Review – Need for Speed: Heat

You know what’s more surprising than EA publishing a great Star Wars game? EA publishing a great Need for Speed. Since the series’ glory days on the PlayStation 2, it has been rebooted repeatedly to increasingly lukewarm results. The last entry in the franchise, Need for Speed: Payback, was easily the series’ lowest point and many thought it was time to put the IP to rest. Yet Ghost Games tried again, and third time ended up being the charm. Need for Speed: Heat is a back-to-basics entry in the franchise that focuses on delivering what people actually want from an arcade racer.

Day time

Everything’s just so……shiny.

The core of the game is the Day/Night cycle that drives everything. At any time you are free to switch between the two, for dramatically different racing experiences. During the day you participate in the Speedhunter Showdown, a legal racing festival where you race for cash. Cash is then used to buy new cars or upgrade ones you already own. Cops are more docile during the day as well, which allows for riskier, more adventurous driving. Things are different at night. Cops are aggressive and actively patrol the streets for racers to wreck. The only available racing events are illegal street races, and winning these ones increases your rep level. This unlocks new parts and cars for purchase.

It sounds like a gimmick that makes for more work than fun, but it actually works really well. You always feel like you’re progressing towards something you want, because you have total freedom over when you’re racing and what races you are participating in. Whether it’s building up your cash to buy a new car or increasing your rep to unlock that next upgrade, each race has a purpose you decided. Don’t worry about anything feeling super grindy either. No doubt in response to complaints over Payback’s systems, car tuning is flexible yet simple and races of both varieties are very generous. You’ll earn cash fast and fly through Rep levels, yet there’s enough cars and unlocks available to not totally trivialize the experience. There’s a sweet spot between grind and reward, and Need for Speed: Heat rides it very well.

Night time

Nights are treats for the eye, especially the striking way neon lights are reflected in puddles.

Another benefit of the duel time cycles is that each one is allowed to be its very best. Daytime is pure racing bliss. Cops are only a problem if you really piss them off, and even then they’ll leave you alone after a quick nudge or two. It’s all about exploration, classic racing, and pulling off sweet tricks. Nighttime, on the other hand, is a nightmare. Cops are out for blood and are not to be underestimated. They are not your average NPC fodder, and even two or three of them present a very real threat for a lone driver. Races are hectic, informal affairs filled with plenty of paint trading and the ever-present threat of cops busting up the whole thing.

As you win more races at night you’ll slowly raise your heat level, which acts as a multiplier for all rep points earned at night. This also increases cop aggression however, and the risk of being arrested. Being caught causes you to lose a portion of your earned rep. If this was the entire game, it would be an unfun slog, but it instead becomes an exciting balance of risk and reward due to the presence of the daytime mode. At any time during the night you can escape via any warehouse or garage, which allows you to either reset your heat level or switch to daytime. You effectively set your own level of difficulty at night, which further helps you determine your own playstyle. There’s always the option to escape, meaning it’s on you if you risk it all and then lose it.

Customization

Car level does return, but there’s no randomness to upgrades. You just have to unlock parts, buy them, and then install them, just like it used to be.

In a far cry from the recently released GRID‘s laughable line-up, the car roster is well rounded and fleshed out. You’ll find everything from Ford and BMW NFS classics to the most recent McLaren and Koenigsegg super-cars. There is a total of 127 cars, all fully customizable and upgradable. Cosmetic customization is impressive, with the ability to fine tune basically everything on your car. You can even adjust the sound of your engine, which is just beautiful. Performance customization is pretty simple and mostly linear. You can tune your car for street racing, drifting, or on/off-road with a full set of upgrades for each line. It’s pretty standard stuff overall, but sometimes simple is better. Generally for each car you pick a line and then finish it off, but there’s room in the system for more fine-tuned set-ups as well.

The plot is simple and most importantly well-paced. Set in idyllic Palm City, a fictionalized version of Miami, you arrive intending to take part in the Speedhunter Showdown, the daytime legal racing festival. However, you’re quickly sucked into the frantic and lively night scene, and the war currently raging between Lieutenant Frank Mercer’s hilariously corrupt High-Speed Task Force and The League. The League is composed of the best street racers in Palm City, and your ultimate goal it to become one of them. It’s a very standard Need for Speed plot, but it’s executed fairly well. Most importantly, it’s executed quickly, and knows when to get out of your way and let you get back to racing.

Corrupt Cops Bad

Just an upstanding law enforcement officer doing his job….

Need for Speed: Heat is a much better game than I thought it could possibly be. It’s not the most original, but its return-to-basics strategy is just what the franchise needed. Car customization and tuning is in-depth yet simple, the day/night cycle fun to work with, and the story is entertaining if generic. I don’t know if this formula will survive another game, but it’s certainly the best template to work with that Need for Speed has seen in over a decade.

Graphics: 8.0

Nights are beautiful, especially when it’s raining. Sadly, daytimes are plagued with that Frostbite shine to textures.

Gameplay: 7.0

Driving is fun and arcadey, while the Day/Night dichotomy isn’t just a gimmick, but successfully drives gameplay progression forward.

Sound: 9.0

You can customize your engine’s sound. The soundtrack also fits the setting well enough, and the voice acting is well done.

Fun Factor: 9.0

For the first time this decade a Need for Speed game managed to deliver fun racing, a worthwhile progression system, and a great-looking city to cruise through.

Final Verdict: 8.5

Need For Speed: Heat is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Reviewed on PC.