Edited by: Jade Swann
I have spent time with every Need For Speed title to hit the shelves since the first time I got behind the wheel of a Mclaren F1 in Need For Speed II. I’ve been with this series every step of the way and while sometimes I was left disappointed — I’m looking at you Aaron Paul (star of the Need For Speed movie boasting a whopping 22% on Rotten Tomatoes) — I have always come back. The reason for this is all of the memorable times I had screaming around corners in Most Wanted (both of them) or running from cops in Hot Pursuit (all three of them). Need For Speed Heat takes their lick from the past few titles and developer Ghost Games attempts to help you relive those memories with a fresh title, a fresh city, and a fresh name.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an individual is a street racer with a crew trying to make a name for themselves. All of their hard work is taken away in an instant. An amazing car is destroyed and, of course, those pesky cops are involved. Have no fear, because there just happens to be a brand new face on the scene, all they need is some wheels and the crew and they’re back in the limelight. I guess this trope must work because it’s been reheated so many times, and maybe it’s cynicism that comes with age, but this one fails to land. You’re thrust into a story because you purchase a dope ride from a pleasant-enough gentleman who has a sister that is a bit down on her luck in the crew department. After a few races, you’re invited to move into the garage with them, which is pretty handy, I suppose. Rent-free living and mechanics sounds like a win-win to me!
As the game opens up, you can choose between official races during the day and more illicit activities at night. The races from the day earn you money, and races and activities at night earn you rep. I was initially excited by the split as individuals could focus on their particular style of racing. If you enjoyed ProStreet, play during the day, or if you’re particular to Underground, then play at night. However, you can’t experience the game without covering both types of racing. You need cash for parts and cars, right? I mean actual parts this time, there are no performance cards to be seen. However, you have to split your time because it’s your rep that opens up higher-tier parts and cars. This, unfortunately, adds a play wall to the events in the game. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a car that could tear the story event to shreds, you’ll still have to go play night races to get to the appropriate level to start these events.
This is where the story becomes even more of a hindrance. If you spend your time playing in the day earning fat stacks of cash, you’ll constantly be getting phone calls from your crewmate who’s day-dreaming about hitting the big time and finally making it in “The League,” or even worse, calling about how bummed she is because of (redacted due to story spoilers, but I’m sure you can already guess the cause). The worst part of these interactions is that they replay. Remember when Uncle Vlad kept calling Nico in Grand Theft Auto 4 to go bowling? It’s like that, but I would have killed for one of them to ask me to go bowling instead of having the same conversation over and over. Uncle V was just a lonely individual; the cast of Need for Speed Heat must have short-term memory loss due to one too many car accidents. Also, if you don’t earn enough points when you finally do enter the night scene, your crew leader will make sure to inform you that she’s not mad, just disappointed. As if I haven’t heard that enough in my life.
The Need For Speed franchise is about racing right? Getting the biggest, baddest, flashiest car from point A to point B as fast as possible. The car physics in Need for Speed Heat are some of the easiest to get the hang of for new drivers that I’ve experienced. Rather than relying on spending time truly tuning your car or getting proper clutch and fuel to kick your car sideways into a drift, Ghost Games have made it as easy as a quick feather on the throttle and if you’ve got enough power and the right setup, you’ll easily throw the rear out and quickly get the hang of holding it there. However, this arcade focus is much more suited for the console market than PC, as it doesn’t even come close to race sim physics. As of launch, there is no wheel support and oddly enough, the mouse has no control over the map. The title was obviously set up for a gamepad from the outset.
There are plenty of events in the city, from tight inner-city circuit races to long-running point to point races with plenty of switchbacks to drift around reminiscent of Carbon, or the hills in the 2015 Need For Speed title. You’ll also find plenty of collectibles and challenges throughout the city. There are jumps, speed cameras, and drift targets to hit everywhere, as well as billboards to jump through and, for some weird reason, neon flamingos that you are intended to run over. In this way, it resembles some of my favorite titles. It gives you the freedom to move around a superbly crafted map and gives you plenty of things to do on the way to the next race. However, these challenges can become a bit of a grind for those that just want to get to racing.
There are three difficulty ratings to choose from, but they don’t seem to differ all that much. It didn’t particularly matter whether the settings were on easy or hard, as I found myself able to lap the slowest competitors and was never lacking in confidence going into a race. One thing this means, and is a boon for the title, is that it doesn’t employ rubber banding, which was infamous in previous years. The AI in the title were no match for slightly higher performance numbers and a good power slide through a tight corner. These races narrowed as the game went on, but it never felt particularly difficult and the drift targets increased with difficulty, but not to a point where they were troublesome.
