The Need for Speed franchise has been in a disappointing rut for a few years now. Once one of the premier racing properties of the industry, ever since Ghost Games took over the reins from Criterion, the franchise’s output has been wildly inconsistent. 2013’s Rivals was a solid debut for the developer, but every game since then has been worse than the last, until in 2017, the series hit rock bottom with Payback.
However, this year’s Need for Speed Heat is, happily enough, a remarkable return to form. It’s not the best arcade racer you’ll ever play, and there’s still of room for improvement, but Heat seems to understand what the most important components of an open world arcade racer should be, and puts most of its focus on implementing those components properly. Need for Speed Heat has a story, and as you’d expect, it’s just more wannabe-Fast and Furious tripe – with cringey writing, incessant chatter from characters, and ridiculous scenarios – but even the story is much less emphasized here than it was in, say, Payback. Heat understands that it is, first and foremost, a game about driving fast.
"Need for Speed Heat understands that it is, first and foremost, a game about driving fast."
There’s two sides to the coin that is Need for Speed Heat- day racing – which is when you take part in legal, sanctioned events that earn you cash prices to spend on upgrades and new cars – and night racing – when you tear through the streets in illegal races, contending with traffic and the law, to increase your rep so as to unlock more upgrades and vehicles to purchase. Curiously, there’s no day/night cycle here, and switching from one to the other is something you have to do manually, what with each having its own distinct set of activities and resulting rewards.
On paper, it’s a system that sounds too mechanical, but it actually works very well. The clear divide between the two gives you a lot of control over not only progression, but also what kind of races you want to participate in. Short on cash and looking to make some money? Take part in a few day races and earn some bank. Looking for more cavalier high speed thrills, or the opportunity to unlock a better set of upgrade components? Head out at night. Need for Speed Heat lets you be in charge.
It also helps that day and night feel very different from each other, as they should. Visually, though Palm City looks somewhat dull during the day (unless it’s raining), it really comes to life at night time, and it’s a treat watching the neon-drenched streets fly by as you zip through them at a hundred and fifty miles per hour, or watching the whole city spread out in front of you with thousands of lights twinkling like stars as you race down a hill.
"Palm City comes to life at night time, and it’s a treat watching the neon-drenched streets fly by as you zip through them at a hundred and fifty miles per hour, or watching the whole city spread out in front of you with thousands of lights twinkling like stars as you race down a hill."
Day and night feel distinct from each other in other ways as well. Racing around at night is an absolute blast because of Need for Speed Heat’s engaging risk/reward mechanics. The more events you take part in in a single night and the more trouble you cause with the law, the more your Heat level rises. On surface, your Heat level is your Wanted level, with cops becoming more aggressive as it rises, but your Heat level also acts as a multiplier for any rewards you’ve accrued by the end of the night. Finish the night by getting to a garage safely with a high Heat level, and you reap massive rewards thanks to your multiplier, but take it too far and get busted by the cops or wrecked in a high-speed chase, and you lose all of it. It’s a very well thought-out and equally well implemented system, and it makes sure that heading out at nighttime is a thrill every single time.
Driving itself is also solid in Need for Speed Heat. There’s a great sense of speed to this game, and racing through the city at breakneck speeds definitely gets the adrenaline pumping. The game also has a unique drifting mechanics, where instead of pumping the breaks while sliding into corners, you’re supposed to release the gas and then immediately pump it again while you’re turning. It takes some getting used to, and though Need for Speed Heat gives you the option to switch to regular drifting mechanics, I stuck with the default system. Once I got used to it, I grew to really appreciate it for the balance it struck between simplicity and still requiring a certain level of skill. More importantly, pulling off the perfect drift while veering into corners at high speeds still felt as great as it should.
What is a little disappointing is the damage mechanics. As opposed to Burnout and several previous Need for Speed games, in Heat, you can’t just bang into cops or your opponents with momentum to total their rides. Instead, you and cops both have health bars, and every impact eats away a chunk of that bar. It takes away the oomph and thrill of car combat that is so important in arcade racers of this kind, and though cop chases are still fun in Heat because of how aggressive cops are and because of how enjoyable driving is at its core, I felt they could have been significantly better if I could just crash into police cars and watch them get wrecked.
"Driving itself is also solid in Need for Speed Heat. There’s a great sense of speed to this game, and racing through the city at breakneck speeds definitely gets the adrenaline pumping."
Need for Speed Heat is, of course, an open world game- because why not, right? Palm City is great to look at, with plenty of visual variety and some well-designed areas in the city encourage some really fun activities. Unlike the map in, say, The Crew 2, it’s also the perfect size, and feels neither too bloated, nor too small. However, like most open world racers, the issue that Heat has to tackle is not size or visual variety, but how many engaging open world activities it offers.
In this area, Need for Speed Heat stumbles a little bit. In the opening hours, there’s not much to do besides zipping through speed traps or smashing through billboards – you know, the usual – but the game does, thankfully, add more activities at it progresses. Eventually, you can also do drifting challenges, stunt jumps, find and break flamingos, and more. Most of these activities can be plenty of fun at first, especially when they challenge you to think about and use the world and your surroundings in interesting ways, but they wear thin pretty quickly. By the time I had played more than a dozen hours, I’d started founding the open world activities rote and repetitive, and I lost the will to engage with them. Sure, driving through the open world is fun and of itself, but it can only be fun for so long.
Though the open world fails to keep players engaged in the long run, Need for Speed Heat’s deep customization mechanics make up for it on that front. There’s a large number of customization options on offer here – cosmetic and otherwise – and it’s very satisfying to start out with a base-level car and turn it into an absolute monster through steady upgrades. What’s even more impressive is that the wide variety of components and parts that you can purchase make sure that you can tool your car however you see fit based on what sort of event you’re taking part in, be it drifting challenges, off-road events, or street races. The dual progression of earning rep to unlock better upgrades and making money to purchase them works very well with the vast amount of customization options available. Best of all, at the time of writing, there are no horrendous skill cards, randomized loot boxes, or any microtransactions in the game to neuter those systems.
"The dual progression of earning rep to unlock better upgrades and making money to purchase them works very well with the vast amount of customization options available."
Need for Speed Heat is easily the best and most enjoyable Need for Speed game in years. It pares back on all the unnecessary crap that its predecessors placed so much emphasis on, removes the crippling monetization that ruined Payback, and instead focuses on the things that matter most- good driving, thrilling chases, and lots and lots of customization. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s a great comeback for the franchise. Hopefully, this is a direction that Ghost Games and EA will keep heading in with future instalments.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Driving is fast and fun; The risk/reward nature of night racing is constantly thrilling; Well thought-out and implemented progression system; Lots of customization options; Palm City looks great at night.
A bad story that takes itself too seriously; Repetitive open world activities; Disappointing damage mechanics; Looks underwhelming during the day.