Need for Speed continues to cement itself as a mid-tier racer rather than the leader of the pack
The Need for Speed franchise has been a mess for many years. Once a top-tier videogame brand with a legion of fans, in more recent times the series has struggled to remain on life support.
Several times NFS has looked to be back in top form as entries were volleyed about between different developers, but ironically for a game built around speed, the momentum died out quickly each time.
Looking back at the last decade, Slightly Mad Studios took the series in a new (and surprising) direction with Need for Speed Shift in 2009, putting out a more serious racer without the silly attempts at a storyline that many recent titles sported. Soon enough tons of other racing games had followed suit with many of the same gameplay elements brought over, and by the time a rather by-the-numbers sequel was released in 2011 (following a middling Criterion-led NFS: Hot Pursuit release in 2010), the new direction had already grown stale.
Not content to churn out just one inadequate racing title in a single calendar year, EA put out the rather dismal NFS: The Run in 2011 as well. It was pretty clear at that point EA was determined to run the series into the ground under an avalanche of mediocrity with their relentless stream of uninspired releases.
Then out of nowhere Criterion Games, the studio that had created the beloved Burnout series in years past, returned to form with their second title under the NFS banner, Most Wanted (which was a spiritual successor/reboot of the 2005 game of the same name).
Mixing the Need for Speed pace and style with some of the vehicular carnage of Burnout proved quite popular, even if the game did have flaws. Following its success, Criterion Games announced it would become the main developer of the series and EA discontinued its strategy of having multiple developers working on different NFS titles at once.
It looked like the series was on the right track at last, at least for a moment.
That all changed when quite randomly Criterion announced in 2013 it would be shifting focus away from racing games entirely in order to focus on different genres, much to the confusion of fans everywhere.
Later that year Criterion cut its staff to a mere 17 people and moved some 70 employees over to Ghost Games, a new studio which had already been hard at work on an unannounced NFS game that Criterion had apparently been helping with. Shortly after this, Ghost Games, with Criterion's help, would release its first Need for Speed title, called Rivals. While it didn't exactly set the world on fire, it wasn't bad either, although some rather annoying bugs and questionable design decisions put a damper on a lot of the fun.
Its lukewarm reception prompted EA to order a reboot of the franchise for the new sole heirs to the troubled series. For the first year since 2001, no NFS title would be released in 2014, and following that the series would follow a more feasible two year release cycle.
Titled simply Need for Speed, the reboot released in 2015 was...not the greatest.
Opting to blend live actors in horrifically cringey cutscenes with the in-game action, the ham-fisted story and remarkably bad dialogue and acting was not well received. The game did look good, but its overly arcade-y handling was disliked by many longtime fans and its always-online functionality came with plenty of annoyances and bugs.
Two years later, Ghost Games tried something different with NFS Payback. The concept was actually quite smart; create the racing game equivalent of the Fast and Furious movies, complete with high-octane stunt sequences and explosive set pieces.
Unfortunately the delivery was a complete dumpster fire. The arcade-y handling was even worse especially when trying to perform high-speed stunts and the remarkably insidious progression system was just insulting to anyone who paid for the game. Basic upgrades to vehicle performance (not just cosmetics) were locked away in loot boxes and the entire game was designed to be incredibly grinding in order to force players into spending more real-world cash to unlock things that had always been present in racing games right out of the box.
Luckily for Ghost Games it released at about the same time as Star Wars Battlefront II and thus escaped the mass media firestorm by flying under the radar, though fans of the series were more than a little peeved. Comparing the two, Payback was actually a worse offender than Battlefront II in terms of their greedy microtransactions and crippling progression systems, which is really saying something.
For the latest entry, NFS Heat wisely ditches microtransactions entirely. Even cosmetic items are all unlocked exclusively through gameplay, without a single loot box or paid upgrade in sight. It's back to the way games used to be made, which is a breath of fresh air in today's market.
Heat tries to bring a more balanced and grounded approach to its world, opting to split itself into two disparate modes: nighttime street racing complete with cop chases, and more traditional daytime track races.
Completing races and escaping cops at night gives you "rep" which is used to level up. As your level increases you unlock new cars and performance upgrades to purchase and new events to compete in; racing during the day earns you cash to buy those unlocked cars and parts. You can swap from day to night at any time with just the tap of a button, assuming you aren't in a race.
There are also plenty of open-world staples like speed traps, drift zones, collectables (for both gaining rep and unlocking different graphics to use on your cars), billboards to smash, and more which all net you cash and/or rep for finding and completing their objectives.
Diving into daytime racing first, Heat offers a variety of traditional circuit, sprint, and drift events in the fairly large open-world that is Palm City (a fictional location based on Miami). While on-road events are the primary focus, there are a decent amount of off-road tracks and sections as well, with players able to customize their rides to focus on road or off-road performance as well as tuning for racing- or drifting-focused handling.