The police are an entirely different story altogether. Until you’ve attained some major upgrades, a growing heat level will be worrisome. It’s something I’ve read about several times on Need For Speed fan pages. The cars are much more brittle than in previous titles and the police are relentless at night. Oh, do you remember the rubber banding I mentioned earlier? Well, the police have it and use it quite efficiently. Especially in scripted car chases. In one instance, you’re meant to get a particularly troublesome officer off of your crew leader and if you get them at a dead stop, when they finally get free they will use super handling and hyperspeed to catch up, in which case they’ll inexplicably slow down, allowing you to catch up again. Police will come out of nowhere and they’re very difficult to shake. If you get slowed down, a “busted” meter will slowly creep up and if your car gets totaled or the bar gets full, you’re toast. You lose the rep you’ve gained and a wad of cash in one fell swoop. While there is fun to be had by the police chases, it doesn’t have the takedown spots that Carbon had, and your car doesn’t have near the gate-crashing power that the runners had in Payback. This is a spot of contention for a lot of players.
Need for Speed Heat has some key features that are incredibly pleasing for the car guy in me. There are 127 cars upon launch and they range from classic 60s-era VW Beetles and Ford Mustangs to brand new supercars, such as Paganis and Ferraris, and everything in between. Each of these vehicles sports an assortment of visual customizations. Also, for those of us that aren’t the most artistic, Ghost Games has brought back community creations which, on top of body kits galore and even bull bars for your 65 Mustang, allow you to nail your perfect aesthetic. One of the most pleasing features is the ability to tune your exhaust. I spent way too much time with this feature on every car in my possession. If you want a deep rumble or an aggressive scream, you can get it and it’s incredibly satisfying. Even adding higher-level turbos will affect the melody of your pipes, adding a gratifying spin up and blow off every time you dump the throttle. There’s even a cool feature where your air suspension will lower when you turn the engine off, then raise when you start it back up again. While I would prefer to keep it at a consistent height, it’s a nice touch.
The map of Palm City in this game, while not quite as large as the previous title, Payback, is expertly crafted and very clearly harkens to Miami with all of its neon, and though they’re not actually very close, there’s even a space shuttle on a platform at Cape Castille. The map has everything from tight city streets to long flat out highways. There’s even an old raceway that will include a NASCAR-style race, and a port covered in storage containers with plenty of ramps and tight spaces to drift around. The map outside of the city is a bit dull during the day. Lifeless is a word I’ve heard more than a few times and when you’ve got plenty of light, the level of detail isn’t anything to be impressed with. However, Ghost Games captures a very vibrant scene at night. The flags for checkpoints during the day are replaced by neon gates that capture the aesthetic.
The cars have similar issues with aesthetics. In the garage, dealership, and even loading screens, they look fantastic, but when you get into an active race sometimes the colors on the cars start to get blurred. While they look fine normally, it’s clear that the textures and lines are a bit off. All of this even carries over to your character. This is the first time in my recollection that you can customize your driver in a Need For Speed title, and while this is pretty cool in that you can personify your driver in cutscenes with the variety of styles to choose from, outside of those rendered scenes, they just don’t look all that good. You also happen to see them a lot unless you heavily tint your windows. Every time you line up for a race or adjust the camera sideways or rear-facing, that mug will be staring out the window at you, and every time you win in day races, you’ll be standing beside your car getting pics snapped for whatever the Need For Speed version of Instagram is.
Good Guy Ghost Games
In recent months, we’ve been flooded with news of increasingly blatant microtransactions and one of the things I’m both surprised and happy about is Ghost Games' decision to leave these kinds of transactions out of the game. That’s the plan at least. There’s talk of car packs down the line, but as it stands there’s no way to pay more for the game. I even did a double-take. I looked around everywhere to see if it was hidden somewhere, but was pleasantly surprised when I couldn’t find any. One typical frustration for modern gamers is the inclusion of online-only play. However, the developers have even circumvented that. You can choose to play offline and even boot the game up offline, though it won’t be connected to EA’s servers and you’ll get dinged that you’ve lost your loyalty reward license plates associated with a “not owning previous titles anymore” alert, but those will return once you’re back online again.
The Verdict: Fair
Need For Speed Heat ticks a lot of boxes, and while some gameplay can be fun and rewarding, it isn’t quite the return to the Underground that a lot of gamers were expecting and wanting. The racing has a strong arcade feel, but is manageable. The maps and graphics are average, but not exceptional for the genre, and the story is mediocre. Although it has some redeeming features, such as heavy vehicle customization, lack of microtransactions, and offline play, is that enough to redeem its lack of wheel support, a crucial peripheral of the racing genre, and such a heavy focus on gamepads? I’m not sure that’s forgivable.