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Review: Need for Speed Heat is a neon-drenched good time

Like a majority of the internet, I too was once excited for Need for Speed Payback, pre-Battlefront II fiasco, and remember the utter disappointment the more time I invested into that game. The loot-boxed infused upgrade system was an absolutely atrocious mechanic that made no sense within the confines of a Need for Speed game, and many fans, with good reason, felt burned.
So it is with great pleasure that I can say that Need for Speed Heat brings the franchise back on track. It’s not without a few faults, but I am already much more invested in speeding across the Miami-inspired Palm City.

Need for Speed Heat, like every other game in the franchise before it, puts you in the driver’s seat of an up and coming street racer who is ready to rise in the ranks and prove themselves to be the best racer in the city.
It’s a cliche-infused storyline that after so many years, I’m finally able to say the game would be much better without. The dialogue, though infrequent, is almost always cringe-inducing and for the most part had me pressing the skip button nine times out of ten. If you want an example of a franchise that does the same thing but in a much less cringy way, look no further than the Forza Horizon series. I’m not saying Forza Horizon isn’t without cringe, but it’s not as in your face about it like the NFS games are.
Cringy dialogue aside, the big hook of Heat is its day and night racing mechanics, and how distinct those two feel from one another. Racing during the day provides you with sanctioned street races while racing at night is where the “illegal” street races happen, which is also when the cops are on the prowl and won’t hesitate to pursue even when you’re in the middle of a race.

The main reason you’ll be switching between day and night is that they each award distinct currency. Daytime offers up cash rewards, which can then be used to purchase new cars or upgrade your current ones, while racing during the night earns you Rep. Your Rep level is basically the key to gate various content. As your Rep raises, you’ll be allowed to purchase more cars or better upgrades and of course, take part in races that move the story along. It’s a well-balanced symbiosis between the two where they’re both necessary in order to meaningfully progress.
I will go on record that cop chases aren’t really my jam, and thus entries like Hot Pursuit which built their whole premise around them, didn’t initially appeal to me. With that said, I am happy to say that the chases in Heat didn’t feel too annoying since they didn’t happen too often.

 It feels like Ghost Games have scaled cop encounters down a bit but still retained their intensity by giving players a damage meter. Sustain enough damage during a chase and you’re busted, or go and repair yourself by driving through a gas station, though you’re only limited to three repairs. It’s a neat risk/reward mechanic where antagonizing the police can lead to higher Rep gain, though it can all be lost in an instant if you’re not careful and your car gets totaled.

Touching a bit on customization, this is probably one of the best implementations of the system that hooked players on tricking their rides out during the days of Underground. Every part of the car can be customized, giving players a large amount of freedom to make their car look unique. Coupled with the very impressive livery editor that already has plenty of player-made liveries available to instantly wrap your car in, you’ll be able to take down the Palm City competition in style.

It’s not all perfect though. The beginning of the game specifically has some odd pacing issues with how it reveals its mechanics to you. For instance, it wasn’t until a few story missions in where you’re first told how to perform drifts. Being a Need for Speed veteran, I, of course, thought that tapping the handbrake would easily initiate one. And while I wasn’t necessarily wrong, drifting this way caused my opponents to fly past me.
It wasn’t until much later during the first Drift tutorial, which reveals that letting go of the gas for a split second and immediately pressing it again is how Heat initiates drifts. With this knowledge, I immediately performed better in races and wondered why this crucial piece of information wasn’t outright stated.
The ways in which the game gates content based on your car’s upgrade level isn’t always accurate. It’s measured in a number that increases every time you make a meaningful upgrade to your car. That means if a race recommends a Gear Score of 140, if you’re at least 140 or higher, you should be fine. However, that definitely wasn’t the case. Early on, a majority of the events which I was even 20 points higher, always had a leading car that no matter how much I tried to beat, I couldn’t catch up with.

The fact that the game doesn’t include a simple rewind feature, something that’s been in the Forza games for a while now, as well as the GRID series, makes a tiny mistake that can cost you an entire race immensely frustrating.
The fact that Heat looks absolutely stunning shouldn’t come as a surprise since Need for Speed in 2015 already showcased some breathtaking photorealistic graphics thanks to the Frostbite engine. The same can be said for Heat as well, which, thanks to Frostbite, looks downright stunning, especially when racing at night. Ghost Games loves making it rain in the game, which makes sense because it just adds even more beauty to the already gorgeous game.

However, Frostbite isn’t without issues. Despite the beauty and realism the engine offers, I have had a few graphical issues pop up, as well as three hard crashes on my PS4 Pro. Despite those though, it does seem like Frostbite is at least working in Need for Speed’s favor, unlike Mass Effect Andromeda which was an absolute disaster.

The Verdict:
Is Need for Speed Heat worthy of your attention? If you’re a fan of the franchise and felt betrayed by Payback in 2017, then absolutely. With a packed roster of over 120 cars, a well-designed and gorgeous city to explore and race in and a huge emphasis on customization, it’s undeniably Ghost Games’ apology letter for 2017’s mess of a game.

 It’s a return to form that doesn’t really try anything hugely unique and genre-defining and plays it relatively safe. However, it does away with Payback’s horrendous loot-box upgrade system and instead puts the power to upgrade and earn cars directly into the players’ hands.

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