You'd be forgiven for thinking this one was going to be a wreck. Pushed out with next to no fanfare and the latest of a series that's been on a rapidly accelerating downward spiral this past generation, the signs for Need for Speed Heat haven't been too promising. So it's a pleasant surprise to discover that this is easily Ghost Games' best outing since its debut with Rivals, that no-frills launch speaking to a wider, stripped-back philosophy that's quicker to get to the core appeal of Need for Speed than recent efforts.
And Need for Speed Heat understands that this series is, above anything else, a romance. It's the love story between you and your car, a love that blossoms over a series of street races, point-to-point drives and escapades with the local law enforcement. It's about how you take a stock Nissan 180SX - one of the starter cars in Need for Speed Heat - and embellish it with tricked-out ECUs and turbochargers while lavishing its exterior with vinyls and bulging fenders until it's all utterly yours.
Need for Speed Heat dials back the bullshit of the 2015 reboot and 2017's risible Payback. There's a story here, and it's as painful as ever - you're part of a crew that's up against the corrupt police force of Heat's Palm City, essentially - but it's very much in the background and entirely ignorable. You get to pick your own avatar, from a fairly generous list, dress them as you see fit (a small nod, perhaps, to the dear departed Test Drive Unlimited) and then skip through all the cutscenes as you get down to business. The bullshit that's here is mostly the bullshit that matters. Want to change the timbre of your exhaust note as you modify your ride? Of course you do, and Need for Speed Heat is more than happy to oblige.
Compared to more recent efforts, customisation feels pumped up here. There's a decent enough suite of options from the off, though you're able to head online and browse other builds for your own use, or take to the streets of Palm City to collect new decals to use in your own designs. Tricking out a ride is just as essential to the experience, with new parts unlocked as you level up and often generously priced; unlike the tight-fisted Payback, you're encouraged to experiment and within a handful of hours will likely have a small selection of tastefully mutated cars to call your own.
The city itself slowly becomes yours too. Palm City is a Miami-esque playground complete with marshy lowlands and hills coursed with hairpins that break out into vistas across the cityscape, and over time it all evolves into a Burnout Paradise-esque open world. Curiously the world is mostly empty of distractions when you first start, but they're gradually folded in; there are billboards to smash through, gas stations to zip through for on-the-fly repairs, street art to collect, speed traps to trigger and, of course, plenty of events to partake in.
Need for Speed Heat is a ragtag collection of influences, from Underground through to Most Wanted as well as more recent inspiraitons such as The Crew - you're assigned an online club from the off - and Forza Horizon, with off-roading playing a bigger part than it has in this particular series' past. Heat does have one central concept that's entirely its own, though, and it's a good one.
There's a clean divide in Need for Speed Heat between day and night, with both providing very different experiences. Choose to play in sunlight hours (and it is a choice - there's dynamic weather and lighting but time is locked down) and you'll be partaking in sanctioned street races on cordoned-off streets and earning 'bank' - or cash, as it's more reasonably known. By night the races are unsanctioned, taking place on open roads and leaving you exposed to the local police force, your 'rep' - or level, in plain old-fashioned games speak - rising as you escape escalating heat levels. There's a Need for Speed Rivals-esque twist, with the rep you earn not banked until you make it back to a safe house undetected. Put those pieces together and you have an engaging loop as you smash your way through missions in the ever-evolving love story between you and your ride.
It's all assured and economical, though it's not without its shortcomings. Handling, while a vast improvement over the stiffness of Payback, isn't quite the real deal. There's a noticeable lag to your inputs - exacerbated by the decision to make this a 30fps racer, on console at least - that lends everything a soupy feel, while drifting isn't without its own eccentricities. Kicking the back end out is a simple case of lifting off the accelerator and then planting it back down again - this is a student of the Ridge Racer school of going sideways, it seems - which takes a little acclimitisation. Even when you're fully attuned, though, there's a fuzziness to it all that stops Need for Speed Heat from ever being truly satisfying.
It's a fuzziness that seeps in elsewhere, from hazy online features - racing against others is a case of pulling up to an event and waiting to see if others want to join before, invariably, getting bored and racing solo anyway - to a world that can feel threadbare and undercooked. Maybe that's a side-effect of the stripping back that's gone on here, a process that works for Need for Speed Heat more often than it works against it.
After recent disappointments, it's certainly a refreshing take. There are times, when I'm prowling the streets in my slammed 180SX, the exhaust barking my own custom tone while the tarmac is bathed in a sickly neon underglow as Latino hip-hop thumps out the car's souped-up soundsystem, that Need for Speed Heat comes so tantalisingly close to delivering on the classic Fast & Furious fantasy. This might still be a little way off of the series' best, but at least Heat serves as a reminder of what can be so special about Need for Speed.
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