Reprinted on Wednesday 31 August 2022: We’re bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of September’s PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text is as follows.
Need for Speed Heat brings the franchise back from the brink of disaster, but that only brings it back into existence Good Again. The series has been on this generation’s journey through several soft reboots in an effort to maintain relevance. Rivals was a good enough PS4 launch title, but things are headed for a downward spiral. Ghost Games’ latest racer does a lot of things right, and it offers a fun sandbox to race, drift, and cruise in style. However, it still has some issues that keep it away from greatness. The new need for speed is good, but is that enough?
For our money, Heat is probably Ghost’s best effort to date. It blends together a slew of elements from the series’ past, feeling like a mix that aims to please everyone. You have an open world to explore, with things to do in Palm City, a map with collectibles and events, but you also have police quests, vehicle customization, and er, a story to enjoy. There’s a lot going on, and thankfully, most of it turned out great.
At the heart of the game is the yin-yang of day and night. The two are separate entities, but what is most interesting is the way they intertwine. Win races and other events during the day, and you’ll be rewarded with money to spend on new cars, parts and customization items. Turn the night around, and the emphasis is on earning reps, which you’ll need first to unlock those new vehicles and other items. Simply put, you have to play both sides of the game in order to make meaningful progress, and it’s a system that works well. It’s certainly a clever way to keep things from getting stale, and the currency needs to increase rep gain and vice versa are addictive.
This mechanic is epitomized by the hum story. Palm City hosts a racing tournament known as the Speedhunters Showdown, which are events you take during the day. However, illegal street racing is also happening at the same time, and when the sun goes down, you’ll wake up, naughty talk. The local police department has launched a task force with the sole purpose of cracking down on illegal races and other incidents. The player character, who you can customize at any time with ridiculous clothing, is new in town, and quickly befriends a mechanic and his street racing sister. The narrative and characters are unremarkable, but we’d say you’ll definitely hate the cops in the first few story missions.
You will probably hate them even during the chase, as they are super aggressive. Getting into trouble with the law during the night is inevitable, and even encouraged because of the titular heat system. If you want to earn serious reps, increasing your heat level acts as a multiplier, meaning you can earn five times more than that. However, the higher your heat, the more likely the cops will attack you, and it can quickly become impossible to outwit them. Fighting back isn’t really an option; There’s almost no tool to disable chasing cars, you’ll probably try and sneak into them, but dealing with damage this way seems inconsequential. Worst of all, being busted will significantly reduce the amount of reps you earn, which means your time spent playing is worth almost nothing. Your only hope is to escape, and only then can you bank your representative and end the night. It’s disturbing.
The flip side is that playing during the day is a bit tasteless. There are lots of races to play, drift events, time trials, and more, but Palm City isn’t that interesting a place to be in during the day. You can make a lot of money very quickly, and it’s nice to get relief from the relentless cops, but the open world is better at night. The map is well designed and huge in either mode, and it can look great in places. However, especially during the day, it is not a place that is going to stay in memory for long. There are billboards to break, speed gates to beat, and other distractions to find, but you eventually realize that Palm City is too empty.
At least driving through it is fun. Starter vehicles will initially feel very slow and heavy to control, but once you upgrade them or buy something better, the handling will increase on you. It’s a bit more grounded than something like Burnout Paradise, because drifting will reduce your speed, and you’ll need to occasionally pick up the gas and use the brakes. However, drifting is sometimes the better way to get around corners. The result is still pretty awkward, and it can be a lot of fun tossing cars around. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in handling is that it really varies from car to car, and even better, you can change the way you drive your favorite ride by swapping in different parts.
Adjusting the handling is one aspect of customization, but it’s important to note that this part of the game is well done overall. It’s great to tinker with the performance of each car to get the most out of them, and then you definitely have a whole host of cosmetic options. Not all of the 127 cars can be completely transformed, but you’re able to put your stamp on each one, along with body items, paint jobs, decals, and more.
The vehicles are probably the best looking part of the game, understandably, but it’s a shame there are so many technical glitches. Playing online, disconnecting is not uncommon in our experience, and visually we noticed some glitches or inconsistencies. We imagine the game will be polished in patches, but there are some surprisingly rough edges here.
Like we said, Need for Speed Heat has been the best entry in the franchise for quite some time, but it’s still not quite where it’s needed. The day versus night gameplay is a compelling loop, and it’s a huge step in the right direction for the series in general. It’s a solid effort with fun handling and lots of customization options. It’s a shame that the open world lacks personality, and the police are maybe a little tough, but there’s still a lot to like. At the end of this generation, Need for Speed is back for good – let’s hope it can be great in the future.