'Need For Speed Heat' Review: A Slick Racer Buried Beneath The Grind
My first hour with Need For Speed Heat isn't great, to say the least.
EA's newest instalment in its long-running series opens with an overly confident police officer shouting at the press about street racing antics, the kind of dangerous shenanigans that he absolutely won't stand for in the beautiful Palm City. But the cutscene is full of very noticeable frame rate issues (on Xbox One S, anyway). Not the best way to make a first impression.
I'm then thrown right into the action, and racing along the beach at night while being chased by the cops is completely exhilarating. Until, that is, I cross the finish line only for the game to not register it, forcing me to repeat the event. The game then completely freezes, about 30 minutes later. Like I said, not the best start.
However, like many a race, it's not how you start but how you finish that counts. And the more time I spend with Need For Speed Heat, the more I like it.
The game is set in (and around) Palm City, and it's a gorgeous open world to play around in, one that has very obviously taken inspiration from Miami, Florida. With generous environmental diversity - taking in the high-rise cityscape, coastal roads, mountainous regions and more industrial sites - simply driving around, almost aimlessly at times, is a joy (even when some buildings don't render properly, leaving certain areas looking awfully bland). At night, the bright neon lights shimmering off your ride fit the aesthetic perfectly.
You can choose to play during the day or night, with different missions available depending on your selection. While the sun is up, races will earn you 'Bank', the money you need to upgrade or buy new cars. Under the cover of darkness, however, you earn 'Rep' by winning street races or evading the police. The higher your Rep, the more you level up and the more missions and cars you unlock.
If you get busted by the cops, though, you lose all the Rep that you've earned that night. They'll also take some of your Bank too, the cheeky little do-gooders.
This new, player-chosen day and night cycle is a genius addition to the Need For Speed franchise, and something that I can see being included and evolved in future instalments. The game really comes to life at night when you're drifting around a tight corner in your finely customised motor, trying your best to stay in front of the pack while out-muscling the cops. A flurry of fluorescent blues and pinks whiz past as a massive drum & bass track blares out. It's moments like this where fans of the series will love Heat. The arcade-style racer doesn't take itself too seriously, and the result is all the more fun for it, with a perfect balance of realism and arcade-like gameplay.
The cops are determined to bust you at night, so deciding on whether or not you should return to a garage to save your Rep or attend another illegal event to earn even more is a nerve-racking balancing act. If you raise your heat level too high - i.e., your 'wanted' level - it's almost impossible to escape with your newly obtained Rep, meaning the entire night was a waste. Push your luck too much in Heat and you'll find it easier to defeat a boss on Cuphead or Dark Souls than taking your sweet Rep into the next day.
Everyone knows that driving in games, as well as in real life, is usually much better when you're singing along to your favourite song. Therefore, the music in games like this is pretty important, and a good few tunes in a row can make all the difference. The playlist in NFS Heat may not exactly be my music of choice, leaning as it does on rap, R&B and dance beats, but there's a few bangers in the mix guaranteed to make you feel like you can take on Lewis Hamilton.
That being said, turning the music off (as I do for a couple of races, to capture footage without being slapped with a copyright strike) leaves the world feeling distinctly empty. It's then noticeable, especially during the day, that there are almost no other cars on the road. It makes sense during the early hours of the morning as everyone would be asleep, right? But not at midday in a large metropolis.
After a few hours of leveling up and building Bank, I need a new car. The starter option isn't cutting it anymore and the rival crews are laughing at me. I had just enough to buy a BMW M3 - you know, the one everyone still gets nostalgic about from Need For Speed: Most Wanted. I went straight to the garage to customise and create my magnum opus on four wheels. You can easily lose yourself for hours tinkering with your vehicle, choosing between hundreds of different options on every part of a car you could think of. And if you don't want to spend ages changing the paint on your motor of choice, there's an option to download community-made wraps.
And then, there it is: the paint job perfectly matching the M3 from Most Wanted. How can I say no?
In addition to the cars, you can also fully customise your character - a nice touch, but not something I'd personally waste too much time in a game like Need For Speed. I simply select one of the generic characters at the beginning of the game - someone who looks like she should be called Karen - edited the number plate on my swanky new BMW, and started drifting the streets of Palm City in the 'Karenmobile'. Heat makes every vehicle look pretty, no matter what adjustments you make, and admiring your ride once you leave the garage is extremely satisfying.
It takes a little while to get used to the controls - perhaps longer than I'd like to admit. The steering, handling and drifting are alien at first - but once you do click with it, driving feels fantastic. Upgrading and unlocking better parts and cars is what it's all about, and it's almost addictive. I'm constantly wanting to improve my Rep, to get the best engine, improve my nitrous tank and build up towards a Lamborghini to flex on the other racers in Palm City.
It's not something that a lot of players will be prioritising, but the story in Heat is very average. It's almost like a high school student was told to make a movie about fast cars and loudmouth police officers. Don't be surprised if you never really feel invested in the characters or narrative at all, but following the plot does help to level you up, allowing you to get bigger and better vehicles. Which is really what we want from this, right?
Grind can set in before you know it, too. You can easily find yourself playing through the same races very early on in the game, just to rank up in order to progress in the story. This is tedious and unnecessary - especially when it hits after only a few hours.
Overall, Need For Speed Heat is more fun than I was expecting. It's hugely enjoyable, and almost relaxing, to fly down the roads of Palm City. If you like NFS games, you'll have a good time with Heat. Personally, grinding away to fully unlock everything in the game doesn't wholly appeal, but I'm sure to be jumping back into this one, for an hour of so of escapism, driving recklessly to raucous music.
Need For Speed Heat was tested on Xbox One using code provided by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Need For Speed, EA