America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 16th Dec 2019 | 2,046 views
“What happened to the Need for Speed series?” This was the most recycled thought I had after playing the 2015 reboot(?) and upon hearing about the loot-box structure baked into customization in Payback. One of the most titular racing series reduced to “innovating” with wretched first-person FMV cutscenes or obnoxious methods of rewarding players. But developer Ghost Games’ re-evaluation makes Need for Speed Heat feel similar to an amateur showing a newbie how to drive stick-shift.
You effectively play as a nameless blank slate. There are several pre-designated character options to select that vary gender, race, and frame, which you’re capable of swapping out when at home. Your character’s history is of less importance than the racing events and auxiliary characters. Palm City, fictional stand-in for Miami, FL, is home to one of the biggest exhibitions called the “Speedhunter Showdown.” But there’s a catch for any Mario Andretti wannabe: these street races are—strangely—allowed during the daytime but illegal at night, and Lt. Frank Mercer, ranking officer of High-Speed Task Force, is unrelenting in his goal to quash any night racing.
It goes without saying that story isn’t a strong suit for this genre, and that’s typically reinforced here; and yet, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the overarching structure. It’s as though that, because these racers have a loathsome veneer in flaunting their skill & vehicles, the writers hit the throttle for the cops’ cartoon-villain behaviors. The tone set in the beginning depicts them seriously considering whether to execute an injured street racer who just narrowly escaped an early grave, despite the accident being caused by an officer. This super-serious gravity tends to permeate every scene they’re in and feels off-putting for such a generic narrative.
Even when focusing on your character’s crew, there are some glimmers that sneak out of this expected story. The Rivera siblings, Lucas and Ana, have a strange way of greeting you with open arms: a free ride, temporary home, and priority privileges if wanting Lucas to tune up your ride. Tell me if this sounds familiar: a racing-legend-turned-mechanic who called it quits after a fateful event scarred him. The revelation is trope-laden, but credit is due to the voice actors/actors of the Rivera duo. Their moments of interaction sometimes mix English & Spanish, which gives them flavor along with their backstory. With rare exceptions, though, the rest of this roster sounds bland—extending to your playable character, depending on which preset avatar you choose.
Even with no expectations of a “Great Shakes,” Heat found a way to disappoint. Aside from a few emotional beats, all dialogue and sound bites draw from the same well of over-the-top bravado. The douche-driver attitude is the racer equivalent of the hoo-rah space marine, except all your friends and rivals are marines.
If the story is of zero concern? Your adjusted focus on the good qualities of Heat may pay off.
The incipient impression I had extends throughout the rest of the game: the middle ground between sim and arcade pays off. Even with the starting vehicles, there’s something about the general sense of speed and handling that feels smooth. Most race layouts are three-minute sprints where specific turns can feel like the mistake to cost you; the sensation of snipping a few seconds off your best time feels rewarding; and the mechanical sensation feels appropriate for each respective vehicle. Most of the base mechanics hold up.
On top of that, the world design is exciting to traverse. Palm City is like a condensed version of Florida: a mixture of Miami’s cityscape, swampy Everglades, shipping ports, and so on. The high altitude of Palm City’s north-western portion takes things a bit far, but I understand why there’s a need to avoid making all terrain look flat. Aside from the stretched north-western portion, I’d argue the size of this map is the perfect middle between overly- expansive and constricted. There are a plethora of said activities to do, like discover neon flamingos or reach speed-trap records, encouraging you to assess each nook and cranny as a result. From that, it becomes second nature to remember specific routes and locales.
One critical departure from Payback is the removal of a 24-hour cycle. What may seem like a fall backwards actually serves a purpose. The selectable Day/Night delineation emphasizes the disparity seen between atmospheres: the cheering crowds one can see & hear whilst engaging in day races versus the aggressive police patrols at night. Both timelines carry different rewards: bank during the day and reputation at night.
There’s an interesting dynamic to reputation that makes cop chases as exciting as those in Hot Pursuit. The longer you stay out and get in different kinds of trouble the higher your ‘Heat Rating’ (a la GTA stars). Crashing cops, running speed-traps, and night racing all contribute towards said rating. Each successive level makes the cops more ferocious and tougher to lose, but score multipliers increase as well. The catch is none of that rep is counted until you make it safely back to a garage. Should you get busted: the cops’ glaze-covered fingers take much of your bank and accumulated rep points from the night. This is made even more interesting by the high-heat events, which are locked until reaching 3+ Heat Rating. Although I’m annoyed by the aggressive rubber-banding of police on the highest levels, this risk/reward dynamic is one of the best additions.
