Need For Speed has a long and storied history on the Xbox consoles, becoming EA’s premier arcade style racing game. There have been both highlights and lowlights along the way, from the majesty that was Most Wanted and Underground 2, to the travesty that was The Run, and the ill fated foray into realism with the Shift series. Much to my delight, the new game, Need For Speed Heat (henceforth referred to as NFS Heat), seems to have vibes of my favourite games about it; the cop baiting fun of Most Wanted, mixed with the officially condoned racing of ProStreet, and all combined with the wild customizability of Underground 2.
The first thing we have to get our head around with NFS Heat is the way the game is split in half, working between night and day, and the difference in the gameplay is almost as stark. See, in the day, all is lovely and fluffy on the mean streets of Palm City, with relaxed, laid back cops not even bothering to chase if you do anything short of crashing into them. All the races are officially sanctioned, and take place on nice, safe closed roads, so the chances of crashing into Doreen on her way to whist is non-existent.
Come the hours of darkness though and the world changes. All the races you can take part in now are very unsanctioned, and run on open roads, where oncoming traffic is a constant danger. It is here where we see the cops turn, becoming absolutely brutal in the process. They are much tougher than in Most Wanted, and sideswiping a cop car to get them off your tail is now a good way to wreck your own motor; taking out the higher level police cars is nigh on impossible. The only option is to run for the hills, but even this is fraught with danger, as they really do not give up. But, with the major mechanic explored, how does the game play out?
Very well is the answer, but with some caveats. First off, Need for Speed Heat looks amazing, with shiny graphics, a car model that gets progressively more battered as you mistreat it on the streets, fantastic scenery and more lens flare than you can shake a camshaft at. Seriously, sometimes I’ve wished there was the option to put the sun visor down, especially if the streets are wet after rain, as the glare is blinding. Still, the game does a good job of making the city feel alive and breathing, with a nice mixture of traffic on the streets, from small sedans up to trucks, all of which can be crashed into. Ideally, you’d not do this, but sometimes it seems unavoidable.
In the day, the city is fairly muted, but at night it turns into a Miami Vice style neon fest, with so many lights and reflections that it’s sometimes hard to see where you are supposed to be driving. In another departure for the series, EA have obviously been looking at the success of the Forza Horizon games and thought they fancied a bit of that, as you are no longer restricted to driving on roads, and quite often when making your way to a new race or other destination, it can be faster to drive across country in a straight line, rather than follow the roads.
With this new found freedom comes some new ways of racing. There are the familiar street race style events, alongside scored drift events that are making a comeback. New this time around are off road races, and as luck would have it, your car can be fitted with parts that enable it to be competitive in the various events. These range from diffs to tyres that can be purchased, at least if you have enough “bank” and have earned enough “rep” to unlock the bits you need. Taking a leaf again from the Horizon games, you can even go so far as to swap the entire engine from your vehicle for a more powerful lump, and then tune that.
As you build up your vehicle, it changes rating too, and as all races have suggested performance scores on them, it’s usually better to be over-levelled than under, as bringing a knife to a gunfight is a good way to lose. Sneaky shortcuts can help make you competitive, but I’ve found that if you are about 20 points over the suggestion, it shouldn’t be too difficult. The exception is during night time races, as the police are a great leveller, and them sticking their oar into a race means all bets are off. While modifying the car for performance, you can also give the outside of the vehicle some love, with almost every panel changeable and some truly eye watering shades of paint or wrap available, along with a very good decal editor, letting you make your own wild creations or even copy a real world car if you prefer.
So, Heat all looks great, sounds good (even if the music is a bit too “yoof” for me), but what about the driving experience? Well, overall, this is very good, with a real feeling of speed given by the game, and the races coming across as quite tense, all as you jostle to cross the line first. The handling of the cars is firmly on the arcade side of the spectrum, as you’d expect from an NFS title, but it feels dumbed down this time around.
You see, drifting, in real life, is very hard to do well, requiring precise counter steering and careful modulation of the loud pedal to keep things under control. In NFS Heat, every single corner in the game, from the widest sweeper to the tightest hairpin, can be drifted around by releasing the throttle, then reapplying it. Steer at the beginning of the corner and you don’t need to touch things again until the corner is over, when you may have to straighten up. This means that initially you’ll probably counter-steer, thinking that is what is needed. This is very jarring at first, but you soon learn to use it your advantage, getting around an entire course without touching the brake and going into corners at ludicrous speeds, only for the car to drift beautifully around. It doesn’t matter if you gear the car entirely towards race either; you still need to drift to make some of the bends, and the understeer on display if you don’t beggars belief. Gear the car towards the drift end of the spectrum, and it will go sideways if you should so much as breathe on the throttle, and this makes the drift events a breeze. Once you accept these “limitations” then the rest of the game is a lot of fun; you just have to relearn how to drive.
Other than the way the cars handle, there’s only one other thing that bothers me with NFS Heat, and that is what happens when you crash – and believe me you will. I like to play racing games in the front bumper view, so I can see the maximum of the road. I find the car a lot easier to place on the track this way, and so you can understand how jarring it is, if you crash, to have the view switch to the outside of the vehicle, and stay there. If I want the front bumper view again, you’ll need to cycle through all the available views until getting to the correct one again, as the game will still think you’re in the front bumper view. Imagine trying to flick through five different views, while trying to get back into a race, at night, in the rain. It’s just annoying, and I can’t see why it is necessary.
All in all and Need for Speed Heat on Xbox One is a return to form for the series after a few mediocre iterations. There’s a decent story involving police corruption, the characters are likable enough without ever being more than two dimensional, and best of all, the driving is fun, whether it be in race or just cruising around finding safehouses to then act as fast travel points. There’s a lot of real estate to go at, with miles of roads, dirt tracks and fields to explore, and that’s without mentioning the collectibles to find, ranging from giant billboards to neon flamingos.
I’ve had a great deal of fun with Heat and am quite happy to recommend it to anyone interested in an arcade driving experience. Need for Speed Heat is fast, furious, fun, and the best Need for Speed game of recent years.