Need For Speed: Heat Review — Caught in the Slipstream
It's been a rocky few years for the Need for Speed franchise. Despite solid gameplay and some fairly innovative technology that blended in-game assets and live-action cutscenes, the 2015 reboot of the series released to a lukewarm reception. The follow-up, Need for Speed: Payback made even less of a splash.
To this point, it's clear that the Need for Speed franchise has been overtaken by Forza Horizon in the open-world racer department. Does Need for Speed: Heat finally bring the franchise back into the lead position?
Well, not really, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Need for Speed: Heat Review — Burying the Lede
The release of Need for Speed: Heat is notable in that it wasn't notable at all. Speaking from personal experience, as someone who keeps up with this sort of thing for a living, I only saw one ad for the game ahead of release — and that was two months prior to launch. There was very little of the usual pomp and circumstance that surrounds the release of an EA game, especially an EA game in a beloved franchise like Need for Speed.
When you're a game reviewer, this sets off a few alarm bells. It's made even worse when, for one reason or another, your review copy of the game arrives on release day.
These are all strategies major publishers use to get ahead of reviews, squeezing as many sales out of a rushed product as they can before us wicked reviewers bring its Metacritic score down to an unacceptable 78. Colleagues of mine have also pointed out that the lack of microtransactions, while a great thing for consumers, is indicative that EA doesn't have a ton of confidence in the game.
All this is to say that EA seems, or at least seemed, to think that this game would not be very good. That perception, though, did not turn out to be reality.
Under the Hood
It's always a bit of a struggle to get used to Need for Speed's arcadey, drift-heavy control style from other racing games. Need for Speed: Heat is no exception. The difference here is that a live tuning option, available with the press of a button, gives players the on-the-fly ability to adjust traction control, the way a drift is initiated, steering sensitivity, and how much downforce the car generates. This small feature is a huge help if you want to take part in a road race downtown, then, without swapping cars, head over to a drift duel at a water treatment plant.
And trust me, you won't want to swap cars, if only because you'll want to spend as much time as you possibly can in Palm City.
An amalgam of Miami, Los Angeles, and pretty much any other beautiful United States city known for being sunny and gorgeous year-round, Need for Speed: Heat's open world is one of the most visually stunning, carefully crafted game maps I've ever seen, even if there are some graphical hiccups when you look at things up close.
Unlike Forza Horizon 4, the placement of everything seems intentional, which is unique in a game with a map this big. There are no huge stretches of empty land or barren highway. Wherever you find yourself on the map, you're treated to a breathtaking vista of some kind, to say nothing of the collectibles, drift challenges, propaganda billboards, and speed challenges you'll pass as well.
The race routes are all unique, and racing is as fun as you would expect, although there appear to be some rubberbanding mechanics that apply to the AI, which makes races frustrating at times. In addition, the lack of any rewind feature combined with the fact that most races take five minutes or more to complete means that you will be in the lead, one turn away from the finish line, and skid right into a wall, forcing you to restart the entire race.
It also bears mentioning that in my time with the game, it crashed four times, once wiping out the entirety of my progress on a difficult race. This seemed to only happen while I was playing online, but at the same time, it seems clear that there are still some bugs here that need to be squashed.
Palm City Customs
The intention in design Ghost Games extended to Palm City is applied to the cars as well. Though Need for Speed: Heat doesn't feature as many cars as Forza Horizon 4 does, each one comes complete with a suite of fairly drastic visual mods, from splitters to spoilers and everything in between.
The livery editor also bears mentioning, because although it hasn't changed all that much from previous Need for Speed games, it includes a bunch of quality of life options that Forza Horizon still somehow doesn't. From being able to enter custom text without setting each letter as its own distinct shape, to customizing the texture of the designs themselves, there are good options here.
Oddly, the most stunning customization options come when you select and customize your character. Although there's no character editor per se, you select from a slew of attractive racers to serve as your avatar, Need for Speed: Heat boasts the most fashion-forward character customization options I've ever seen in a video game.
Sure, it's kind of off-putting that EA partnered with real-world brands like Adidas, Givenchy, Life's a Beach, MKI MIYUKI ZOKU, and Marcelo Burlon in order to provide product placement, but for any folks who are passionate about fashion, this is a really, really nice touch.
Life in Palm City
The gameplay loop of Need for Speed: Heat is familiar, with a few quality of life changes sprinkled in. When you exit a garage, you're be given the option to tackle Palm City either during the day, where you earn money for sanctioned races, or at night, where you gain experience (or rep) by winning illegal street races and outrunning cops.
The premise seems to be that you can play the game your own way, focusing on day races if you don't like the stress of being chased by cops all the time. But since both money and rep are necessary to overcome the game's odd progression cure, that's not the way it works.
And that's kind of a shame. For the first five hours of the game, as soon as more than one cop is on your tail, you're pretty much busted since your car isn't fast enough to outrun them all. This leads to some frustrating early game grind, where you're counting on the random chance that you can finish a few night races without a cop catching you in the act in order to level up, giving you access to the more powerful car parts you need to actually hold your own in a chase.
Although the story is pretty standard Need for Speed cops-versus-street-racers fare, it does go a few extra steps by trying to grapple with the broken criminal justice system in the United States, unapologetically depicting police officers and sergeants bragging about committing extrajudicial shakedowns and happily threatening citizens.
The radio is full of chatter by officers, each of them itching for a violent conflict. In the opening cutscene of the game, the game's antagonist switches off his body cameras and plans the murder and coverup of an injured street racer.
Need for Speed: Heat Review — The Checkered Flag
- The day/night system provides good gameplay variety
- Palm City is absolutely stunning
- The story, though rote, surprisingly grapples with the state of modern policing
- You can live out your greatest hypebeast fashion fantasies
- You'll need to fiddle with the controls at the beginning to keep from skidding everywhere
- Small soundtrack
- Can be a slog for the first few hours
- Still a little buggy
All in all, it's a shame that EA doesn't seem to believe in Need for Speed: Heat. It's an incredible racer in its own right, and while it can't match the epic scope and living, changing world of Forza Horizon 4, maybe it doesn't need to.
Need for Speed has always been about putting five spoilers on your car, painting it chrome, plastering it with racing brand logos, installing bright purple neon underglow, strapping a gigantic barrel of nitrous to it, and then outrunning as many cops as you can before you crash into the side of a building.
In that way, Need for Speed: Heat does this admirably.
[Note: EA provided a copy of Need For Speed: Heat for the purpose of this review.]