There’s a new Need for Speed game out as of last Friday. I know, I’m as surprised as you are. I’ve seen a lot of games sent out to die, but Need for Speed: Heat has been basically shoved out an airlock into the vacuum of space. EA only showed it to people once, to my knowledge—at Gamescom, in Europe. It wasn’t at E3. It wasn’t at PAX. There was no two-weeks-prior event to build hype. We got review code on release day.
And I don’t really know why, either.
Need for Speed: Heat certainly doesn’t do anything especially new or innovative, but it’s a totally passable open-world racing game. Most years, that wouldn’t be enough—but there’s no Forza this year, neither a Forza 8 nor a Forza Horizon 5. Need for Speed: Heat takes the podium by default.
That’s not a rousing endorsement, nor is it meant to be. Need for Speed’s identity crisis continues with Heat, a state of affairs that’s now lasted an entire console generation. We got Rivals, the one where you could play as the cops. Then we got the self-titled Need for Speed, the one that had FMV cutscenes. Then we had Payback, which paired bizarre gambling-themed dialogue with an abysmal loot box grind modeled vaguely after Ubisoft’s The Crew.
Now we have Heat, a reboot of a reboot of a reboot. Heat ‘s gimmick is that “Day” and “Night” aren’t constantly cycling in the background, but rather separate modes with separate activities. During the day you participate in sanctioned race events for cash. Nighttime is for ad-hoc street races and potential police run-ins, earning you “Rep.”
The two feed into each other. You need money to buy better parts for your car, but can only buy those parts if you have the reputation, thus forcing you to pinball back and forth between official and illegal events. Artificial though it may be, Need for Speed: Heat thus provides some structure to the upgrade path—which is usually cut short in Forza by saving judiciously and then buying all the best parts in one go, skipping the intermediary steps. Here, you’ll work your way up through different tiers of differentials and exhaust pipes and so forth.
It’s a smart system, though Heat seemingly has no safeguards for outstripping its poorly-paced progression. Races are all set to a certain level, say “150” or “225.” Your car has a corresponding rating, thus indicating that a Level 150 car should be used for a Level 150 race—but if you enter a tricked-out Level 200 car into the same race, all your opponents are still around 150 for some reason. They neither squash you down nor bring the competition up, an odd choice that makes “Normal” difficulty trivial at times. I’ve even lapped the seventh and eighth place cars on some circuit races, and left second place more than a mile behind in sprints.
That said, Heat is a major improvement for Need for Speed. Parts aren’t doled out from loot boxes—a statement I don’t have to write often in 2019, but worth noting given that loot boxes utterly ruined Need for Speed: Payback. And you can strip all the good parts off an old car and reuse them elsewhere, which makes the upgrade process feel less limiting than even the Forza Horizon version.
Honestly, Need for Speed: Heat is probably the most successful reboot Ghost Games has put out. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It’s gorgeous, and if you want an idea what next-gen racing games will look like, you can get a glimpse here. Running on Frostbite 3, Heat loves showing off by having it rain every five minutes or so. After all, there’s nothing more beautiful (or impressive) than reflections off wet pavement. I imagine Heat on my Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti is pretty similar to what we’ll see from early racing games on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Whatever next year.
And there’s plenty to do. I haven’t finished Heat and honestly I’m not sure I ever will, but doing some back-of-envelope math I estimate there are 20 or 30 hours of races here before you’d run out. As I said, in a year where there’s no Forza Horizon 4 follow-up? It’s enough that Heat exists, if you’re looking for an arcade racer to play.
My ambivalence towards finishing Heat speaks to its biggest problem though, and that’s a nagging sense of “Wow, we sure have exhausted this open-world racing formula, eh?”
Need for Speed: Heat is very much “Another One Of Those.” You’ve got a city area. You’ve got an industrial area. You’ve got a racetrack. You’ve got a more rural area where you can go slamming over shrubs and through waist-high walls. It has billboards to crash through and items to collect. It has circuit races and sprint races and drifting events. It has an extensive car customization system, with layered decals and modular parts.
In other words, it has all the elements you’d expect from an open-world racing game, and nothing more. I can’t help feeling like we’re spinning our tires—waiting on a major reinvention that probably won’t happen until next generation, if at all.
To its credit, Ghost Games keeps trying to fold a story into Need for Speed. That theoretically differentiates the series from Forza Horizon, which has retreaded the race-because-racing-is-cool Horizon Festival aesthetic four times now.
Then again, Need for Speed’s efforts have ranged from bad to worse, and Heat’s no different. It’s a clumsy racers-versus-cops story, yet another thinly veiled homage to the early Fast and the Furious era from a series that’s had many.
Heat’s admittedly edgier than any of Need for Speed’s prior attempts, opening with the police threatening to murder a guy for street racing—even going so far as to shut off the nearby cameras.
It’s so over-the-top it comes off as parody though, which is unfortunate with such a loaded topic. And the further I went, the less daring the setup seemed. The characters are all stock racing game archetypes, the story beats overly familiar. I almost long for the days of 2012’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted and its Dadaesque (and more importantly story-bare) cutscenes. At least those didn’t come off so dour.
If Need for Speed insists on telling a story, I’d like to see them go wild with it. “Gritty” and “realistic” isn’t getting them anywhere. Copy the latter-era Fast and the Furious films instead, lean into the globe-trotting crime cabals and over-the-top stunts. Or copy Driver: San Francisco, go with dream sequences and classic film callbacks and the more creative elements that don’t fall under the Forza Horizon purview. Anything but another story of anti-establishment street racers battling for the smallest of stakes. Been there, done that—and done it, and done it, and done it.
Need for Speed: Heat is far from the tire-fire I expected though given its unceremonious release. I’m having a good time with it, in a mindless sort of way. I’ve disabled the far-too-limited soundtrack and gritted my teeth through the story moments, but the race layouts are solid and I’m enjoying throwing my usual ‘69 Charger around turns and barreling down rain-soaked highways. Forza Horizon continues to be the better series, but this is the closest Need for Speed has been to parity since probably 2012.
I know, still not the most rousing endorsement—but come on, I’ve played some variant of Need for Speed: Heat a dozen times this generation. Here’s hoping in 2020 or 2021 the arcade racer evolves. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time, but after a decade some new hubcaps would be welcome.