Prepare to drive.
Before I got my hands on the new Need for Speed game, I popped Payback into my PlayStation to remind myself why I bounced off the 2017 release quicker than my best Nürburgring lap. An unmemorable open world, annoying characters, and a weirdly grindy upgrade system were the culprits. Payback had promise, it was meant to let us live our Fast & Furious fantasies, but as Richard Wakeling put in his review, the game had a “general drabness that seeps into every layer of the game.”
Need for Speed: Heat will be the fourth game in the franchise from Swedish developer Ghost Games, but have the team managed to shift the series back into gear? Initial impressions are promising. Gone is the dusty dime-a-dozen desert of Payback’s Fortune Valley, we’re off to Palm City, a neon-lit urban sprawl, with collectible street art, tropical weather, and the colour saturation seemingly turned up as far as it will go. There has clearly been an effort to squeeze all the good bits of the open world a bit closer together, or create a “compact road network”, as producer Jeremy Chubb put it. Miami was a big influence on Heat's Palm City, as you might guess, but there’s more than meets the eye when you hit the streets at a hundred miles per hour.
One of the first things I noticed when I inevitably spun a supercar into a tree is that I blew right through it, rather than coming to a grinding halt on impact. Objects in the world are much more forgiving when it comes to the laws of physics, which makes navigating the winding roads a whole lot more fun. This, as demonstrated last year in Forza Horizon 4’s crumbling country walls, is a concession that usually has a positive impact on the feel of a racing game, so it’s a welcome change to the world of Need for Speed. Changes like this are what give me hope for this game being great, and thankfully they have been made where it matters most.
For example, the speed cards from Payback have been binned in favour of a much simpler upgrade system. Want to improve your engine? Cool, just earn money and buy the parts. Tuning your ride is not overcomplicated, but there’s enough there to give even the most hardcore of petrolheads a good whiff of gasoline. Cars aren’t divided into classes, nor are you restricted on what you roll up in for a race. It’s just you, a decent selection of cars to choose from, and some shiny extra parts to make you go faster and look good doing it. There’s even a dedicated ‘rev engine’ button in the tuning menu, with an emphasis on getting the tinny timbre of your exhaust to your personal preference of obnoxious harmony.
On the road, Heat has some refinements too. The handy live-tuning from Payback makes a welcome return, letting you tweak your car as you drive, and there’s a new focus on both drift and race handling. Depending on how sideways you want to go, you can swap in upgrades that will either make your car glide around the track, or tighten steering for precision handling. Drifting feels easier to pull off by just tapping the gas as you turn, then powering-on to slide around those corners, like an elegant figure skater but with more horsepower.
The biggest change to Heat, and also its biggest selling point, I think, is the contrasting day and night activities. Daytime sees you competing in totally legal races for cash prizes. Cops--yes there are cops!--don’t seem that fussed about you drifting the streets, and will only cause you a minor inconvenience if you do big and obvious crimes right in front of them.
How to avoid getting busted is up to you; outrun police cars with the raw horsepower under your hood, or nimbly weave through backstreets until you’ve lost them in the urban jungle. NOS is very much your friend when avoiding jail and getting ahead in races, but in Heat you will need to be more tactical with how you use it. Rather than one big bar that you can tap on and off as you please, this time you have single use canisters of Nitrous Oxide, so pick your moments to boost wisely. You can also equip auxiliary items to use when on the run, such as repair kits, nitrous refills, and kill switch jammers. Kill switches being one of the nasty tools the police will deploy to try and stop you, along with road spikes, helicopters, and heavily armoured ‘Rhino’ vehicles.
The brief bit of story I got to see wasn’t far from what you’d imagine; a trendy crew of young drivers who want to make a name for themselves, but I didn’t find it cringy or annoying like I have with previous Need for Speed games. I was also introduced to a very corrupt cop, who seems to have a murderous vendetta against street racers in the city. I'm genuinely curious about how his story unfolds--it feels like it isn’t beyond the realms of something you’d see in a Fast & Furious movie. There’s also a virtual crew system--a list of 32 people who you’ll see in the world, stand beside their cars in your garage, and act as a familiar group you can compete with at any time. The game offers plenty of social options, but they don't get in the way at any point, so if driving solo is your thing you can take to the roads on your own.
I had a blast in the few hours I played of Need for Speed: Heat, and I’m way more enthusiastic about tearing through the streets of Palm City than I was for Payback a couple of years ago. The refined upgrade system, improved handling, and the risk to reward baked into the day-to-night cycle could make for a better, more interesting experience, but I can't say for sure until I get behind the wheel in the full game.
Stay tuned to GameSpot for more Need for Speed: Heat coverage, and take a look at the video above to see me kitting out my favorite car and taking it for a spin.