The on-road racing is solid, but the off-road racing gets extremely annoying. While it'd be understandable to rattle the screen and make off-road driving rough when you try it in a hypercar, the excessive screen shaking occurs even in a car with off-road modifications and as a result makes driving off-road grating quickly. The ridiculous amount of shaking causes eye strain and is rather obnoxious - the least they could do is give players an option to limit this or disable the effect entirely in the menus, but no such option is given.
The handling is similar to the last two entries in the series, and is very much on the arcade-y side; if you're looking for a simulation racer or more precise control, this isn't the racing game for you. Once you get used to it the handling is decent enough, and players can tune their rides to more suit their style, though even with extensive tuning you aren't going to get the same kind of satisfying precision present in the likes of Forza Horizon or Wreckfest.
There are some advantages to this style however - drifting is a lot easier than in most racers, though it can be a bit too easy to initiate (you simply let off then hit the gas again during a turn), and the handbrake is ridiculously effective. In fact, I basically never press the left trigger to apply the brake while playing Heat, instead opting to tap or hold the X button to initiate the manual brake which allows you to drastically reduce speed in an instant and whip around sharp corners with ease.
While it isn't remotely realistic, it does make you feel like an action-movie driver and for that it does deserve some credit, and it makes races feel more like watching a Fast and Furious movie as opposed to real racing.
Completing events during the day gives you a solid amount of cash to play with and is more of a casual experience as you don't have to worry about being constantly chased by cops, running into traffic, or losing anything you earn. The caveat of course is that you don't earn any rep during the day (other than very small amounts for completing daily challenges or completing open-world objectives like finding collectables and going through speed traps).
The graphics are solid and do the job well, though the environment doesn't match the level of detail found in some other major racing games released in the last few years. The sense of speed you get while blazing through the city is still top-notch however and the peripheral blur creates a cool visual feel. Ironic given the game's title, the rain effects are the definite highlight in the visual department as the reflections off puddles and the beads of water on your vehicle are exquisitely presented and with impressive lighting to boot.
Some of the lighting however (especially during the day) can be a bit on the bright side, and oddly, there are no brightness or gamma settings anywhere to be found (even in the PC version).
The impact that has on your own experience is going to depend largely on how the game looks on your specific screen - on my own TV which I've previously calibrated thanks to the Xbox calibration tools and personal preference, the brightness in Heat was a bit too high and I noticed some washed out blacks particularly at night. Considering the game features HDR support as well, not having any brightness or HDR settings at all is absolutely bizaare and it's something that's in virtually every game released in the last couple of decades.
At night, the game itself is an entirely different experience.
The graphics are much more impressive here, with plenty of neon lights and burning nitrous exhaust piercing the darkness. The game also loads its races quite quickly (especially for a game built in EA's often slow-loading Frostbite engine), though oddly, after you enter a garage, when you choose to exit you are always returned to the main garage location rather than the one you actually entered. This often forces you to fast travel back to where you were and it's a perplexing design choice - or possibly it's a bug that simply hasn't been fixed even a month after launch.
Heat sounds excellent, from the crackling of an aftermarket exhaust (which you can actually fine tune yourself) to the slight ringing and near silent effect that accompanies a solid impact. There's plenty of music tracks as well, featuring the kind of hip hop and electronic music that you'd expect from a game trying to imitate the street-racing culture.
The afforementioned rain effects look even better at night, and the pulsing neon ribbons that are displayed to indicate "corners" and inform you that you need to turn fit the aesthetic well - when they don't forget to load. I noticed plenty of times that these ribbons either failed to display until after I had already taken a turn, or did so at the last moment, making it much less reliable than looking ahead at the minimap which can be distracting in the middle of a race.
Plenty of street races are available and unlocked through levelling up, and besides the different aesthetic and not taking place on closed portions of the city (thus, there's traffic to run into) they largely are the same fare as the daytime events.
The big difference comes in the form of the heat system and related cop chases.
Heat of course is another name for a "wanted" level, just like in Grand Theft Auto and plenty of other games, including past NFS titles. One star means cops are aware of you and will go after you on sight but in limited numbers and with little support; five stars means basically every cop in the city is after you and they're deploying everything they have to try and take you down, including but not limited to tracking you with a helicopter, deploying spike strips, sending in faster vehicles, and using things like a "killswitch" EMP to temporarily disable your vehicle.
All of this is pretty standard for the series, and much is the same as 2015's iteration. In Heat, you'll gain rep by completing night races and escaping from/crashing cops, with your heat level serving as a score multiplier. Rather than banking that rep right away however, in order for it to be saved you have to "bank" it by escaping from any cops and safely returning to a garage, of which there are 13 to be found in the city.
As you rack up larger and larger amounts of rep and increase your heat level, you'll have to grapple with the risks and rewards of continuing your night out or banking your points while you still can. It's a clever system that creates a lot of tension as your heat rises, but it comes with some very poor design choices.
In the early portion of the game, when you are in slower vehicles without a ton of upgrades available, escaping from cops can be downright frustrating and the game often feels downright unfair. Cops have extremely aggressive rubber banding (if you pull away, they slingshot back to you almost immediately) and surprisingly taking out cops isn't overly satisfying nor fun to execute.
