It’s already proven a flop but has Need For Speed Heat killed off the franchise or is it good enough to offer it another chance?
The one thing everyone knows about Need For Speed Heat is that it’s already been a sales flop. EA only sent out review copies to a select few before its release, which is never a good sign, and offered almost no marketing to support the game’s launch. The inevitable result was that it only manged to flounder its way to number five in the UK retail charts, and already seems marked for death in the Black Friday sales.
But so low key has the release been that we imagine many people don’t realise the game even exists, which is a truly strange way to treat a franchise that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year (something we had no idea about until we just did the maths) and which in the early 2000s was regularly the Christmas number one in a manner reminiscent of Call Of Duty today.
Clearly, that was a long time ago now and the biggest surprise about Need For Speed Heat (or NFS Heat as EA seem to prefer it) is that it exists at all, given 2017’s Need For Speed Payback was just as much a flop. The most frustrating thing is though, that Need For Speed Heat is a considerably better game – and not just because it doesn’t have any loot boxes. Perhaps it’s not a classic entry in the franchise but it’s definitely the best since the 2015 reboot.
Although there are few absolutes in Need For Speed most of the modern entries include an open world and police chases, as well as a half-hearted attempt to leverage the popularity of the The Fast and the Furious. Heat is based in a fictionalised version of Miami, called Palm City, where you’re a new street racer looking to make their name during a police crackdown. The plot and characters are completely uninteresting, but unlike some previous games it has the good sense not to constantly bombard you with cut scenes and radio chatter after the initial set-up is established.
What you soon realise is that Need For Speed Heat is a game of two halves and while at first the lack of a day/night cycle seems like a lazy omission it’s actually the heart of the game’s structure. Driving around in the day is purposefully stress free and leaves you to race largely unmolested but drive around in the dark and suddenly everyone is out to get you, especially the police. Which is how you raise the Heat rating that gives the game its name and acts as a multiplier to increase your reputation.
Presumably the police are off preventing more serious crimes during the day but at night they can suddenly appear out of nowhere, right in the middle of a race or while you’re quietly parked looking at the map. There’s an almost survival horror quality to them, as you realise, like a Resident Evil tyrant, you’ll never be rid of them for good. And that’s great – police chases were always the best bit of Need For Speed and Heat seems to understand that.
It also creates an interesting risk and reward cycle, where you try to boost your Heat rating to its maximum, then get chased by the cops and make your escape. Do all that and you’ll be well rewarded, as you earn reputation at night and enter races during the day, but get caught and the Heat rating, that can take a considerable amount of time to earn, is wiped out in an instant.
The car handling and sense of speed is greatly improved from Payback (looking back at it now, it seems incredible that it’s by the same developer) and is especially impressive because it goes out of the way to feel like old school Need For Speed. Although in recent years the series has been homogenised beyond the point of having a clear personality the driving, and especially the drifting, is immediately reminiscent of the older games, as you pump the accelerator and handbrake to float around corners with a fine disregard for the laws of physics.
There’s very little ordinary traffic about, and no civilians, but the graphics are surprisingly good, especially at night. There’s a heightened sense of reality to the way Heat presents Palm City, that’s impressively subtle in its use of neon and exaggerated but not over-the-top colours. This creates a clear visual distinction between the carefree day and intense night battle that works very well. It’s also welcomingly reminiscent of the Underground sub-series, which we still can’t believe EA hasn’t brought back officially.
Need For Speed Heat is not exactly realistic but nor does it fully embrace arcade style silliness, and for once that feels like an interesting compromise rather than merely falling between two stools – which you could argue has always been Need For Speed’s pitch.
The problem with Heat is simply that there’s still nothing very original abut it and there isn’t enough variation in race types to keep you interested in the long term. Provoking and then escaping from the police is all very exciting for the first few hours but the gameplay loop is a little too tight and you grow tired of it sooner rather than later, especially when you lose a level 5 Heat rating and realise you have to build it all up from scratch again.
There’s also the very obvious fact that Need For Speed Heat is trying its best to ape Forza Horizon (the new destruction effects, where anything smaller than your car instantly explodes into debris if you hit it, is especially familiar) and while it never embarrasses itself by the comparison it’s still far behind in second place. That will mean less to PlayStation owners but no matter how much better Heat is over its immediate predecessors we fear it won’t be quite enough to save the franchise.
Need For Speed Heat review summary
In Short: The best Need For Speed in several years, which may sound like mild praise but despite a lack of variety this is a fun arcade racer hybrid that respects its roots.
Pros: The difference between day and night is interesting and the police make very entertaining protagonists. Great, old school driving model and surprisingly subtle use of colour. No loot boxes.
Cons: No original ideas and a real lack of race types. Losing your Heat rating is demoralising and leads to a lot of wasted time getting it back.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 8th November 2019
Age Rating: 16
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