Need for Speed has burning that rubber in one way or another since 1994. It a racing series that's been about underground street racing, cops and robbers, and exotic cars. It's been a realistic simulation racer and an arcade-y free-for-all. But in this generation, one that has winnowed the arcade racer nearly to death, Need for Speed has lost the race against its competition, and itself.
Ghost Games has been hammering away at Need for Speed ever since 2013's Need for Speed Rivals. That title rode the transition between the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 and PlayStation 4/Xbox One, a co-production that marked that last time the original Criterion Games worked on the franchise. 2015's Need for Speed and 2017's Need for Speed Payback were both misses, and unfortunately, the threepeat of roughness continues with Heat.
Just Like Paradise
Need for Speed Heat moves the series to the vaguely Floridian climate of Palm City. For reasons unknown, the local law enforcement is cracking down on street racing; seriously, the opening story cutscene has the cops discussing the outright murder of a crashed street racer out in the open. You're the new guy or girl in town, looking to prove yourself on these deadly streets. It's a decidedly edgy story for a game about racing, but that's where Need for Speed has lived for the past two titles, so I guess Ghost Games feels strongly about it.
Need for Speed Heat has its feet planted in two worlds. During the day time, you can leisurely drive around the open-world environment of Palm City, from the Miami-like city streets, to quiet suburbs, roads winding around swamps, and the gentle mountain slopes of the countryside. You'll take part in sanctioned race events full of cheering crowds, sponsorships, and bright banners. Win your races here, and you'll gain Bank, NFS's version of money.
I do have some big issues with the AI in Need for Speed Heat's structured races. It rarely feels like you're in the pole position with a wide variety of drivers. You'll find that either one AI driver is ahead of you, taking corners at top speed with no issue and no way for you to catch up, or they're right behind you, waiting for you to screw up. Which AI driver that is changes from race to race, but you'll always be able to go, "Oh, this is the one I have to worry about." There's also an odd facet of the AI: if you get too far ahead, it seemingly just gives up and your lead becomes massive. I found at around 160-200 yards—the AI just gives up and your lead just steadily grows. It's a weird thing that I hope Ghost tweaks in the future.
At night, Palm City becomes far more dangerous. The cops are out in force and if they see you driving too fast or breaking public property, a chase will begin. You have a Heat Level at night, similar to the police mechanic in other open-world games like Grand Theft Auto 5. At level 1, you'll have a single cop car chasing you, and they're relatively easy to ditch. At Level 5, they deploy spike strips, car jammers, and giant trucks to ram you off the road. There are race events at night as well, but they tend to be single-path sprints, rather than the circuits you'll find in day time courses.
Racing and ditching the cops at night earns you Reputation. Winning races, wrecking cops, and stringing out longer chases increases your total Rep, while the Heat level acts as a direct multiplier. But while you can fast travel to any garage during the day, at night you have to lose the police and then drive your way to a garage to bank your Rep. If the police take you down, you lose your Heat level, most of your Rep, and some bank.
It's an excellent risk-and-reward system, and some of the best moments in Need for Speed Heat is when you're careening around the city at night, drifting around corners, and trying to get the police to crash into pedestrians or other obstacles. The issue is the risk isn't tuned properly. Heat Level 3 causes the police to become nearly suicidal in their pursuit, slamming their cruisers to force a crash, even if they're caught in the fallout as well. Heat Levels 4 and 5 are simply evil in terms of the amount of force thrown your way, and getting there with a full bag of Rep only to be wiped out is simply depressing. Worse, some events are locked behind higher Heat levels, forcing you to this edge. You can stray away from Heat Levels 3, 4, and 5, but that means you're going to be repeating a lot of races.
Heat forces you to jump back and forth between day and night to progress. You need money from day time race events to buy better cars and parts, but you unlock access to those purchases by raising your overall Rep level at night. It's a better progression system than Need for Speed Payback, but Palm City is also lacking enough events to prevent you from having to run certain events over and over. When you're doing so to make just a little more bank or Rep, it can occasionally feel like a grind.
