start. Drifting feels excellent, but we are so used to the drift button being on the Circle instead of the Square button and there’s no way to remap. But when you gain momentum, there’s a supreme feeling of speed that NFS Heat conveys well.
Palm City is an approximation of Miami with it’s coastal vibe and neon filled nights. It’s at night where Heat shines the best. From the gratuitous neon lighting to the volumetric lights just strewn around to the rain that pelts your car, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. There’s something visceral about racing in the dark, going by the illumination of the headlights. Palm City may feel vacant without any pedestrians and sparse in design, but the city has been created as a series of tracks knitted together. Waypoints are some of the best in this game, and at no point did we ever get lost.
NFS Heat has both Day and Night cycles and both play an important role in progression. By day you can do your usual car shopping, take part in sanctioned races without being bothered. By night the rogue police force comes into effect and they hunt you. That’s when the risk reward system kicks in. Keep winning races, and taking down the fuzz without getting busted and you can rack up the Rep XP – which you can only cash in if you make it to your garage in one piece. So it’s all about getting out there, raising your rep, grinding through races to get more money to kit you and your ride out with better customisations or picking up a ride. Make no mistake; the cops are aggressive at night and while it’s fun, it’s where one of the games problems lie.
The AI is terrible in this game. In races cars seem to magically pull ahead of you while you’re still stylishly burning up the tarmac. If you lose sight of the cars ahead of you, then it’s impossible to catch up. The cars even magically take perfect turns. To be able to come in first, we had to kite them into oncoming traffic or nudge them into spinning out to buy us precious time. The cops too are powerful, and can decimate your car in a few hits. It’s tough getting away from them and the busted timer goes off in just a few seconds, even though you’re in mid drift. EA really needs to patch that up ASAP.
Despite that though, Heat keeps that momentum going and that’s the key. We love how the game has thought up quality of life improvements, like if you crash into water, the game helpfully puts you back on track, pointing you in the right direction at the same speed you were in. Also everything sort of disintegrates in your path, from trees to park benches. Nothing halts your momentum which is so refreshing, as nothing hurts more then being halted by an indestructible hedge.
After trying to shove an open world racer down our throats, it’s refreshing to see the Play Solo option to let you enjoy the game. But if you do want to take your skills online, there is a multiplayer world where you can jump into 16-player online versions of the world. In it, you can crew up and tackle races for rep, as well as get a buddy to help you disrupt your opponents in your race while you pull towards the finish. In both Solo or Multiplayer, Palm City has a lot of stuff to do, from challenges to taking out billboards to just pissing off the cops; it’s a lot of fun.
NFS Heat really hits that arcade racing highs well, if you catch my drift. While I am glad they have finally got a worthy NFS on their hands, I can’t help feeling that the whole street underground racing genre peaked with Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift. Now it seems like the game hit middle life crisis, got itself a shiny sports car and is hanging around younger people regaling them with the good old days.