We are long past the golden age of the arcade racer. Once dominating gaming in the late 90s and early 00s, it’s been some time since I have had a Need For Speed in my library. With the occasional dip into sim racers with Forza 4, I hadn’t even thought about playing a racer again. The release of Need For Speed Heat seemed like a good time to jump back in, as the original Hot Pursuit was the first I had played. For the most part, I think I got exactly what I expected. Unfortunately, what I couldn’t account for was how stale the genre had become.
Need For Speed: Heat was developed by Ghost Games and published by Electronic Arts. It was released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC on November 8, 2019. The PlayStation 4 version was played for this review.
Back in the day I didn’t need much of an excuse to race other than a list of cars. To be honest, I think that was the perfect format for racers. This generation of gamers, however, demand storytelling in all of their games and I think racing is the genre suffering from that demand. Need For Speed: Heat might be the racer that has been dealt the worst hand. There’s nothing original or even engaging about the story NFSH tries to tell here. Stop me if you have heard this before: A small group of “likeable” street racers must try to build their reputation and make money while avoiding the crooked police officers who control the scene from the shadows.
Despite my sarcasm I’m not going to dock NFSH too much for its uninspired story. Much like arcade shooters, I don’t think it’s fair or even valid to judge certain genres too harshly in the story department. A great example of this idea is DOOM 2016. The problem with NSFH is that it takes itself far too seriously. There is almost no sense of humor in the game at all, which is quite at odds with its arcade-y nature.
Plenty of other games have solved this identity crisis. The Saints Row series shook comparisons to Grand Theft Auto with its third entry by fully embracing its wackiness. The aforementioned DOOM 2016 was a successful reboot following a small stumble with 2004’s DOOM 3, which tried to ground its heavy metal, demon shoot ‘em up story.
My point here is that it becomes incredibly difficult to care or even take a story about street racing seriously when my character can take a 90 degree turn at 85 miles per hour. So, why try and tell me a serious story? There are a thousand ways to make this game’s world as wacky and arcade-y as the gameplay, making this feel like an incredibly missed opportunity.
Topping off the dull-fest might be the worst cast of characters presented in a modern AAA title. Starting with the selection of avatars for the main character, we are presented with a lineup of stereotypical dude-bros who would be right at home as extras in the original The Fast and the Furious film. The dialogue that flows forth from them is just as bad and just as at home in an 18-year-old film. “Do it for the crew,” this and, “I’m not about that life anymore,” that. I could not find a single likable character.
Remember Hot Pursuit
The game itself felt like taking a trip down memory lane to the games of the early-to-late 2000s. EA has made a couple of attempts to reinvent the Need For Speed franchise since the arrival of the PS4 and Xbox One, with neither of them being hits with either critics or fans. Considering this, it is not surprising to see them go back to a ten-year-old well of gameplay design. In doing so, I think they robbed Need For Speed Heat of any personality it may have had.
The worst part of this retread is the shallowness it creates in the gameplay loop. Race types are limited and are only slowly unlocked as you progress through the story. Circuits, sprints, drifts, and offroad racing are most of what is available, and I was bored by the time I unlocked drifts.
Most of the game is spent splitting time between day and night racing, with each offering mostly separate rewards. Races done during the day are safer and without the risk of police interference, for some reason, and offer monetary rewards for winning. This money is obviously used for both cosmetic and mechanical upgrades to your vehicle, as well as purchasing completely new cars.
Racing at night is purely for “Rep” which serves as NFSH’s experience points. Rep is earned for each completed night race, but is also earned and multiplied by the Heat meter, which is filled by getting chased by the police. Each new Rep level unlocks more races, upgrades, and cars to buy, as well as continuing the story.
This is rinsed and repeated ad nauseum, which wouldn’t be a problem if there was any substance to the actual driving. Arcade racers are supposed to be simple and fun, but Need For Speed Heat gets way too close to being simple, easy, and boring. To be clear, I am not good at racing games and get quickly irritated when I lose (which is often), and I finished first place in every race on the first try. It’s not like I was playing on the hardest difficulty, but I just couldn’t see a reason to even try it, as the mechanics of the racing were so simple.
As far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything to stop me from cheesing the races either. A few times I took a bad turn and drove off track for long enough I effectively took a shortcut and there was no one to call me on it. I even started ramming my opponents into as many walls as I could, which was neither particularly effective nor satisfying. In the end, I just wished I was playing Burnout.
I had hopes that at least being chased by the police would be fun, but that has just as little nuance as the rest of the game. Initiating a chase became more of a chore than a highlight as there was nothing fun about trying to escape. Instead of having the Heat use large numbers and tactics to bust you, they just have cars that are always exactly as fast and handle exactly the same as whatever car you happen to be driving at the time. I never could figure out why sometimes I could escape and other times I was lucky to put more than a few yards between myself and the fuzz. It doesn’t help that upon the increase of each Heat level, I would get a phone call from one of the many annoying members of my crew letting me know.
Please. Stop. Talking.
The gameplay isn’t the only part of Need For Speed Heat that feels straight out of 2009. Graphically, it’s one of the most unimpressive games I’ve seen in a long time. Character models are smooth with little texture, there is a fuzziness which borders almost every model in the game, and every surface is wet in an attempt to add depth to the otherwise bland visual style. It reminded me of Saints Row: The Third, only it’s 2019 and with the next generation of gaming hardware on the horizon. On top of that, the world you play in isn’t populated with much and is largely uninspired. There are no pedestrians walking the streets and even automotive traffic is shockingly sparse.
Unfortunately, the obnoxious characters of Heat don’t stop at just their appearance. The writing, as was mentioned earlier, is pretty basic and cliche-ridden, but the voice acting is equally unpleasant. None of them have a personality that separates them from the rest of the cast and most of the lines are delivered with a stilted and bored inflection. I was reminded of the Tony Hawk games from the beginning of the millennium where the pro skaters cautiously delivered the lines from their cue cards and called it a day. Mixing that with the horrendous soundtrack, I eventually muted the game entirely.
All of these things considered, I find that I may have just grown out of the arcade racing genre. Without the precision of a sim racer or the stupid fun of a crash sim like Burnout, I just couldn’t figure out how a simple arcade style racer could be fun. It was too simple without the fun part to go with it.
I hate to speak for a community but I’m sure this game may meet the demands they ask for in Need For Speed. For anyone else looking to get into racing but don’t want the difficulty associated with Forza or Asetto Corsa, I would still recommend picking up the recent remaster of Burnout Paradise. If you’re not already a Need For Speed fan, I say skip Heat and wait for EA to remember Burnout exists.
Review copy provided by Electronic Arts for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.