Unlike Most Wanted which borrowed heavily from Burnout, takedowns aren't a focus in Heat and where you'd expect a car to take heavy damage, like ramming them into guardrails and other cars in the environment, often it has little effect. The most effective tactic oddly seems to be ramming the rear bumper repeatedly until the vehicle's damage meter is exhausted, as ramming them in the sides or trying to run them off the road rarely works as you'd expect it to and often just makes your own vehicle more damaged.
If you do get stopped and a cop is near, you have an extremely short and unforgiving window to pull away before getting busted - the window is extremely punishing early on when you have cars that aren't exactly dragsters off the line, and even though you are not trapped in and flooring it, the game will often bust you anyway. The early portion of Heat's night racing is a frustrating and annoying slog because of it, not to mention how many vehicles will come at you out of thin air even on a 2-star heat level. Without a really fast car, if more than one cop is following you they never seem to get lost no matter how many crazy turns you take.
If you are busted or your vehicle is totalled, you lose most of your rep (though at least you do get to keep some) as well as a chunk of whatever money you had saved. As your car takes damage (which is shown by a handy meter by the speedometer), you can drive through a gas station (unfortunately they don't seem to be as plentiful in Palm City as in anywhere else in North America) to instantly repair your vehicle. The catch is that while during the day you can repair your ride as often as you want, at night you can only do so three times in a single night, so choosing when to use them is essential for longer runs.
The cop chases really don't change throughout the game, but at least as you level up you'll unlock different perks to make them easier, and a fast car is essential to successful escapes. Ghost Games really should have implemented some sort of progression model into the police chase difficulty rather than keeping it constant and just giving you more tools as you go, as the first half of the game is turned into a tedious and frustrating experience the way it's set up.
Thankfully the game does get better if you stick to it, with a solid amount of engine, suspension, and other upgrades to customize your ride to your style of racing. You can also have two perks selected at any time should you have them unlocked and purchased, which include things like improved damage resistance, nitrous that's refilled by drifting or performing other maneuvers, killswitch jammers, re-inflatable tires to combat spike strips, and more.
There are plenty of cars to choose from which unlock at a steady clip from Heat's 127 vehicle collection, including plenty of tuners, muscle cars, and sports cars. As in the classic NFS titles, there are some cool cosmetic upgrades to be had as well, like different underglow lights and nitrous exhaust colours, and a wrap editor for creating your own liveries complete with unlocked and collected designs and a plethora of options.
As for the story, Ghost promised a more "gritty" and serious tone, and while they tried, Heat's story is still incredibly cringey and weak.
Basically, you're a street racer new to the city that joins a racing crew in a location that's in an all-out war with police. The police of course are all so corrupt even Hillary Clinton would blush, while the street racers that are meant to be the heroes of the story are about as sympathetic as a bunch of immature and entitled brats (because that's what they are).
None of the characters are likeable or relatable and you'd be wise to simply skip the cutscenes - the plot is extremely dry and the substandard voice acting and dialogue doesn't help, though at least it isn't quite as painful as the 2015 game's live action segments were.
Although usually short, some missions require you to follow someone for a couple minutes to get to a certain location, where they drive painfully slow and force you to sit through some bland dialogue - it would be much better if they made these sections skippable as well.
For online functionality, there isn't a whole lot of benefit to playing online unless you really prefer racing other people - if you want to work your way through the campaign and level up your rides, playing offline is best so you can pause your game if needed and avoid the hassle of occasional lag or having to join different servers.
Why EA's online open-worlds still show warnings (or sometimes just kick you to the menu) for when a server is "shutting down" and require you to manually matchmake for another rather than doing it automatically like in other open-world titles I have no idea.
There aren't any additional modes or anything for the online component, though having a bunch of human players scatter and each trying to lose the cops rather than you always being their lone target, or working together with other players to take them out, can be good fun and help you raise more rep. It's the one area that is notably more fun to play online than by yourself.
Need for Speed Heat feels like a lazy rehashing of the 2015 reboot, complete with some odd design choices and omissions which bring down an otherwise decent racing game. The grating and frustrating first half will be enough to turn many players off of the title entirely, while the latter half is solid enough but rather unremarkable. Fans of arcade racers likely will have enough to make Palm City a worthwhile trip, but for everyone else I'd recommend waiting until the game is on EA Access early next year or for a bargain-bin price drop.
+Solid graphics, with impressive rain effects and night racing
+Great sound design
+Plenty of content and stuff to do, even if nothing is really unique
+Offers both street racing and cop chases along with traditional closed-track racing
+Lots of cars and customization options, and best of all no loot boxes or microtransactions
-Eye-rollingly bad story
-Frustrating and grinding cop chases, particularly without a slew of upgrades applied to a fast car
-Some annoying bugs (nighttime track guides not loading, server issues, garage location resetting after entering)
-Poor design choices (excessively shaky off-road cam, way too short escape window for being busted, no brightness/HDR calibration settings whatsoever)
The Final Score: 6.5 / 10