It was an institution once. You’d gorge on a new Need For Speed over a couple of days each winter like a hibernating Richard Hammond, your mind full of rim manufacturers, neon skirt lights and Lil Jon songs. And then after eight or so hours, you’d have a thoroughly grotesque Nissan Skyline in flip-flop orange-lime green with a spoiler the size of Cheltenham drilled onto the rear bonnet, and it’d all be over. Until next year.
Need For Speed Heat is a return to those glory days. The days before loot boxes and live action cutscenes that practically forced your fist into your mouth. The days before half-baked always-on multiplayer concepts and bug-riddled release days. In many ways, Ghost Games’ latest addition to the storied arcade racer finds as much success in what it doesn’t do, as what it does.
Which says a lot about just how many mistakes have been made previously, because what it does is bring a real sense of place, revitalises the cops vs racers theme with a devilish risk-reward mechanic, and adds a day/night cycle that injects new interest in the old NFS structure. It got me thinking about silly spoilers again, and the precise shade of neons to set off my 1980s BMW (greenish). It’s not a victory by default, but finally a righting of the ship thanks to good calls in the key areas.
Like handling. As any good arcade racer should, Heat delivers a wild fantasy of how performance cars might behave if you drove them with a gamepad. Racing game developers often reference that abstract spectrum between racing simulators and arcade games, but Need For Speed Heat doesn’t seem to want to even acknowledge sim-cade’s existence. It’s sheer accessibility.
Part of that is removing all necessity in hitting the foot brake throughout the entire experience. Instead, easing off the accelerator then tapping it back on while steering hard into a corner will start a drift. Get it right, and you can take a 90-degree turn at 150mph without braking. And on the very rare occasions you need more stopping power, like police chases, the handbrake will turn you on the head of a pin. NFS hasn’t tipped over into outright Mario Kart territory – drifting does still slow you down rather than boost you – but it’s certainly not pitching anything like Forza Horizon et al’s realism.
It’s preposterous, having such insane cornering power and speed, but within the open world of Palm City, it works brilliantly. The challenge is in threading the needle through lines of oncoming traffic and holding max speed for as long as you can. And as any game carrying this name should, it captures the feeling of driving far too quickly brilliantly. The lightness and increasing vagueness of a car’s handling at high speed, the way even your HUD elements stretch onscreen as though pulled out of shape by sheer g-force – all ensures that driving in a straight line feels as absurd as driving around a corner.
Since you’re dying to know, the plot this time revolves around an illegal street racing scene in the fictional Palm City and a local PD so hellbent on chasing down vinyl-clad Mazdas that elsewhere in the city murderers and muggers are presumably operating with impunity. Tough cookie Ana Rivera’s lost her crew and with the help of you, a customisable and, for once, not mute, newcomer to the City, she’ll take on the league of racer crews and prove she’s really, really good at racing.
It’s not so much the narrative arc as its execution that represents a step forward here. We’ve been passively and often reluctantly digesting stories about street racing crews since the venerable Need For Speed Underground in 2003, but what matters about this one is that it’s not intrusive. You’re only ever forced into driving through narrative setpieces in the prologue, and where 2017’s Need For Speed Payback had you stealing hypercars off lorries in tightly scripted quasi-races, Heat wisely leaves creating the spectacle to you. The most you’ll get mid-race to spice things up is a bit of radio chat from angry rival crews or pursuing cops, which crucially leaves you in control of the action.
Palm City itself does its fair share to add a sense of drama. It’s a Tony Scott vision of Miami, drenching every street with rain and neon lights. The game’s artwork references that overused synthwave aesthetic, but the art direction’s more expansive in-game, working in partnership with a soundtrack full of latin beats and southern hiphop to build a vibrant hyper-Florida which proves a perfect host for modern car culture.
That sense of place is helped along by Heat’s day and night mechanic, which resolves a long-running artistic tension in the series. EA Black Box’s Underground 1 and 2 existed in a hinterland of perpetual nighttime, summoning a very specific atmosphere. In Criterion’s Most Wanted, the sun never set. Who was right? Which is the Need For Speediest time of day? Heat neatly resolves this: during the daytime, you race legal circuit events for cash with no police interference. At night, you race illegal point-to-point runs for Rep (XP) and if the cops catch sight of you doing so, they’ll let you know about it. By which I mean they’ll use their cars to try to murder you. Thankfully, Bank and Rep are the only currencies in Heat. There are no loot boxes at all, no microtransactions, no MMO-like grinding.
Within this day-night cycle is my favourite thing about Need For Speed Heat: a risk-reward mechanic which binds your heat level with the police to an XP multiplier. Finish the night without getting in trouble and you’ll get the advertised amount of Rep. Grief the cops and then lose them, and you might get as much as three times the Rep.
Doing so involves surviving their ever-escalating methods of pursuing and busting you, such as helicopters, spike strips and Corvettes made from diamond that can hold 300mph on straights. It’s very difficult to lose them at levels two and three, and if they do bust you or wreck your car, you’ll lose a huge amount of cash, not to mention resetting your Rep multiplier.
I’ve gambled a lot with this system, and I’ve definitely lost more than I’ve won. Once or twice I felt hard done by – I was instantly busted while driving through a billboard, for example, losing about $50,000. But still, the temptation prevails – and it’s more interesting than progressing simply by ticking off races and drift events.
Above all – and this might sound a bit silly – after a few run-ins with the law and the sting of lost earnings in your memory, you start to feel like a street racer. You start to actually care about getting one over on the corrupt cops, and you value every car and every mod – because they’re actually hard to come by. I spent a good few hours with the BMW I began the game with, because in a game that meters out cash and unlocks relatively slowly, the lost earnings I’d gambled away had a real impact. And when I finally did buy a new car – a bright purple Porsche Cayman, since you ask – it felt like a real achievement.
You can also speed up your progress by taking Heat up on its soft-sell multiplayer component and racing with other human beings. Doing so raises cash payouts by 40%, and although finding other players was tricky pre-release, the netcode was robust enough when we did get into a race. And when you win – my Porsche did the trick – once again you feel inclined to entertain Heat’s fantasy, that you are in fact a street racer, part of a community and an ecosystem. That feeling hasn’t been present in Need For Speed for a long time.
It’s not a perfect game, you understand. There are real issues with route readability in night races, resulting in many a missed checkpoint. Cars take on scuffs and grazes at the slightest provocation, which means they almost always look beaten up in every interstitial loading screen cutscene before races. The police might be a shade too hard to evade. And on PS4, it chugs along in the first few seconds of each race when flare smoke and vehicles fill the screen.
These aren’t conceptual problems though, and that’s a big deal. For the first time in years, Need For Speed has remembered why people used to play it so religiously, and recognised the more recent elements that put them off. I’ll take a missed checkpoint or a dodgy police bust now and again in exchange for a return to Underground’s unlock structure and tuner fetishism; for Hot Pursuit’s high stakes chases; for an EA release in 2019 without an RNG element designed to slow progress.
Version tested: PS4. A review copy was kindly supplied by EA.