Compared to the most recent Need For Speed releases, Need For Speed Heat feels like a call back to the series heydey in the mid-2000s, when the likes of Underground were popular.
Gone are the obnoxious characters, bland open worlds, and the meek police presence that pervaded games like Need For Speed 2015 and Payback. In their place, Ghost Games has reinvigorated EA’s racing franchise with a focus on tuning and customization, a compelling progression system, and a police force that makes racing an actual challenge. Not everything is successful, however, but it is still one of the better Need For Speed games in quite some time.
One such thing that remains in need of improvement is the story. It still remains the weakest part of Need For Speed Heat, but it looks much better in comparison to Ghost Games’ other titles in the series by the fact that it is bare bones and lacking in cringe-worthy characters and dialogue. You play as an unnamed racer who begins to break into faux-Miami Palm City scene with the help of the charming Ana and Lucas, siblings who have intimate knowledge and connections with said world and do much you care for what drama there is. Opposing your dreams of racing glory are the corrupt local police force led by Lt. Mercer, a cop who scowls a lot and makes rare appearances with his fellow officers as if to show that he is in fact relevant. The number of missions related to the story itself are surprisingly few, causing it to seem perfunctory. But again, Need For Speed has seen a lot worse than this. I just wish more was done with it, especially since it has potential.
Yet the speed at which the narrative progresses maybe for the best, as it places the structure of Need For Speed Heat in full view. There are a handful of different event types, including standard races, drifting competitions, and off-road courses. While the world is filled with individual events, each of which can be replayed, there is a small set of missions accompanying each type that one character is in charge of. The reward for completing them is usually a pat on the back, the promise of a new race, and the occasional part or car, which is disappointing. There could have been more done to expand upon each mission track, and none of the races themselves are particularly challenging.
What truly succeeds is the dichotomy between day and night. Events are exclusive to either mode, and you can switch between either time whenever you enter a garage. During the day, you compete in Showtime races, which are legal and will rarely feature a police presence. Events in the day reward Bank, aka cash, which can be used to purchase cars, upgrades, and any customization options that you choose. Here, races are straightforward, lacking in traffic and challenge provided you keep up with the upgrades for your car.
Night, on the other hand, is where Need For Speed Heat shines the brightest. All races at this time are illegal, and cops are out in full force to catch anyone racing or breaking the traffic laws. Attracting the attention of police at some point in the night is inevitable, which is marked by your Heat level, and when they do go after you, cops are extremely aggressive and difficult to escape. Depending on your actions, such as evading pursuing cops for a long time or taking out vehicles sent after you, your Heat level will rise, causing additional reinforcements and traps such as spike strips to be used against you. In the beginning, it is difficult to flee from an individual cruiser, let alone three or four, and their near-suicidal pursuit of your car means that escaping from them takes a lot of time. What’s more, cops attracted in a race will not stop once the finish line is crossed, forcing you to make tight maneuvers and dangerous treks through fields if you want to escape with your winnings intact. It’s frankly exhilarating.
As for why you deal with the cops, it’s because you need to earn Reputation, or Rep, at night. Rep is used to unlock new missions as well as new cars and upgrades and is a requirement for success no matter what event you compete it. The higher your Heat is at night, the higher your Rep multiplier is. And since being busted by cops causes you to lose all of the Rep you earned at night, it creates an engrossing progression system where you have to balance risk and reward.
This is all in the service of making sure your car is the hottest ride on the road. All upgrades and cars, with some mission exceptions, are purchasable in the garage provided you have a high enough Rep and enough Bank. And there’s a lot of customization options if you’re looking to tune your cars; from swapping out the engine, to changing the suspension and tires, to deciding how many canisters of nitrous you want attached, you can drastically alter and change up any car to fit your whims. Due to the cost of purchasing new cars, I raced through most of the game using the starting Nissan that’s been tricked out with an engine that’s far too powerful for its own good. No matter what car you use however, there is always a strong sense of speed that pervades everything.
While racing is fine, trying to drift is another issue. In Need For Speed Heat, the default option for drifting is to let go off the gas ever so briefly and quickly slam on it again while turning the corner. In races, this is fine, as the curves and turns rarely require precision inputs. In drifting events, however, I wished that I could have a better control option as it didn’t feel good when negotiating the tighter corners to earn points. The other option for drifting, which involves utilizing the brake, doesn’t feel any better.
Neither does playing online. Like recent Need For Speed games, unless you choose to play solo, Heat places you in a server with strangers or a party that you formed and sets you loose upon the open world. There’s never a sense of community when playing this way, as more often than not each individual will be alone in the world doing their own thing. You can opt to invite people to any event, with AI filling in the spots if there’s not a full party. But after it’s over, everyone is deposited back into the world, and the chaos begins anew. And since players will only show up in your world if they’re playing at the same time as you, it makes the world even emptier than it would otherwise be. It’s messy, and not a good way of organizing things.
Messy is the adjective that best describes Need For Speed Heat. The story is ho-hum, the events could use more variety, and the multiplayer is disappointing. But when you sit behind the wheel of your customized car and try to escape from cops that are hunting you down in the midst of a rainstorm, you can look past those issues. Ghost Games is on the right track, even if there is still plenty of room for improvement.