Need For Speed Heat Review

December 4, 2019
Also on: PS4, Xbox One

One can only admire the boldness of both publisher EA and developer Ghost Games on releasing an open-world Need for Speed (NFS) in an arcade racing landscape that has a bar set so high by the Forza Horizon series, that even Olympic high-jumpers would struggle to clear it. The influences of Playground Games’ titles are plain to see but the bigger question is can NFS Heat make itself tantalising enough to still be relevant when stacked up current open world racing king, Forza Horizon 4.

NFS Heat takes place in Palm City, a pseudo-Miami and home to the Speedhunter Showdown racing festival. Shockingly, and to the surprise of no-one, at the same time there’s illegal street racing at night. In response, the local law enforcement sets up a task force to crack down on these races but you’ll soon discover that all is not what it seems with its hard-nosed leader Lieutenant Mercer. The plot wouldn’t look out of place from the early days of the Fast and Furious franchise before they start leaping cars between buildings and escaping submarines. It’s somewhat plausible but with hammy dialogue and characters that seem to tread the standard street racer tropes. Washed up racer who could’ve gone pro? Check. Girl racer who isn’t taken seriously? Check. Random newbie who is trusted right from the get go? Yup, got that too.

Scuffs showing it's been a busy night.

Unlike NFS Payback there isn’t a day/night cycle in NFS Heat. Instead you have to transition from one to the other, which actually isn’t a bad thing. It allows you to focus your efforts in the daytime races on earning money — or bank in local parlance — before your transition to the night. You see, only the cool racers get access to the best kit and the only way you can show you’re cool is breaking the law at night. The more races you do and the higher your heat multiplier, the quicker your reputation increases and by extension the better races you can enter both at night and day. Your heat multiplier is the key component here. You can increase this by completing races but the quickest methods are to evade cops, break billboards and just generally make a nuisance of yourself. The AI-controlled cops are rather aggressive and whilst one cop can easily be evaded with a decently upgraded car, dealing with multiples cops is another story.

As your heat multiplier goes up the number and types of police vehicles deployed to catch you increases. The general cruisers can be politely tapped into oncoming traffic for an easy getaway but the faster corvettes and brute vehicles deployed thereafter are best avoided. At this point evading the police relies on your quick wits, drifting skills and the ability to either know the area or read the map quick enough. With the added obstacles of local traffic this is no easy feat to achieve but the risk vs. reward that having a higher multiplier comes with makes pushing for higher levels very tempting. NFS Heat even goes so far as to lock some very lucrative races behind these heat levels and if it’s not high enough you can’t even take part. Rest assured though that should you join them, a cop chase mid-race is virtually guaranteed and makes getting to the finish line, let alone winning, a very rewarding experience.

Working our way up the heat levels.

That being said, it’s a shame that NFS Heat employs some rather underhanded tactics to make these chases more infuriating than they should be. Rather than having other police vehicles join organically from wherever they’re patrolling in Palm City they’re randomly spawned in, sometimes right in front of you. This is especially infuriating if you’ve picked a tricky turn out to help evade them and, mid-drift, see a police car appear that wasn’t there two seconds before. It also seems as though NFS Heat employs some rubber-banding to them as well for if you’re unable to break line-of-sight quickly they will, eventually, catch you up no matter how fast your car is. Whilst it’s nice that you don’t drive through pursuit-breakers like in NFS Payback to evade the police, we’d appreciate not having magic police cars either.

If you do happen to get busted by the cops you’ll lose a bit of money and your heat multiplier, if you have one, will be set back to one but you’ll still gain reputation, just not as much. That said, if you constantly fail to end the night by getting to a safe house and are busted instead, getting access to better cars and more money can be quite a slow grind. We’d much prefer a system that rewards more reputation boost by using the heat multiplier mechanics at night with a reduced system for winning or placing in daytime races. It just seems downright odd that if you’re dominating them the racing public wouldn’t sit up and take notice.

Look Ma, we’re off-roading!