That's because there simply aren't enough events. Worse, they're mostly of the same type: circuit races or sprints. I wish there were a few more event types available; maybe some slaloms, or precision targeting races where you have to hit numerous targets on the track. Forza Horizon is very good about breaking up the general race types with alternate events or bigger, unique races. Need for Speed Heat lacks that.
We Built This City
However, Palm City itself is one of the best cities in one of Need for Speed's open-world games. Each region of the city has a solid sense of location and style of driving to it. During the day, it's nice to go on a trip around the white sprawling architecture of downtown or the vast golden fields of the country. Sometimes, it even looks and feels like Need for Speed Rivals. Night, meanwhile, has the neon glow of the old Underground games, and you can tell that it was Ghost Games' visual focus. Daytime can look a little flat, especially during midday, but the orange glow of dawn or dusk looks fantastic, especially if it happens to rain.
Dynamic rain is a feature for Heat, and it simply makes daytime shine when it pops up. It even seemingly takes into account the direction of the rain and structures in the path; if you go behind a building, the rain will briefly stop. It's a small addition, but it feels really cool. Combine night and the rain, and Need for Speed can look goddamn impressive. It doesn't always pop, but when it does, it makes me wish the game had a photo mode.
It's a shame that Palm City lacks life though. Ghost Games threw a number of collectibles to find around the city, like graffiti you can add to your car's paint job, or flamingos and billboards to destroy. But the city feels lifeless. There are no people around, and it doesn't really feel like there are enough cars on the road, especially in the downtown region. Is the entire populace under martial law? Let's get some folks out there, Ghost Games!
The Customization Comes Close to Forza, But Doesn't Reach Its Heights
Need for Speed Heat's driving also doesn't make the best first impression. When you start out, you vehicle feels heavy and leaden, without a real sense of speed. That does change once you purchase more parts and begin to turn your vehicle; just getting a full complement of Sport parts made my experience vastly better.
The speed cards from Payback are gone, replaced with a more straightforward RPG style parts system. Parts have different levels—Basic, Sport, Pro, Elite—and push you into various racing categories: Drift, Race, Road, Off-Road. Leaning into a category is key for making the handling on Heat feel good. The new system also means you're more likely to keep the same car for longer, as you can just switch out parts and tune to take on various events.
This does clash a bit at night, where Road and Grip parts and tuning are worthwhile against cops. If you're tuned to win a Drift event at night, you'll pretty much throw up your hands when it comes to facing off against the cops at Heat Level 3 and above. You're simply not fast enough to pull away.
Customization continues to be a big part of Need for Speed. Ghost Games has licensed a number of real-world manufacturer and aftermarket parts, and the paint job system stands up well next to the competition like Forza Horizon. The best addition here is a new customization ranking for each car, allowing you to tell at a glance how many custom parts are available for a vehicle.
Need for Speed Heat is essentially a conglomeration Need for Speeds past and present. The core is rooted in the work done on Payback, but day time racing feels alot like Rivals, and night is clearly supposed to evoke Underground and its sequel. The police themselves and some of the gadgets you can equip your car with remind me of Criterion's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. The open-world has been a staple of the series since Need for Speed: Underground 2. It tries to pull in a little bit of everything, and in some ways, it succeeds.
Despite that, Need for Speed Heat lacks a sense of place and purpose. It's a solid game, with a solid open-world map and some great car customization. But "good" doesn't reach the superior handling of sim racers like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. It doesn't equal the event variety, visuals, and sense of social connection of Forza Horizon 4. The racing isn't even as outlandish and crazy as Burnout Paradise. Need for Speed Heat is better than Payback, but since it's two years later that still means it's just… good. It's a single step forward, when it needed to be miles ahead. Maybe next gen will be that step. A series with the history of Need for Speed deserves better.
Need for Speed Heat is a conglomeration Need for Speeds past. A little Payback, a little Rivals, a little Hot Pursuit, a little Underground. The result is a good foundation to build upon, but weird AI issues, a lack of variety in events, and some poor tuning in cop chases mean it's not great. Maybe next gen will see Ghost Games bringing a little more real heat.