Crooked cops, gorgeous vehicles, and rough-around-the-edges racers with something to prove – these are all the hallmarks of the Need for Speed franchise, which has always straddled the line between taking itself too seriously as a high-end racer and a fun, edge-of-your-seat arcade experience. After some missteps in recent years, the Need for Speed is back to its very-best, delivering a game which is somewhat of a greatest hits compilation of the series’ best bits over the years.
The real hook in Heat is its day/night cycle. While time doesn’t necessarily change, players can switch to race under the sun or moon at any given time, allowing you to compete in official, sanctioned races in the day, and illegal, no-holds-barred races at night, with cops, of course, being rampant in the latter. It’s a clever addition to the game that breaks up the duality of NFS’ racing world – giving those who like a closed circuit with chanting fans on the sidelines a dose of that experience, while also providing the trademark cops v racers dynamic which made gamers fall in love with the franchise in the first place.
And it’s not just window-dressing either – there’s a point to racing in the day and night. Day races will earn players money, which can be used to purchase cars and upgrades; whereas racing at night earns you reputation points. You need reputation points to unlock the ability to purchase certain cars and upgrades, before you can splurge your money – and so you see the chicken before the egg element to motivate your day/night transitioning.
There’s an extra twist though, too. When you’re in night races, your Heat (essentially a wanted level by the police) goes up every race, with your rep being multiplied by our Heat meter at the end of each night. The more races you do, the more heat multiplier you have, which means big rewards when you return to your safehouse. But, you take on the risk. If you get caught before reaching your safehouse, the cops dock a huge portion of your rep and money. The risk/reward gamble of the Heat system works well to add a sense of tension to every race, making you hesitate, and deciding whether it’s worth it to venture across the city for that elusive race and get a massive multiplier, or head home and bank the money and rep is a spicy addition.
Where Heat gets you though, is that the racing is so damn enjoyable, that it’s hard not to take those risks. Heat‘s moment-to-moment gameplay is sublime, with Ghost Games managing to re-capture that perfect blend of aggressive drifting, blurring speeds, and responsive feedback from all the cars. The presentation which goes along with it is some of the best the series has seen too: the car models are stunning, the neon-splattered and palm tree laden streets look fantastic at night, and the lens-flaring police lights have that Need for Speed sheen to them that’s hard not to get nostalgic about.
Of course, there is a story to accompany the action. Playing as a rookie racer, you have to climb your way up the ranks, make a name for yourself, et cetera, and so on. It’s all very Fast and the Furious-esque, but more like, well, the big-screen adaptation of Need for Speed, which makes sense. So, there is a story, but it is filled with stereotypical racer caricatures who go on about rep, street-cred, social media, and the loyalty to their crew.
While Need for Speed still feels a little B-grade in its story-delivery, its racing is an A. The franchise is back to its very-best with a clever new mechanic to balance its various disciplines, but manages to prioritise and enhance its police chases and vehicle customisation to deliver an excellent love-letter to longtime fans.
Need for Speed Heat is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.