Still burned by 2017’s Need for Speed Payback, I wasn’t sure Need for Speed Heat was going to be the salve the series needed – but this open-world street racer has some surprising pep to it. Heat is a marked return to form, owing its success to ingredients plucked from a few of the franchise’s most fondly-remembered games. It took more attempts than would’ve been ideal, but developer Ghost has finally built a racer that feels fittingly faithful to the roots of Need for Speed. Heat is hardly revolutionary, but it is fast, fun, and streets ahead of 2017’s properly disappointing Need for Speed Payback.
Heat combines elements of fan-favourites like Underground and the original Most Wanted with some welcome tweaks inspired by its contemporaries. The result is deep vehicle customisation and hectic cop chases, but in a world featuring fewer hazards that’ll bring cars to a dead stop. Like in Forza Horizon, even stone walls crumble and trees splinter if you careen off course. Fewer encounters with momentum-killers helped to keep my pace high and my pulse higher. It’s a back-to-basics approach with some modern modifications, and it works. Best of all, it’s completely purged of the free-to-play style lottery-based performance upgrade system, the ill-conceived obstacles preventing access to body mods, and most of the other horrible dreck that plagued Payback. It’s all been ripped out and sent to the scrapyard.
Palm City is Need for Speed Heat’s new playground, and the neon-drenched, Miami-inspired map is a great fit for the classic Need for Speed motif. The city itself is the big highlight here – the surrounding countryside is a little unmemorable – but there are a few other cool spots, including a mini Cape Canaveral-style space centre, a fun abandoned racing oval, and a big container yard begging for a shred session. It’s obviously only a sliver of the size of something as wildly ambitious as The Crew 2, and a bit lifeless on closer inspection, but it’s far denser than Payback and makes for a more interesting driving experience.
Heat’s interesting hook is that there are basically two distinct experiences to be gleaned here, and switching between each is a manual process. Daytime Palm City is defined by regular, sanctioned street racing on marked courses for cash payouts, while night racing is all about illegal, underground racing and running from the fuzz to build up rep points. Both are needed to progress through Heat’s story, which still plays out like an off-brand Fast & Furious, but the writing’s a lot more restrained than that of the regularly cringeworthy Payback. There’s not a huge amount of story; it’s more of an occasional diversion from Heat’s regular racing events. There’s some nice fan service towards the end but ultimately it just tapers off suddenly like a mid-season TV finale and didn’t leave much of a lasting impression. It’s also worth mentioning that Heat can be played online (where other players can join your events) or completely offline, but you have to opt in to either mode from the main menu; it’s not quite as elegant as the seamless online/offline switching afforded in the likes of the Forza Horizon games.
After multiple generations of open-world racers where the sun rises and sets without awaiting my instructions I initially didn’t know what to make of Heat’s unique time-of-day switching system but, after some time with it, I quite like the power it grants me to focus on what I need. If I want money for parts and cars, I’ll race during the day. Heat looks a bit plainer in daylight – overall, the environment looks better whipping by at 150 miles an hour than under intense scrutiny – but the racing is decent. I’m a big fan of the crash barriers being real, individual objects in the world, too; there’s a lot less pinballing off invincible walls here. If, on the other hand, I need rep points to qualify for more missions and more potent performance upgrades, I’ll race at night. Night is absolutely the superior visual experience, especially when it rains. The racing is also more exciting, with traffic to avoid and more aggressive cops to deal with.
Heat’s cop chases aren’t restricted to pre-set time trial routes like they were in Payback; you now have the freedom to escape in any direction. They are a fair bit tougher, though; certainly until you can secure the best upgrades. While in Payback you could punt them off to the side, Burnout 3 style, in Heat you can’t really go toe-to-toe with the cops in quite the same way. There’s now a damage meter for your car, so while you can fight back a little and earn instant repairs from gas stations up to three times a night, too much rough stuff and you’ll wreck and be arrested.
Chases are definitely biased more towards the cops now. I don’t necessarily mind that – it’s a lot to ask that an AI should be able to out-maneuver a human driver without some sort of leg up – but I do hate that it cheats by spawning in cops in close proximity out of nowhere, and their supernatural bursts of speed get old. Also, the Busted Bar timer that ticks down to an automatic loss is absolute baloney. I can’t see a need for a Busted Bar if our cars can only take a finite level of damage; if I can force my way through a gaggle of pursuit cars without writing off my ride, let me. I get that it’s all in service of making the act of building and banking huge rep scores a thrilling risk but, if there’s no one actually in front or behind me, getting busted thanks to an arbitrary timer and losing all that rep is nonsense.
Hot Stuff Coming Through
There’s a good selection of cars available but the roster may be less impressive if you’re a veteran of Payback as the grand majority of the garage is paid forward from that game. Ferrari has climbed back on board and there’s a nice spread of them, but the nerds at Toyota are still absent. Overall my criticism of Payback’s vehicle roster is still relevant here. For instance, there’s a huge selection of modern supercars, which are an important part of Need for Speed’s original DNA, but peculiarly few icons from the ’90s. As the golden era of JDM tuners, for instance, it’s a shame only a select few from that decade make the cut in a game that seems custom-made for them. And although the cars look best in the rain (like the rest of the world itself), great little touches like animated raindrops trickling down side panels are a bit undermined by the fact nobody animated the windscreen wipers.
When I got behind the wheel, I immediately noticed that the handling in Heat has been tweaked to have drifts initiated by getting off the accelerator and pumping it again while turning into a corner, but I’m not really a fan of the technique as I found myself breaking into unwanted drifts just by normal feathering of the throttle. The good news is Heat lets us toggle it back to brake-to-drift, which allows a driver to stay mashed on the gas and just quickly pump the brake to get sideways. It feels more intuitive to me, like a quick dip of the clutch to spike the revs.
It does take a minute go get going, though: the slow-speed starter cars aren’t the best demonstration of Heat’s driving dynamics, and I’ve enjoyed the driving much more as things get progressively faster. Heat mercifully does away with needing specific cars for specific classes and every vehicle I’ve bought so far can be tuned and re-tuned for grip, drift, or a compromise in between. Drifting feels a bit slower in Heat than Payback but you have more control of car angle, which has made the drift events quite enjoyable.
Likewise, Heat’s upgrade system is a gigantic improvement over Payback. Beyond a few special reward items there are no more hoops to jump through to apply cosmetics, and no more poker machine Speed Cards to pump up your whip’s performance. Good riddance, I say. Want a part? Buy it. It’s the way it should be. I’m only really baffled by the presence of drag tyres without a dedicated drag mode.
A big new addition is engine swaps, which are great because they can increase the overall potential horsepower of cars that previously hit a premature performance ceiling. But even better than that is exhaust tuning, which allows fine tuning of the already excellent exhaust notes available. It’s subtle, but seriously: whoever at Ghost spearheaded this system deserves an extra week holiday this year. This is some straight-up car geek catnip and I am all about it.
Elsewhere, the livery editor remains top notch and stance options are still here for those of you who like their cars to look like Herbie on the brink of death; you know, after he got tossed off that cruise ship and dragged out of a river. There’s avatar customisation, too, if you value that and desperately want to see a strange man’s midriff thanks to clothes I didn’t even know existed. There’s actually a whole parade of prats you can select to be your driver, although none of them look like they could really tell a carburettor from a jar of kombucha.