Xbox One, PS4, PC
November 8, 2019
Need For Speed is one of the classic racing game franchises. Ever since making its debut on the ill-fated 3DO in 1993 (even then featuring traffic and police chases) it’s been through its peaks and troughs. The first three games in the series I still enjoy playing from time to time. The series started off as a simulator featuring exotic sports cars like Lamborghini and Ferrari, it eventually moved more into the arcade racer space and dabbled in Fast and the Furious type street racing in the 2000’s and then settled somewhere in between.
2017s Need for Speed Payback received a less than enthusiastic reception unfortunately; lost in a wave of open world racers it just didn’t measure up. But you can’t keep a long running EA franchise down and it’s back again with Need for Speed: Heat, complete with your usual Cops vs Racers storyline. It has stiff competition too, on the Xbox side there is the brilliant Forza Horizon 4 whilst on either platform there is The Crew 2 with its massive map plus boats and planes. Is the long running franchise beaten to the finish line again?
Need for Speed: Heat is set in a fictional town called Palm city, which is basically a condensed version of Florida USA. We have some standard settings like a town, some hills and a rural area. There are a couple of nifty inclusions such as a Cape Canaveral/NASA type area which is great fun to race around. It’s actually pretty similar to the south eastern part of the map in The Crew 2. The graphics are decent for the most part aside from a few niggles, during the day for example parts of the map don’t look as pretty as they should, especially the more rural areas, the grass for example appears to render a bit late and the water looks a little strange.
At this point Need for Speed feels like a series struggling to find its identity, which is crazy after darn near 27 years. By this point it definitely should have established its place in the market but it’s dangerously close to going the way of Test Drive. Storyline-wise, there is a police crack down on street racing and there is a special unit on the prowl with souped up cars, complete with bent cops and a dodgy police chief. Criminal acts by the police aside, I found myself having little sympathy for a main character having their car impounded and being upset about it.
After all, you do illegal street racing, the cops caught you and took your car – some might say that is not an entirely unexpected outcome. The narrative actually isn’t that bad overall and said bent cop is pretty well done and voiced, you can tell he is a bad-ass and not the sort to be messed with. When we crashed his car and spilled his ill-gotten gains all over the road I wasn’t looking forward to running into him again.
Need For Speed : Heat is split between day and night – it isn’t a time cycle though, you choose which one you want to play via your garage or by menu during the day. Once you move into night, you can’t go back without finding a safe house. During the day you race in sanctioned races for money on circuits. You can do drift racing or challenges if you want but if you are like me and aren’t into that sort of racing it’s not compulsory so you can give it a miss. You win money in races and use it to buy cars and parts which is your standard fare for this type of game. You also won’t have issues with the police doing legal racing.
Flick over to night time and this is where you take part in illegal races to earn experience points, with a mix of circuits and point-to-point sprints. This is necessary to level up so you can unlock cars and parts. It’s designed so you need to spend a decent amount of time playing both night and day. At night time though you have to deal with the police. Your “heat level” rises with each race and each car chase, it works like a multiplier with your experience points. The higher your heat level and the more chases you evade the more points you will bank at the end of the night.
If you get caught or crashed by the police though it not only ends your night but comes with some steep penalties. For example pretty much every time I got caught I lost a massive chunk of cash that I had spent hours earning in races and I lost enough XP to actually put me down a level. Taking away the points I had earned that night I can understand but I thought it was a bit harsh to tax progress that had been legitimately earned from successful evenings of illegal racing.
The cops aren’t pushovers either, particularly at the start of the game when you’ve yet to buy truly fast cars. They are formidable and some of the situations are just unlucky, getting boxed into a corner or a tree for example seems a bit unfair. The steepness of the penalty for being caught really drained the fun out of the chases for me and so I avoided getting into them at all costs. This can mean only doing a race or two and then hurrying to a garage so the night could end and I could bank my XP. It also resulted in grinding away in the same two races for a fair bit to ensure I didn’t lose my precious money or XP. You might be more game than me though. Once you can afford a quicker car though its not quite as bad, just find a decent straight and floor it.
Police aside the driving experience is okay, it definitely has a foot firmly in arcade territory, which is fine. I wouldn’t say it plays as nice as some of its contemporaries though, as the controls feel a little stiff and not so responsive. Need for Speed: Heat also likes its drifting, which you do by tapping the accelerator and then holding it down. Unfortunately this is also the same method that my muscle memory uses to take corners in racing games, so I found myself accidentally drifting far more often than I would like, so it took some careful driving early on to make sure I got around the courses in one piece.
This time around there is a large and really nicely varied collection of cars to choose from with a decent mix of J classics plus a range of proper exotic cars. Growing up in the 90’s I prefer the latter so as soon as I was able I bought a white Ferrari Testarossa, a Porsche 911 and a Lamborghini Countach. If you prefer to get something like a Nissan Skyline then turn it into a nos powered suicide machine with neon’s and the like the option is there for you.
To put this game in perspective it really has three main competitors: Forza Horizon 4 which is an Xbox exclusive, GT Sport which is PS4 exclusive and The Crew 2 which is cross platform. On the Xbox side the map size is similar to Forza Horizon 4 but with less variance and it features a smaller selection of cars and race modes, it just doesn’t have the same sense of exploration and it doesn’t play as well.
For PS4 gamers GT Sport is still the way to go as far as an authentic driving experience goes and with its constant free updates and amazing graphics it is still in pole position. Need for Speed’s graphics and gameplay just aren’t in the same league. But this is the closest you will get to the Horizon experience on a PS4. My opinion is that in either case it comes in third on both consoles, so if you have finished Horizon 4 and had enough of GT Sport, and on top of that you’ve explored enough of America in the Crew 2. Need for Speed: Heat will do you fine.
- Great mix of classic exotics and J legends
- The bent cop is a proper bad guy and adds to the game
- The day/night gameplay is a unique twist
- Graphics arent quite up to its peers
- The police chases just aren't fun in general
- Stuck somewhere between a simulator and the arcade
Incredibly, after all of these 27 years Need for Speed still seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Its hard to fathom how one of the first driving simulators managed to get outpaced on all fronts by its competitors but here we are. It’s not a bad game by any means. But it’s totally outpaced in every way by Forza Horizon 4 on Xbox One, while comparing on cross platform it has more cars and detail over The Crew 2 but lacks the size and exploration that are hallmarks of a decent open world game. As a simulator its whipped by GT Sport in both graphics, cars and playability.
It’s not a bad experience overall, but it might be time for EA to take Need for Speed back to the drawing board because it feels like the series is trying to catch up and compete by using formulas that other series have already perfected.