Need for Speed Heat is the latest entry in Electronic Art's long-running franchise of great racing games ranging from the iconic Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Underground to Rivals and Hot Pursuit. The issue with Heat, however, is that this latest entry doesn't really live up to any of these titles. While it has its defining moments and brings with it a few improvements, NFS Heat fails to set itself apart, and with few exceptions, hardly tries to.
Perhaps the one unique aspect is the core gameplay loop divided between day and night. During the day, players can engage in legally sanctioned races as part of the Showdown racing event to earn bank. During the night, Need For Speed Heat players dive into illegal street races where they must deal with cops and build a reputation (or "REP") for their self. It's a little confusing at first, as many will indubitably question why night races don't see money change hands, but one that helps a player balance their priority.
For example, if their car is underleveled or they've just unlocked one they want to purchase, focusing on day races will help players get that done sooner, whether it be the standard race or a NFS Drift Trial. However, if players need to grind for levels, then they will want to race the streets at night in order to advance the story. This grind, though, feels forced and unnecessary. Many will see this gameplay loop as an unnecessary timegate to progression, as things are arbitrarily locked until so much REP is earned, which can be equal parts pain and pleasure to manage at night. Need for Speed Heat players will also find themselves dealing with the cops at night, and overall, this is where the game shines.
Cops truly feel like a challenge and an impending threat. It doesn't feel like something tacked on just because it's a racing game, and the simplest cop chase can turn into something exhilarating and intense. This is because a player's heat level multiples the amount of rep gained during one night, but this rep isn't added to the overall total until a night ends. If caught, a player loses that multiplier and a significant amount of bank, meaning it can turn into a real upset for those who have completed multiple races and earned a ton of rep, perhaps forcing NFS Heat players to sell their old cars to recoup.
In terms of gameplay, Need for Speed Heat did carry itself well enough, though there were quite a few frame rate issues on our end. Practically before every race, the game seemed to stop for a second, as if it would potentially crash. It never did, though. Combine this "mostly reliable" detail with the solid mechanics, and players should have a stable experience, regardless of how they choose to play. In that, there's two options: they could either play solo or online with a NFS Heat crew, and for many, the solo mode will be preferred. It allows players to pause and not be disturbed by others, but it also loses a lot of variety that online play introduces. Completing races with and against friends and strangers, while having those races interrupted by other fleeing the police add an element of spontaneity that is undeniable, once again making good use of that police chase gameplay.
This police gameplay carries over into the story as well, with the best story missions related to how players deal with the crooked cops of Palm City. Unfortunately, these moments that are highlights of the overarching story are practically the only good moments and are far and few between. While many fans of the racing games genre will not be picking up Need for Speed Heat for the story, it's more underwhelming and slow than one might think. Without diving into spoiler territory, it's easily seen from miles away, has no real substance until near the end, and ends on a note that undermines the last and perhaps best mission in the game.
Not only is it underwhelming in its own right, it's disappointing because it relies on a player's knowledge of previous, unconnected games and fails to connect those dots. It's hard to play Need for Speed Heat without greats like 2005's Most Wanted coming to mind, for sure, but this game is so reliant on those from the past that its best moment feels like something stripped directly from Most Wanted (because it is). In short, fans of the franchise will notice a very special car return late in the game, while also building on common racing game tropes and themes evident throughout as well. In this regard, there's nothing that fans of the franchise haven't seen done before...and better.
On top of that, the initial hours of the game can be a literal drag. Players will find themselves completing basic sprint and circuit races without much degree of variation until they progress the story along. There is actually a ton of variety in terms of gameplay in NFS Heat - Drift Trials, Offroad tracks, High Heat events, and smaller, completionist activities - but players have to get through a solid chunk of the game before the majority of those open up. By that point, other than seeking that variety, there's little incentive to actually pursue them.
For those who trudge through it, the game is actually incredibly rewarding by the end, and completing these races and activities will unlock players new and special cars in Need for Speed Heat to be customized as they see fit. The customization is another one of those improvements over past games, as players can adjust everything from the overall paint job and engine components down to how the car's exhaust sounds. But this is buried in the early game due to a lack of resources and a constant grind between earning Bank to improve and purchase vehicles and earning REP to unlock them.
All things considered, Need for Speed Heat has issues that could easily be overlooked if the game had confidence in itself, but there seems to be some type of hesitation everywhere. Whether it's hesitation to move the story along, hesitation to introduce something new, or hesitation to strike out from the ghosts of its past, there just seems to be some lack of definition for Need for Speed Heat's release.
Need for Speed Heat is out now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided an Xbox One code for the purposes of this review.