We rather enjoyed Need For Speed Payback, which apparently is a controversial opinion because everyone else didn’t enjoy Ghost Games’ last outing, but hardcore fans of the series can rejoice because Need For Speed Heat is a throwback to the series high points of Underground and Underground 2 which means that the focus here is on illegal street racing, angry cops and lurid car customisations. And speed. Lots and lots of speed.
As ever you play as a talented rookie racer who has arrived in Palm City (which is essentially Florida) to take part in the Speedhunter Showdown, a sanctioned series of races in the city. Think of it as being a bit like Forza Horizon, a celebration of good, clean, wholesome racing fun.
These races take place during the day and that’s where you can earn money which can be spent on new cars or parts. However, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, you can’t just earn cash and buy a car. That’d be too simple. Nope, to be able to buy them you need ‘rep’ (reputation) which is earned by completing night time races. You know, the illegal sort. Doing well there is important if you want to get in ‘The League’ which is apparently what all the cool kids are competing in.
NFS Heat doesn’t have a day/night cycle. Instead, when you leave a garage you pick night or day and it’ll stay like that until you go back to a garage and this is where the game’s most interesting gameplay wrinkle takes effect. Winning races, and partaking in other activities, at night earns you rep and each additional race you win in a night boosts your overall rep multiplier. However, that rep isn’t yours until you get to a garage and bank it.
However, the city’s racers are being hunted down by Lt. Frank Mercer who has set up his High-Speed Task Force in an effort to crack down on illegal racing, aided by Officer Shaw, a corrupt cop who’ll do whatever it takes to get results. This means that at any point at night you can suddenly have cops on your tail and it happen during races or just when you are driving around normally and additional cops will join the pursuit as your heat level rises.
It all adds a very interesting risk vs. reward mechanic to the game and is a great idea in theory. The only issue is that the cops seem to be the best racers in the game and shaking them off can be incredibly difficult at times. The old trick of driving headlong through incoming traffic doesn’t work because the Palm City streets aren’t very busy (even during the day but especially at night) and opportunities to lose them are hard to come by. They’re pretty tenacious which means they’ll happily follow you into areas that you wouldn’t expect.
If you can lose them and get home safely, NFS Heat is exhilarating, but most likely you’ll get busted and that means that you lose a chunk of rep and usually any spare cash that you’ve got. It can be frustrating and led to me playing it pretty safely at night, never trying to win more than a couple of races before returning home.
On the road, the controls are really good thanks to the simple drifting system that they’ve implemented. If you let off the accelerator (), tap it and then hold it down you’ll begin drifting or you can use your handbrake if you want a bit more control, either way though it works well. It’s not quite Out Run 2, but it’s a bit better than Ridge Racer.
Aside from the races that show up in either the main campaign or just as points of interest on the map, you also have the usual drift events, billboards to smash, jumps to go over. The usual sort of sandbox racer stuff that has been in this type of game since Burnout Paradise. There’s always something to do, money and rep are usually something you’ll be looking to earn all the time, and so NFS Heat is a good game to kill time with but there’s not much in the way of novel gameplay here and if you’re not feeling the usual ‘beat THE MAN by winning races’ storyline this might all start to feel a bit too familiar and repetitive.
But, of course, that’s what it says on the tin and if you just want a lot of high-octane arcade racing action then this is a great game. We particularly appreciated just how arcadey it was. Pretty much everything apart from buildings and railings that stop you plunging into rivers is super destructable. You can drive through trees, fences and so on without any effect or slowdown, it’s not particularly realistic but it is a lot of fun and means you don’t have to be too precise when you’re speeding around at night or trying to avoid the police.
Despite the absolute lack of fanfare that the game launched with, Ghost Games haven’t skimped on the presentation at all. The visuals are often spectacular. While it is locked to 30FPS, the action is fast and smooth and the Frostbite engine shines here thanks to some incredible lighting. Sure, they throw as many puddles on the floor as possible to show off the reflections, and there’s enough neon lights around to give a Geometry Wars player a migraine so it’s not always tasteful, but the game looks so good that it doesn’t really matter.
The daytime setting isn’t quite as exciting visually but the game still looks good at these times. Palm City has a range of areas to explore, much like Burnout Paradise, with city areas, countryside, dirt areas, industrial yards and woodlands and they offer a different racing experience.
So yes, it’s nothing new particularly and the cops can make your life a misery but NFS Heat is fast, exciting, challenging and will be exactly what you want if you’re a long time fan of the series but if you’re looking for innovation, well… this is like the twentieth game in the series, what’s wrong with you?
+ Very arcadey
+ Lots of cars
+ Great sense of speed
+ Good drifting controls
+ Day/night system is good
- Some confusing track layouts
- Story is the usual nonsense
- Customisation is powerful but fiddly
- Will have limited appeal to some gamers