As you progress through the main storyline missions you’ll come across drift and off-road racing which demands that you have different cars for each discipline. The upgrading of vehicles is really straightforward. Want an off-roading Subaru Impreza? Pick the off-road tyres, suspension and so on. The same applies for drifting and it would be prudent to have one tuned for on-road racing as well. There’re 127 cars from 33 manufacturers, with Ferrari returning to the fold so there’s a decent stable to choose from. Toyota is still noticeably absent due to NFS, as a series, promoting illegal street racing. You can also acquire community created designs, or wraps, for your car or if you’re far more artistically talented than us, you can make your own. 

Speaking of going solo, you can, if you choose to, play through NFS Heat in solo mode however it’s much more fun to play online. Whilst it doesn’t seem to be as densely populated with online players as Forza Horizon, other random players will still jump in and out of your games’ instance. They can be chased by cops, inadvertently provide a distraction while you’re being chased and, if you wish, when you enter a race a matchmaking instance to race against fellow humans. Wait times seem to vary but we weren’t waiting too long during our playthrough. If there’s not enough the rest of the grid is padded out with AI racers. They don’t have the fake-human feel of Horizon’s drivatars and once you have a powerful enough car beating the AI isn’t much of a challenge.

It rains quite a bit and the effect is quite pretty

So far so good then but unfortunately for NFS Heat there are a few fundamental issues that really pull it back to Earth with a thud. Our review PC is a rather well-specced machine sporting a Core i7 7700K, a GTX 1080 and unnecessary 32GB of RAM. Despite this and many attempts at tweaking the video settings we often found ourselves battling dropped frames and weird graphical slowdowns whilst racing. Drivers were reinstalled, checked to make sure we didn’t miss any updates and yet this issue persisted. The number of times we missed a turn or crashed our car thanks to this little problem is beyond count at this point. Initially we thought it happened when the changeable weather was in full force or perhaps when the traffic count was high but it was sporadic and infuriating. In addition we noticed that traffic would pop in whilst driving and had a rather entertaining cutscene halfway through with cars appearing and disappearing in a parking lot as if David Copperfield were putting on a show.

Joining weird graphical issues in the list of disappointments is the handling of the cars themselves. Whilst we don’t expect sim-level handling in an arcade racer we would still prefer something that bears something close to reality and more importantly has some feel to it. At no point did we know what our car was doing or going to do and that’s kind of important in a racing game no matter its genre or intended audience. We also question the logic of making letting off and then pushing down the throttle the default way to initiate a drift. Sure, it makes it nice and easy but NFS Heat seems to take even a gentle feather of the throttle as the okay to send your car sideways. This can be changed in the settings, and we suggest that you do, but it seems an odd choice for the default despite its ease of use given its hair-trigger like deadzone.

Erm, where did your textures go, photography person?

Another odd choice is when and where textures are seemingly absent or reduced. Even when we ran the game at ultra settings we still came across situations where people or objects were lacking defined textures making them look flat or blurry. The contrast is especially stark during the start or finish of races. Here you have a wonderful-looking car and road surface with a bland and blurry looking person taking photographs. Sometimes we would notice blurry lines or blocky areas where there possibly is meant to be text or a more defined texture but why there isn’t, we don’t know. 

Overall NFS Heat is a competent open-world arcade racer. It’s an improvement over its predecessor and thankfully has no microtransactions whatsoever. That being said its story is pretty bland and by-the-numbers and the racing itself gets rather boring and repetitive after a while. Couple this with a handling model that lacks any real feel and you start to question why release a game that doesn’t really bring anything of note or new to the table. If you’re wanting a change from Forza Horizon then NFS Heat isn’t a bad choice in the grand scheme of things but the frame rate issues, on PC at least, need to be rectified before we can seriously recommend it as an alternative.

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NFS Heat is an improvement over NFS Payback but that isn’t saying much. Microtransactions are long gone thankfully but not much else has changed. If EA are hoping to return the series back to its heyday it’ll need to do much more than this to topple the likes of Forza Horizon 4.
Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.