Let’s not beat around the bush. Need for Speed as a franchise needed revitalized. Ghost Games’ last entry into the series was 2017’s Need for Speed Payback, which took quite a beating from critics and fans alike. In an effort to return to form, Ghost has gone back to the glory days of past titles such as Need for Speed Most Wanted and Need for Speed Carbon. They’ve also, however, lifted some open world racing mechanics that fans of the genre are going to very quickly recognize as being from other games.
Need for Speed Heat takes place in the lovely Palm City, a very clearly Miami inspired locale that covers all potential terrain variants including high speed city races and dirt road cross country circuits. By day the sun beats down on the city causing relentless sun glare and vibrant blue skies, but by night Palm City is illuminated by vibrantly colored neon lights. The landscape is littered with collectibles including neon flamingos and smashable billboards featuring the faces of the crooked police that have your name at the top of their list.
Players have the option to choose from a line up of potential character models (Don’t worry if you don’t necessarily like any of them, they can be customized later) that serve as their avatar during the game’s CGI cut scenes. As is standard issue narrative for racing games, your character is new in town and looking to make a name for themselves on the street racing scene. First, however, you’ll need to rub elbows with the who’s whos and prove you’re even worthy of their time. Standard issue racing game fodder.
Where Need for Speed Heat breaks the mold in it’s narrative, however, is the subtext of the crooked police force. These cops aren’t just dirty, they’re brutal. This is driven home very early in the game when we see a cut scene of police putting an end to a race, then trapping one of the driver’s on a remote pier, following up by wiping dash cam footage as they are collectively debating the merits of flat out murdering the guy. While there has been a lot of commentary by other reviewers on the cops behavior making them almost comic book levels of supervillains, that discussion ignores the value of Ghost Games finding a way to give their otherwise flashy, glitzy arcade racing title an in your face, thought provoking narrative about a topic that is actually relevant to current events.
After the beating that Need for Speed Payback’s FMV cutscenes received from critics and fans, Ghost Games has decided to eschew that story telling mechanic. Instead, Need for Speed Heat uses fully CGI rendered cut scenes, with players’ avatars standing alongside the other characters. For the most part, the CGI rendered NPCs are incredibly well rendered. As is standard for these types of cutscenes, the player’s customization options can sometimes look and feel out of place in a scene, but there’s no denying that everything looks good. Except your bff, Ana, whose character model often feels out of sorts with her surroundings, and looks more cartoonish than other characters. This is even more noticeable when she is in scenes with her brother.
That brother, by the way, runs the garage that keeps your ride rolling. When you’re in one of the designated safe houses you can make upgrades to your cars so that you can really make the most of each one’s potential. Often times racing games that allow for these kind of tune ups go so far in on the customization spectrum that they can lock out players who are less mechanically inclined but still enjoy racing. Need for Speed Heat gets around these by narrowing down upgraded parts to their basic systems while also showing on a grid how they will impact your vehicle’s performance. The new engine swap system, in particular, really eliminates the risk of a vehicle hitting its performance cap and limiting a player from progression.
If you’re really pushing to get the best drift car on the road, then you’re going to want to spec into parts that push your mark on the grid toward the drifting icon. Don’t worry, if you go the route of pushing your car to the extreme for each class, then you do have the option of changing between them dynamically if you’re about to start an event that is not suited to whatever vehicle you’re currently in. Just hit the bumper, and choose the ride that’s tuned for what you’re about to do. Unfortunately, Need for Speed Heat does lock events behind its new day/night shifting system. If you’re in need of the big bucks to buy upgrades, you’ll get more of that running the day time events.
These events, however, will only give you limited rep as there’s surprisingly no police presence during day time races. Pressing down on the left stick while on the map will warp players to the Palm City under the stars, however, and the police are out in full force. The more events you participate in the more rep you earn, the higher your rep multiplier, and the higher your Heat level. Should the police manage to bust you at any time, you lose all of the rep you earned that night, your multiplayer, and a chunk of your change, as well. Make it to a safe house, however, and you can end the night a free rider.
While Need for Speed Heat may not be bringing anything earth shattering or new to the arcade racing genre, it also didn’t really need to. What it needed to do was show players that the 25 year old franchise hasn’t lost its way after the shortcomings of the previous entry. There’s nothing wrong with letting players kick back, rev up their engines, and smash billboards with the cops’ faces on them while speeding through a neon illuminated city scape in an exquisitely wrapped McLaren. Need for Speed Heat, even with its subtle attempt at a gritty narrative, reminds us that it is okay to just enjoy some mindless fun.
A copy of the game was provided for this review by the developer/publisher