Need For Speed Heat isn't perfect, but it's the best game Need For Speed has seen in a while and provides plenty of street racing thrills for fans.
Need For Speed has had a tough time of it in recent years. Once one of the most renowned racing franchises around, it has struggled this generation through poorly-received releases that have failed in comparison to more impressive rivals. As we reach the twilight of the current console generation, Need For Speed Heat is trying to undo some of that bad work.
There have been signs from the off that publisher EA was looking at Need For Speed Heat as a game first and as a cash cow second. For starters, the news that Need For Speed Heat would not have loot boxes was certainly a promising one given the debacle that was Need For Speed Payback's monetization. Loot boxes should never have been in Need For Speed in the first place, yet the removal of them for the next entry gave some fans cautious optimism for the future.
For Need For Speed Heat, developer Ghost Games tries to get back to basics. That means fast racing, bad cops, and more concentrated cheese than a Kraft factory. It's a step in the right direction for the series after some disappointing entries, although it's not up to the highs of the best Need For Speed has to offer.
Need For Speed Heat's core mechanic is the switch between day and night racing. Arriving in Palm City aiming to make a name for themselves in the street racing world, the player then spends their days taking part in legal street races to earn coin. The danger then comes out at night, with the player completing illegal races to build up their reputation.
Both the day and night cycle are required in order to make it through the game. Earning cash during the day is a great way to get the funds needed for car upgrades or buying a new vehicle altogether. With each race in Palm City's open world having a handy numerical value for car quality, it's vital to make sure that the racer's equipment is as high as it can be, upgrading parts back in the garage as each day passes.
Every racing aspect of the game is considerably amped up at night, and here the focus is social rather than monetary. Raising the racer's street cred is the way to level up, and therefore get access to further races and progress. In-game, it's explained as 'proving' yourself to the incumbent illegal racers of Palm City, who can be impressed by thoroughly beating other racers and avoiding the cops.
The nighttime racing introduces an interesting risk and reward strategy. Evading the police adds a multiplier to the rep score at the end of the night, adding an incentive to keep racing in trickier conditions as the police get more and more difficult to escape. Of course, this also raises the probability of being caught by the cops, and losing a considerable chunk of cash in the process.
Need For Speed Heat also makes the world map feel different in tone between night and day, rather than just within its gameplay. The deep blue coastlines and the vibrant country lanes are offset by the drab urban environments of the city during the day, but at night it all flips into this landscape of neon. The game is certainly better to look at during the night races, but it's no slouch at any time.
This is particularly showcased in the car models themselves, while the level of customization available helps the players make their garage their own. There's also the ability to change your character, from a selection of initial character choices through to clothing options, although it's all a little redundant when the vast majority of the game is spent in-car.
As with previous Need For Speed games, Need For Speed Heat revolves around a core story that occasionally pops into its gameplay elements. This latest game in the series doesn't go too far from the usual plot, as once again it sets a group of freedom-loving street racers against the police trying to shut them down. There is also a handful of twists and turns along the way beyond the expected ones of the tracks themselves.
There's no FMV cut scenes here, unlike some of the most well-known (or maybe notorious) Need For Speed games, with everything done via in-engine cut scenes. However it's still awfully cheesy, full to the brim with cliched dialogue and story beats that won't come as a surprise to players, with occasional moments of bizarre clarity with regards to police brutality and abuse of power. In other words, it's a Need For Speed game.
That's not what Need For Speed fans are coming for, of course, and the priority is always how the driving feels in action. Overall Need For Speed Heat fills that niche for arcade racing, and when going at full speed before drifting into a tight corner it's a riot. That's not to say that all parts of Need For Speed Heat work, with the specific drift technical challenges getting dull quickly, and in general the cars don't quite feel as heavy as they should, floating at times when a weighted punch would be more appropriate.
The biggest problem in Need For Speed Heat is a structural one, however. The game's levelling system doesn't work in its favor, with a balancing issue that means progression is slower than the player would want. This means that it sometimes feels as though players are being forced into a tick box exercise with their racing in order to reach the next round.
Nonetheless, this is definitely a step in the right direction for Need For Speed overall. It's not perfect by any means, but it gets the basics right in terms of creating a good experience before going for the microtransactions unlike the last entry. Given the history of Need For Speed in gaming, it's nice to see that at least this entry is back on track.
Need For Speed Heat is easily one of the better Need For Speed games of the Frostbite engine era. If it wasn't up against some extremely impressive rival racing games like GRID this year, then it would probably be more of an essential purchase, but even so Need For Speed fans will want to get hold of this one. Unless, of course, the lack of live-action cutscenes is a complete turnoff.
Need For Speed Heat is out now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Screen Rant was provided with a PS4 download code for the purposes of this review.