Need for Speed Heat brings the franchise back from the brink of disaster, but it's only brought it back to being good again. The series has been on quite the journey this generation, going through several soft reboots in attempts to maintain relevance. Rivals was a fine enough PS4 launch title, but things have been on a downward spiral. The latest racer from Ghost Games does a lot of things right, and it offers up a fun sandbox in which to race, drift, and cruise in style. However, it still has a few issues that hold it back from greatness. The new Need for Speed is good, but is good enough?
For our money, Heat is probably Ghost's best attempt so far. It mixes together a bunch of elements from the series' past, feeling like a blend that's aiming to please everyone. You have the open world Palm City to explore, with collectibles and events dotting the map with things to do, but you also have police pursuits, fleshed out vehicle customisation, and a story to, er, enjoy. There's quite a lot going on, and thankfully, most of it turns out pretty well.
At the heart of the game is the yin-yang of day and night. The two are separate entities, but what's 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 customisation items. Flip over to the night, and the emphasis turns to earning Rep, which you'll need in order to unlock those new vehicles and other stuff in the first place. Put simply, you need to be playing both sides of the game 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 give and take of needing currency to increase Rep gains and vice versa is addictive.
This mechanic is contextualised by the hammy story. Palm City plays host to a racing tournament known as the Speedhunters Showdown, which are the events you partake in during the day. However, illegal street racing is also taking place at the same time, and this is what you'll get up to when the sun goes down, you naughty thing. The local police department has introduced a task force with the sole purpose of cracking down on illicit races and other events. The player character, which you can customise with ridiculous clothes at any time, is new in town, and quickly makes friends with a mechanic and his street racing sister. The narrative and characters are unremarkable, but we will say you'll definitely hate the police within the first few story missions.
You'll probably also hate them during chases, too, as they're super aggressive. Getting into trouble with the law is inevitable during the night, and even encouraged due to the titular Heat system. If you're looking to earn serious Rep, increasing your Heat level acts as a multiplier, meaning you can earn up to five times as much. However, the higher your Heat, the more the police will throw at you, and outrunning them can quickly become nigh impossible. Fighting back isn't really an option; with almost no tools to disable pursuing cars, you'll likely try and ram into them, but dealing damage in this way feels inconsistent. Worst of all is that getting busted will significantly reduce the amount of Rep you've accrued, meaning your time spent playing has amounted to nearly nothing. Your only hope is to escape, and only then can you bank your Rep and end the night. It's frustrating.
The flip side is that playing during the day is a little flavourless. There are lots of races, drift events, time trials, and more to play, but Palm City isn't as interesting a place to be in the daytime. You can earn a lot of money quite quickly, and it's nice to have a reprieve from the relentless cops, but the open world is just better at night. The map in either mode is well designed and pretty big, and it can look fantastic in places. However, especially during the day, it's not a location that's going to live long in the memory. There are billboards to smash, speed gates to beat, and other distractions to find, but you do eventually get the feeling that Palm City is pretty empty.
At least driving through it is fun. The starter vehicles will initially feel very slow and heavy to control, but once you upgrade them or buy something better, the handling will grow on you. It's slightly more grounded than something like, say, Burnout Paradise, because drifting will reduce your speed, and you'll occasionally need to lift off the gas and use the brakes. However, drifting is sometimes the better way to get around corners. The result is still very arcadey, and it can be great fun throwing cars around. Perhaps the biggest success of the handling is that it really does vary from car to car, and even better is that you can change how your favourite ride feels to drive by swapping in different parts.
Adjusting the handling is one aspect of customisation, but it's important to note that this part of the game is well done overall. Tinkering with the performance of each car to get the most out of them is great, and then you of course have exhaustive cosmetic options. Not all of the 127 cars can be completely transformed, but you're able to put your stamp on each one with a huge array of body items, paint jobs, decals, and plenty more.
The vehicles are probably the best looking part of the game, understandably, but it's a shame there are a number of technical hiccups. Playing online, disconnects aren't uncommon in our experience, and visually we noticed a few glitches or inconsistencies. We imagine the game will be polished up in patches, but there are some surprisingly rough edges here.
As we said, Need for Speed Heat is the best entry in the franchise for quite some time, but it's still not quite where it needs to be. The day vs. night gameplay is a compelling loop, and it's a big step in the right direction for the series in general. It's a solid effort with fun handling and lots of customisation options. It's a shame the open world lacks personality, and the police are perhaps a little too hardball, but there's still plenty to like. At the tail end of this generation, Need for Speed is back to being good -- let's hope it can be great in future.