On paper, Need For Speed’s latest entry is almost irresistible. Driving custom-tuned cars through legal races by day and dodging the cops in neon-soaked streets at night. With a gorgeous Miami inspired city as the backdrop and some decent tunes on the playlist, the stage seems more or less set for the series to finally recapture some of its PS2 era glory.
The result is… tepid. While the cars are lovely and detailed, and customisation options generous, it feels like they haven’t really run wild with the Miami influence. By day, the city is completely unremarkable and generic. There are no real standout landmarks and it says a lot that Forza Horizon 4 managed to make sleepy English villages and country lanes more appealing. Nighttime is certainly when the game comes alive – both visually and mechanically – with the neon theme giving everything a synthwave/outrun filter and the shadows eliminating a lot of the middling visuals.
The city feels like a massive wasted opportunity. It’s a standard sandbox with little in the way of defining features besides EVERYTHING IS NEON SOMETIMES. Rockstar made a more interesting Miami spoof and GTA: Vice City came out in 2003. Granted, graphics are a shedload more complicated now, but if the focus had been on quality over quantity, Heat’s core attraction might have been much more exciting. If they intended the city to “come alive” at night, it was only half a success – it definitely looks more exciting, but the bar wasn’t set particularly high in the first place. When you manage to start moving at real speeds, the neon aesthetic really starts to shine, but the world certainly doesn’t benefit from casual cruising.
You earn cash racing by day and rep by night. Racing at night also means you’ll be aggressively pursued by the police, who are taking a hard stance on the scene as explained by the story which takes itself much too seriously to be entertaining. The opening scene has the police chief almost murder a racer in cold blood, only stopping when someone points out there are cameras around. It’s like they couldn’t decide if they wanted to do Fast and Furious or Drive, and this same lack of commitment, either way, permeates the gameplay itself. It still has some genuinely exciting moments, tension building at night as you build a multiplier that could all be taken away if you get caught, an all-or-nothing race against the police and their crusade against you and your obnoxious buddies.
It’s a struggle to feel any real sense of speed, and vehicle handling straddles an awkward fence between arcade and simulation, not really shining on either side. Heat would have been ridiculously fun if it had gone a little sillier on the controls, but instead, it’s left with something that basically stops at functional. As a result, everything feels oddly weighty, jumps lack any thrill, and there’s just no momentum as you lurch from objective to objective. While it is fun, and there are a few flashy moments that show off the franchise’ real potential, Heat feels like a disposable entry, desperately trying to stay relevant with trendy songs you’ll ultimately forget moments after listening.
Collecting and customising cars is easily the best part of the game. There’s plenty of options that feed back into the core loop of cash and rep enough to keep you working for the next part you want. It felt like a bit of a grind for me at times but then the only racing game I’ve ever been particularly good at is Mario Kart, so Need for Speed old hands will probably have a better experience. You can also customise your player character with branded clothes and hairstyles, but try as I might I couldn’t find a setting that put life behind their cold, dead eyes.
I’m probably being a little bit harsh. After a solid few months of Horizon 4, tearing across open fields and screaming around corners in an assortment of vehicles that would make Richard Hammond shit his pants, everything except maybe a new Forza festival set in the Star Wars universe would be disappointing in some way. Even so, Need for Speed: Heat definitely smacks of an average, serviceable driving game hiding behind some occasionally tasty visuals, hoping that neon gimmicks and loud EDM bury how lethargic it feels after long stretches of play.
You can definitely have a lot of fun with it – it presents a fun if disposable, toybox that will entertain petrolheads for a time. It is, unfortunately, a case of “your mileage may vary”. In trying to cater to everybody, the game has ended up not particularly impressing anybody, and now occupies an indistinguishable space between simulation and arcade. Will Need for Speed finally break loose of this purgatory and retake its place amongst the racing greats? I really hope so. But not this time.
Need For Speed: Heat is developed by Ghost Games and published by EA. The game is available now for PS4, Xbox One and Windows PC. For more information on the game, go to the official site by clicking HERE.
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