It’s no secret that the Need for Speed games aren’t where they used to be in terms of popularity. The series has evolved over the years with countless iterations into an experience that is detached from what fans originally liked about it. The integration of micro-transactions in the previous iteration further added to the disappointment generally associated with the franchise. With Need for Speed Heat, developer Ghost Games has attempted to bring the series back to its roots while retaining certain traits of the more recent NFS games.
From the onset, the game puts you in the heat of the action. It’s a linear cop chase segment that works as a tutorial to get you up to speed with the game’s driving mechanics. From there, things open up and you’re able to pick a character as well as a ride and drive across the game’s open world, which is set in the Miami-like Palm City.
Winning races and earning prize money allows you to unlock new vehicles built for specific race types, namely drift, off-road and street races. Furthermore, there’s a wide array of customizations, upgrades, and paint jobs to purchase for your cars. Car enthusiasts will find themselves spending many hours tweaking and customizing the look and feel of their cars, as it is hands down the most engaging component of Need for Speed Heat.
It’s a joy to reap the benefits of the time spent towards your car’s latest performance tweaks when you take it to your next race and succeed in winning; it feels like a genuine accomplishment. Of course, it helps that car handling in Need for Speed Heat is an improvement across the board over Need for Speed Payback, particularly concerning drift. Thankfully, there are no micro-transactions this time around, and the in-game currency is only obtainable by completing races.
A cheesy storyline is also attached to the experience, and it often feels forced and unnecessary. It’s largely a generic take on the ‘street racer versus corrupt cop’ plot. Cutscenes are often worth skipping, as characters animate poorly and the dialogue leaves much to be desired. Not much of the development budget was allocated to storytelling, as it isn’t the focus in a racing game. That said, a self-aware approach to humor could have given the cheesy storyline some much-needed personality.
On the plus side, the game does a decent job of extending the ‘street racer versus cop’ narrative to the gameplay. Need for Speed Heat features a day and night cycle, and races are only sanctioned during the daytime. As a result, nighttime race events are considered illegal and therefore the stakes are higher. You ascend the ladder of fame by winning nighttime races and increasing your reputation (player level), though getting caught by patrolling cops has the opposite effect. Performing stunts and winning races with cops on your tail boosts adds ‘heat’ (read: multiplier) to your reputation, giving it a significant boost. It’s a high risk/high reward mechanic, and the risk only gets greater as your reputation goes higher. Cops become more aggressive in your pursuit, and it genuinely feels like the stakes are higher.
While there’s plenty of content in Need for Speed Heat, it often gets repetitive as a solo experience. It is heavy on customization and reputation building and as such the game loop is largely inclined towards series purists. You’ll often lose reputation and have to grind to regain lost progress. There aren’t a whole lot of side activities in Palm City aside from taking on challenges, time trials, and gathering collectibles.
An important part of the experience is showing off your upgrades and custom paint jobs to other players. This is where the shared-world aspect comes in. The game supports 16-player servers, and you’re free to invite other free-roaming racer roaming about the map to race events. Racers from your friends’ list can also join your party to take on activities along with you.
In the audiovisual department, the game does a great job of conveying a sense of speed during fast-moving instances. Car models are nicely detailed and they stand out particularly in well-lit nighttime areas. The soundtrack is comprised of hip-hop and EDM tracks, which go well with the street racing theme.
Need for Speed Heat takes several steps in the right direction and is a notable improvement over Payback, but the grind-heavy nature of progression and the lack of varied activities keep it from being among the best-shared world racers. That said, series purists will find plenty of reasons to stay hooked.