I slow to a stop at a bend on a two-way street. On the map, I see a flashing red triangle rushing towards my location. I reverse and head the other direction, before noticing two more cops coming at me from that side. I reverse again and am lucky that the original cop changed course. I floor it across the next corner, cutting across part of a marsh, and just barely get out ahead of yet another approaching cop’s radar. Tense pursuits are common in Need for Speed Heat and not all of them end with a getaway. This latest entry in the long-running Need for Speed (NFS) racing game series recreates some of the best aspects of previous titles, including engrossing pursuits, ample car customization options, and inviting arcade-like racing mechanics. Heat also features a more fitting setting and story than the last game, tapping into the adrenaline-fueled racing spirit that defined its most successful predecessors.
Story and Gameplay
In NFS Heat’s single-player campaign, you start off as a newcomer to the fictional Palm City, a sprawling, Miami-inspired locale with a brutal police department determined to crack down on street racing. Unfazed, you team up with a pair of siblings: Ana, a fellow street racer, and Lucas, a car mechanic with several garages, at the start of the campaign. As you might expect, tensions and stakes rise between the cops and racers as you progress. The story mostly takes a backseat to the racing action (as it should) and the dialogue is not masterful, but Heat’s streamlined narrative framework works much better than NFS Payback’s convoluted action-racing plot. I have not finished Heat’s main story at the time of this review, but have spent about 12 hours in the game.
NFS Heat brings a brand new dynamic to the series; instead of a full day-and-night cycle, players now choose between Day and Night modes every time they leave the garage. Sanctioned race events (part of an event series called the Speedhunters Showdown) are available in the day and reward you with bank (the game’s currency). Illegal street racing happens at night and those events award you rep (points that go toward Heat’s leveling mechanic). Cops are present both during the day and at night, but are much more aggressive once the sun goes down.
Daytime events are straightforward and include sprints, circuit races, time trials, and drift contests. I played the game at medium difficulty settings and didn’t find early races very challenging. However, as the game progressed, the NPC competitors improved. Pay attention to the recommended car level for each event, since the further your car is below that level, the harder the event will be to win. Note that you can’t endlessly replay races and get the same monetary reward. After a few repetitions, the cash prize amount starts to decrease.
Cops play prevalently into night events. Cruisers often interfere during a race, but sometimes they wait at the finish line, ready to engage the winner in a pursuit. Cash payouts are lower for these events, but they are typically safer ways to earn rep than trying to start and escape from massive pursuits.
Cops now freely roam Palm City and can come after you at any time. This is a significant improvement over the unsatisfying former Bait Crate mechanic (you had to manually trigger pursuits with preset start and end points) from Payback. Pursuits combine mechanics from several past Need for Speed titles. For example, your heat level (1-5) increases the longer pursuits continue and the more destructive you are. Also, as with 2010’s NFS: Hot Pursuit, you can get hit a certain number of times before being totaled (and busted) and can equip passive and active anti-pursuit tech to your car. Some of the cops’ tactics are similar to those from NFS: Carbon and NFS: Most Wanted, too. For instance, cops frequently try to ram into you and then box you in, as they did in those games. Police helicopters and Rhinos units (heavily armored SUVs) are back too, but they only show up at higher heat levels.
Cop chases seem more difficult than in years past. For example, the escape meter depletes very quickly, even if you have a clear path away from trouble. Player vehicles also appear to suffer a disproportionate amount of damage from cops ramming into you, compared to when you hit them. One way to stave off destruction is to drive through a gas station to repair your car. You need to use these repairs wisely though, since you only get three per night. You can also bribe cops with a small amount of cash at the start of a pursuit if you aren’t in the mood to spar with law enforcement. In my experience thus far, the best cop evasion strategy is to try to outrun them on straightaways or cut off the road and hope they struggle to keep up or hit a tree along the way. In the downtown areas, if you brake hard before the water, sometimes cops will drive straight into the bay, too. Unfortunately, there aren’t any pursuit breakers; I patiently await the day when I can end pursuits by crushing cop cars with a toppled water tower again.
You must successfully return to a safe house to claim all the rep you’ve earned in a night session. If the cops bust you or if you total your car, you lose the majority of the rep you’ve earned and must pay a fine. As your rep level increases, you unlock new campaign-centric events, new cars, and better upgrade parts. Your heat level resets each night.
NFS Heat does include some multiplayer options, but they aren’t very compelling. Essentially, if you choose to play online, the game loads the same map with other free-roaming players. You can enter races, join a party, and start massive pursuits, but there’s not really a lot of structure to it. NFS: Most Wanted (2012) offered a much more complete multiplayer experience, with both exciting event playlists and online free-roaming. You won’t find anything similar to Burnout Paradise’s local multiplayer parties either in Heat. I’m also apparently part of a randomly assigned crew that collectively earns rewards, but whose members are also competitors. I ignored this mechanic.
Characters and Cars
Before you even choose a starter car in NFS Heat, you select a playable character (there are 12 models to choose from). At any point in the game, you can customize your character’s hair, clothing, and shoes or switch characters entirely. Your custom character appears in cut scenes throughout the game, including victory outros at the end of races and during campaign missions. Characters’ facial animations and mannerisms look slightly unnatural, but the voice actors seem to be different (though not drastically so) for several I tried. In any case, the ability to choose and customize a character is a huge improvement over being forced into the lifeless, rote roles of Ty, Mac, and Jess, in the previous entry. Forza 4 also allows for player customization.
