There was a time when Need for Speed was a dominant force in the world of racers. EA released a series of critically acclaimed titles bearing the franchise name but it has lost its luster in recent times.
Need for Speed Heat has the unenviable job of trying to re-establish the series. That is no easy task in an age where there are so many great racing games. Especially when EA cannot seem to decide what they want Need for Speed to be. Can the game reach the former glories of the franchise or does it fall by the wayside once again?
Racing games don’t really need much of a story. That is probably why most stick with a straightforward career mode where you progress through the ranks. Having a proper narrative distracts from what players want to do — race fast cars. But if a developer wants to include a story, they can at least make sure it is not a confusing mess. Ghost Games definitely didn’t heed that advice.
The premise sees the player arrive in a fictional version of Miami known as Palm City. Here you meet Lt. Frank Mercer, who has set a goal of completely stopping all illegal street races. It’s the cliche story of a relatively unknown protagonist coming in to save the day while battling against the odds. Unfortunately, everything soon begins to unravel as the narrative aimlessly wanders around without actually telling any story.
Ultimately, the plot ends up being a mess that makes no sense. Exactly what the motivations of the characters are is never made clear. Meanwhile, references to shadowy organizations and people are never explained. There is just no cohesive plot. The only saving grace is that the story is thankfully short. Even with all the filler you have to go through to unlock missions, it only lasts a few hours.
As part of the existential crisis that the Need for Speed franchise has gone through, new games have almost always included some kind of gimmick. This time around it is a day-night system that switches up how the game works. During the day, you take part in perfectly legitimate races on preset circuits. However, once night falls the action changes to illegal street races that attract the attention of the police.
The point of this seems to be that each time setting rewards you in a separate way. Daytime races give you cash while racing after hours increases your reputation. Although this idea has some potential, the way the developers implement it in Need for Speed Heat doesn’t work well. The reason is that you need to collect both cash and rep to buy upgrades and new cars. Getting too much of one effectively hampers progress, so players end up having to switch between the two modes every few races.
In terms of actual driving, Need for Speed Heat is a mixed bag. It is very much an arcade racer with cars being light and nimble. The basic mechanics are solid enough and the controls are responsive, giving you the ability to be delicate with your driving. Different cars also have unique handling characteristics and drifting is a precise art that is satisfying to master.
The developer seems to have aimed for accessibility above all else. So anyone can pick up this game and get racing relatively quickly, but there is not much scope to improve your skills. On the other hand, racing at night is frustrating. Cops are able to instantly catch up to you within seconds, ruining your race. For every positive point there are one or more negatives to go with it.
Need for Speed Heat looks and sounds great for the most part. The changing levels of light between day and night highlight the high quality of everything on show. Both the vehicles and the environments are detailed and the entire experience has its own unique style. Meanwhile, the soundtrack extenuates this idea even further. The two cycles have their own distinctive sound, which gives them both very different atmospheres.
In terms of performance, Need for Speed Heat struggles to run smoothly. Crashes are frequent and throughout the story I experienced several restarts. Although the game’s autosave means I didn’t lose any progress, it is still annoying to have to start up the game all over again. The beginning of each race also creates a certain amount of slowdown. The game engine seems unable to cope with all the lights, smoke, and cars on screen at the same time.
Need for Speed Heat might be the best game in the series for some time. But that really is not that much of a positive to be honest. Recent games in the franchise have been poor and this latest installment just about scrapes by as an acceptable racer. There is no real innovation to be had while many elements remain as annoying as ever. What it does manage to do, though, is finally begin to get a sense of its identity back.
With EA’s recent announcement that the next Need for Speed game will be developed by Criterion, not Ghost Games, it’s clear that the franchise is setting a new course going forward.