Customization is moderately extensive between cosmetic and performance equipment. Starting out with a ‘67 Mustang wasn’t the best in regards to acceleration, but the gradual improvements over time resulted in it feeling and sounding like a different rig by the campaign’s finale. There’s no randomized nonsense this time around; simply reach the demanded reputation and put down bank on which components you deem appropriate. The drip-feed of better crankshafts, tires, and more is expansive and necessary for tackling the various races. For example: I still remember the difference in off-road racing with & without the proper differential.
The plurality of options extends even further when tinkering with rims, spoilers, lights, etc. A spray-painted design found in Palm City can be your car’s next paint job; in fact, certain designs were so good I’d sometimes forget about the campaign to find more. The visual information (cost, brand, changed look) is also well-communicated.
Between drifting, off-roading circuits, time trials, and on-road race variants, there’s a surfeit of options to select, and enough of each category that you’re not forced into something you dislike. When you start considering all the secondary races, collectibles, and activities (just offline), you’re not getting a skimpy package.
Are there notable complaints? Absolutely. For one, I dislike the default method of drifting: letting off and re-stomping the gas when turning corners. And I want to know: who the hell thought hiding the brake-drifting option behind double-tapping the d-pad was a good idea? This is literally what an options menu is for. Even then, drifting with the gas pedal technically doesn’t go away; it’s just that the conditions are a bit steeper to pull it off. On that note, drift challenges are easy regardless of preferred method. Purchase the cheapest drift set with any vehicle and keep fish-tailing at every opportunity. You’re guaranteed to reach the drift score before the halfway point every single time.
There’s also a heightened sense of repetition towards the main story’s end. Since there’s a reputation floor to unlock campaign races, there’s a necessity to grind out night competitions at higher levels. And if they’re ones you’ve finished before it’s going to be relatively simple (even on the hardest difficulty). That’s something weird about many races too: varying between relative ease and specific rubber-banding with the fastest AI racer. It’s an uncharacteristically common occurrence.
I’d be more invested to discuss online if EA’s server connections didn’t seem so shoddy, at least when I was playing. Despite not having always-online requirements, some moments when a disconnection notice appeared my game crashed alongside. While it seems like Ghost Games was striving to make a robust, integrated online their execution leaves a lot to be desired. Hoping you and several other racers will choose the same racing venue on the map is often a crapshoot, resulting in long waits to duel someone else. I’m not sure why some type of auto-request or lobby selection wasn’t implemented. Forming an online crew has some great benefits though, including permanent reputation buffs, liking/sharing other crewmates’ pictures, and private races. A respectable amount of focus has been spent on bolstering the community aspect, but it’s a shame the fundamentals to competitively race need to be updated.
Heat may not always play like a dream, but it sure looks pretty. The FrostBite 3 engine is put to great use during the nighttime segments especially. I’ve never been the best one to judge technical graphics, but it seems to be firing on all cylinders in all key respects—with special exception to weird water physics and their reflective look. What initially caught my eye were the UI elements and in-game guiding light being neon blue and pink. It’s a color palette rarely expected beyond a car’s underglow kit but that gaudy style complements its Miami inspiration. There’s one artistic choice I don’t care for: an obsessive intent of framing your actions through a handheld camera, constantly impressed with colored lens flare filtering through the screen and bobbing the camera for certain impacts.
I should also reemphasize that my experience is exclusively based on an Xbox One X. According to community complaints I’ve seen elsewhere, the PS4 and PC versions had a litany of issues at launch—and some problems may still persist. I’d advise to keep a close eye on updates, for technical issues or perhaps gameplay tweaks which may ameliorate certain criticisms.
Like the aesthetic, Heat’s soundtrack utilizes various genres typical of the area: Latina-inspired pop, rap artists, and more. Despite not being my go-to genres, I often found it to be a quality selection that fit perfectly with the atmosphere. Although I’m not going to say it’s a technical showcase on par with the Forza or Gran Turismo series, sound design isn’t a slouch either. The amount of accessorizing you can do to your exhaust alone highlights how much dedication Ghost Games put into secondary details.
When strictly evaluating the exclusively-8th gen releases, Need for Speed Heat safely ranks as the best. That doesn’t say much. A mediocre story, inconsistent online structure, and design issues tempered my enjoyment; and yet, the solid foundation with respect to racing and customizing kept me interested enough to reach the checkered flag. But it’s a shame that’s as far as my enthusiasm consistently went. It’s like seeing the game cover’s Polestar 1 on an empty airstrip unwilling to go past fourth gear.