Players can pick from one of three starter cars: a ’65 Mustang, an ’88 BMW M3 Evolution II, and a ’96 Nissan 180SX Type X. I chose the Mustang and had no problems getting through the first chunk of major gameplay with it. Still, you won’t want to stick with any of these cars for long, as the game offers around 130 to purchase. Sadly, you won’t find any Toyotas on the list, which means no Supra or Celica models.
As a franchise, Need for Speed is known for its car customization options, and NFS Heat is no different. The game smartly got rid of the awful slot-machine style performance upgrades from Payback in favor of a more traditional approach. You now purchase parts individually with the cash you earn from winning races. Need for Speed Heat rates cars on a scale of up to 399. Some cars start out at higher base levels, but you can increase any car’s level by upgrading parts. Upgrades fall into the Engine, Chassis, Drivetrain, and Auxiliary categories with several items in each across various performance levels (Stock, Pro, Super, Elite, and Ultimate). Higher-end parts cost more money.
Different categories affect different car stats; For instance, the parts you choose in the Chassis and Drivetrain categories affect the car’s handling. You can also choose to show a car’s actual performance stats, such as its 0-60 acceleration time or top speed. Once you hit certain rep levels, you can even fully upgrade the engine in a car to give it a huge performance boost. This is useful for when you want to keep your car competitive in later stages. Note that car-tuning settings (such as downforce and steering sensitivity) are hidden in the Numpad menu, at least on PC. A big complaint of the Need for Speed community with Payback was the lack of a good grip handling option. Heat’s handling options allow you to set up your car to your liking and I found that both grip- and drift-centric options felt natural and satisfying.
The customization system in Heat is largely the same as it was in Need for Speed (2015) and Payback. You can purchase and equip custom parts such as the exhaust, fender, hood, roof, side skirts, spoiler, taillights, tires, and more. Not all cars have the same number of parts available, but Heat lists ratings for each car’s customizability on a scale of 10 at dealerships. You can also change your car’s paint jobs, construct elaborate decals with the wrap editor, and equip special effect items like neon lighting and nitrous colors.
Visuals, Effects, and Sounds
NFS: Heat’s environment is highly detailed, well-linked, and is much more varied than Payback’s. There are dense urban areas, long bridges, natural marshes, and towering forests. Some points of interest include a massive spaceship launch site, an observatory (complete with beaming red lasers), and an abandoned race track. The lighting effects of the night mode look spectacular with the downtown’s glimmering skyline usually visible. Rain is the only weather effect in the game, which makes sense given Palm City’s tropical climate, and it too looks great. All-out downpours create puddles with detailed reflections, while light sun showers actually make everything look humid. Despite Heat’s impressive effects, Forza Horizon 4’s four-season system is still more advanced, as weather conditions significantly affect how your vehicle handles.
Locations (such as garages and dealerships) and events are marked on the map, so it’s easy to navigate to them using the waypoint system. Other collectibles such as speed traps, flamingoes, and graffiti signs appear after you’ve discovered them. Destructible billboards also return.
NFS: Heat’s soundtrack features lots of hip hop and EDM, appropriate given the fictionalized Miami setting, but none of the songs stood out to me and I felt like I heard some much more frequently than others. I learned through experimentation that you can skip tracks via the Numpad on the PC, though this control is not listed in the key bindings. I would have liked more variety in the playlist and miss some of the hard-hitting tracks that were staples of past titles. Again, Forza Horizon 4’s soundtrack is more impressive, as it offers several different genre-based radio options.
Requirements and Performance
Need for Speed Heat is available on the Xbox One, on the PlayStation 4, and on PC via EA’s Origin store for $59.99. Alternatively, you can spend $69.99 to get the Deluxe Edition, which includes special variants of several cars, more character customization options, and five-percent bank and rep earning boosts. You can also get the Deluxe Edition via a Premier EA Access subscription for $14.99 per month or $99.99 per year. EA is not planning any sort of microtransactions for the game, a decision I extol. Later on, there may be car packs and time-saver packs, but those do not affect gameplay in a major way.
For the PC, EA recommends a gaming PC with at least a Ryzen 3 1300X or Intel Core i7-4790 CPU, a Radeon RX 480 or GTX 1060 GPU, 16GB RAM, and 50GB of disk space (the install size after a few patches on my disk was only about 31GB though). I had no issues running the game on my Windows 10 desktop equipped with a Ryzen 7 1700X processor, Radeon 580 graphics card, and 32GB RAM. I installed Need for Speed Heat on my SSD, but initial loading times and the transitions between the garage and world are still noticeable. My gaming PC ran the game at around 70FPS (frames per second) on the recommended settings.
The game is not without bugs, however. For instance, at one point, most of the detail textures and structures disappeared from the environment, leaving behind a trippy, blob-like world. Several times, the side mirrors on my car glitched out and appeared a bit shredded. Sometimes, after restarting a time trial, the game would start the event while my screen was still loading. EA has sent out several patches thus far for the game and I expect the game’s reliability to improve.
Heat Raises Expectations
Need for Speed: Heat is an enjoyable racing game that mostly nails the things that made previous entries so successful, mainly solid racing mechanics, excellent car customization options, and crazy cop chases. I also like Heat’s day-and-night mechanic, since it lets players embrace both a brighter, daytime racing scenes as well as a high-stakes underground racing world at night. Palm City looks great in either light. The character customization and improved narrative also make the game more enjoyable than the last few entries, despite the lackluster multiplayer mode and some unclear controls. Fans of the series should not hesitate to pick up Need for Speed Heat, but Editors’ Choice Forza Horizon 4 is still our top pick for the genre.
Bottom Line: Need for Speed Heat brings the 25-year-old racing franchise back to relevancy by combining the best mechanics from previous entries with a few new ones.