There is very little wrong with Need For Speed: Heat. There’s quite a bit that’s good about it.
But it leaves you with a lingering question: why isn’t it better?
Need For Speed: Heat (AKA NFS: Heat) marks the twenty fourth entry into the franchise, which dates all the way back to 1994. The racing genre has a lot of the same challenges as any that puts in the player into the seat of a vehicle and almost all of them surrounding around balancing realism with casual fun. NFS: Heat does a fairly impressive job of making a racer accessible while still challenging the driver to pay attention to detail and become practiced in handling the cars.
And that’s not all it has going for it. The fictional city of Palm City is expansive and pretty. There are different styles of racing that include drift and off road. The voice acting is generally above par. It features an extremely wide range of vehicles to explore that start with familiar favorites and branch into exotic supercars. Customizing the cars can be a lot of fun and the game even warns you before you buy a new car just just how much you can change up with it.
It even has a fairly innovative mechanic in splitting the map into day and night modes. This allows the player to choose between making money during the day by participating in legit races and then illegally street racing to earn rep at night. Illegally racing increases your Heat, which makes it more likely that the cops will be after you. Heat acts like a multiplier and if you get caught you lose the multiplier and a stack a cash. This has the player, in a loosely Dark Souls way, balancing between earning a higher multiplier and risking losing it completely.
That said, the game fails to aim for the bleachers. While the array of cars is vast, they way things get unlocked by rep and paid for by cash is staggered in a way that makes unlocking cars along the way circumspect. It’s a good thing I liked my starter ’65 Mustang because I ended up playing 80% of the campaign with it. When I bought a new car and upgraded it, it always fell short of the old ‘Stang. Even when I made my way onto an off road track, I intentionally bought an SUV to trick out as my 4x4 alternate — only to find the Mustang was more powerful once I fitted it with the right tires and gear. So a huge portion of the game, buying and tricking out new cars, is basically and afterthought.
And then there is the story, which feels like was it was penned by someone who thought they were cribbing Fast and Furious but ended up with Dukes of Hazzard instead. Don’t get me wrong, I have a strong place in my heart for the Duke Boys … but I just think over the top bad guys orchestrating wildly incompetent schemes is best left for 80’s action shows. Right from the start the game goes out of the way to show the police as being just plain evil and then leads the player down a narrative of corruption so blatant that you have to wonder if the Mayor of Palm City has a twirly mustache or just went full goatee.
Finally, said story ends rather quickly and allows the player to finish without really coming close to maxing out their gear or level. Once completed, it really asks the player to wonder how much they care about sticking with the core mechanics of racing just to get a neater car.
NFS: Heat does enough things right that it feels like it could be a great racing game. More specifically, not just a great racing game but a great game. It could in the same league as a Halo, or Gears, or Zelda, or other must have titles. Instead, it tries a bit but mostly relies on the bones of the franchise’s popularity. That is never a good strategy for longevity and is a recipe for what Need For Speed seems to have fallen into: a series of titles that drift (no pun intended) with small experiments that leave fans wonder what the quality of the next title is going to be. And at this rate titles that feel optional rather than compelling.
At the end of the day, I would recommend NFS: Heat for anyone who is looking for an accessible open world racer. I just wouldn’t have them set their expectations terrible high.
But I wish EA would start doing so.