Need for Speed: Heat Review — Perpetually Spinning Its Wheels
This is not the EA release you're looking for.
The Need for Speed franchise has had its share of great titles over the years. The original Hot Pursuit was an incredible showcase for the PS1. Most Wanted brought cop chases back to the franchise in a fun open world. And Underground 2 remains one of my personal favorite racing games of all time. Unfortunately, with the exception of 2010’s NFS: Hot Pursuit, the series has mostly fallen off a cliff in terms of quality. EA doesn’t really seem to know what to do with the franchise and Need for Speed: Heat is yet another instance of this former genre titan spinning its wheels.
In fact, I’m not really sure why this game even exists. Or, at least, I’m not sure why they decided to release it in its current state. So much of Need for Speed: Heat feels half-baked that I can’t help but think that the higher-ups at EA decided the game wasn’t worth spending more resources on. So, they decided to just dump it out before Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and hope no one noticed.
Heat’s big gimmick is the Dying Light-inspired day/night system. During the day, you race through sanctioned races in the streets of the fictional Palm City. While these take place on the streets, they’re cordoned off, so the police are happy to let you race to your heart’s content. However, the second you switch to nighttime, the police become blood-thirsty maniacs hellbent on doing everything in their power to ram you and your opponents off the roads.
On paper, the mechanic sounds sort of cool. You can imagine a game where driving around at night is harrowing, as you evade the cops in high-speed pursuits. However, in practice, the gimmick doesn’t add anything and really hampered any enjoyment I got from the gameplay.
You see, during the day, each race you win will give you “bank” (or, as normal people call it, money). This money lets you buy new cars, upgrade their various parts, and deck your ride out with new cosmetic parts. Unfortunately, Palm City’s economy operates under this weird system where your money is only good when you’ve built up a suitable “rep”. It doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire willing to splash the cash on a new carburetor. If you haven’t done five races at nighttime, they won’t serve you.
So, you’re constantly cycling between day and night, trying to build up two separate currencies. Each time you switch, you’ll endure a relatively lengthy load, especially when you move from night to day. Oh, and if you get caught by those madmen called cops, then you’ll lose most of your money and have to start over.
It’s a system that might’ve sounded cool in a board room somewhere, but only adds needless frustration to the game. It also makes zero sense. What’s the point of taking your player out of the game constantly just to make the grind last a little longer?
I suppose the answer to that question is that there isn’t much here. The only reason you can’t complete the story in two hours or so is that missions have a stupidly high rep requirement. There are a handful of races and one bad tailing mission before the game’s entire narrative is exhausted. Other than that, it’s just a ton of filler to pad out the nothing story.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this racing-centric media property is all about family. And also dirty cops who steal cars from street racers. And also there’s a mysterious organization of street-racing elites called “The League” who don’t really have anything to do with the plot but are mentioned over and over again for no reason. And also the street racers that have descended on Palm City have come for “The Showdown”, but I don’t think you ever take part in that event.
What I’m saying is that the story is all over the place. You know that writing exercise you did in middle school English where you write one line on your paper, pass it your neighbor for them to write the next line, and that continues until your paper has made it around the room and the story is a garbled mess? That’s how I imagine EA’s writing team wrote the story for Need for Speed: Heat.
I don’t want to rag too much on the acting performance of the characters. I mean, I can only imagine how tough it was to work with this material. That said, some of the delivery is just comically terrible. You’ll also hear the same lines ad nauseam. One of the main characters was constantly chastising me for not racing while I was driving across the open world. Like, maybe don’t make your lifeless, boring map so large. Or just let me fast travel to races if you’re going to yell at me every five minutes about how I should be racing. It makes no sense.
Okay, so the main gimmick is frustrating to the point of making me not want to engage with it. On top of that, the story is laughably bad, but what about the actual driving? This is a racing game, after all, that should be the most important part. Surely, they got that somewhat right.
Truly, I envy your optimism if you thought that was going to be the case. The cars in NFS: Heat feel so weightless and so floaty, that it feels more like kids racing their Hot Wheels in the backyard than a racing contest. And, I get it, this is an arcade racer. I don’t expect it to feel like I’m racing a real car. However, when you compare Heat to something like Forza Horizon 4, EA’s latest has no chance.
And really, that’s the problem. Forza has completely dominated the racing scene for a while. It’s going to take quite an effort for someone else to move the needle. Even a series as well-known and successful as Need for Speed needs to do something new to stand out from Forza’s long shadow. Sadly, EA doesn’t seem to be willing to do that.
Just like with their NBA series, it feels like EA only publishes new Need for Speed games because, well, they have the license. There doesn’t seem to be a plan for how the game is going to be different or innovative. Instead, they just spew some dialog about family being important because Fast and Furious is popular and maybe add some cops?
This does not feel like a series that took two years to bake a new game. In fact, the only two things I like about Need for Speed: Heat is that there are no microtransactions and the drifting mechanics were fun for a few hours before they became super easy and boring. That’s pretty much it.
Even the lack of microtransactions feels like it should come with a caveat. Do we really think EA wouldn’t try to monetize this game if they thought it was going to be successful? Obviously, this is pure speculation, but it feels more like they knew this game would fail. So, they kept MTX out in hopes of building some goodwill after the trash fire that was Payback.
Truthfully, I can’t think of a reason to recommend Need for Speed: Heat. The one gimmick it has is mostly useless. The story is pointless. And in a world where Forza Horizon exists, there’s no way I can praise the gameplay. If Forza and Heat were in a boxing match, Forza would be Mike Tyson in his prime and Heat would be a toddler. And the toddler would be blindfolded.
I should also quickly mention that the game crashed on me about once an hour. I never lost any progress or anything, but it definitely seems like Heat has some technical problems. After playing one of the more bug-infested games in recent memory last week, it was surprising to see a AAA game arguably perform even worse than that.
I suppose you could make the case that Forza isn’t available on PS4. On an island of racing games, you might be able to argue that Heat has a place for you. However, even in that instance, I think I would tell you to pick up something like Wreckfest. It’s not a perfect 1-to-1 comparison, but that game is actually fun to play. Or you could always buy an Xbox One on the cheap for Black Friday in a few weeks. Forza’s worth it.
It really is sad how far this franchise has fallen. Heat might not be as outwardly terrible as Payback was in 2017; however, it is far, far from a return to former glory. With a new console generation on the horizon, my only hope is that Need for Speed: Heat was a holdover while Ghost Games works on something dazzling for their next-gen release. At the very least, the studio needs to finally settle on a direction for what will make their racing game stand out as something different than a second rate Forza Horizon.