Racing in Palm City--the fictional street racing capital of the world--is all about earning money and building a reputation. During the day there are sanctioned races on closed streets, with safety barriers, an adoring crowd, and substantial cash prizes awaiting those who cross the finish line. At night, illegal street racing engulfs the city's neon-soaked roads, and the police respond in kind, blanketing the star-lit sky in the sound of thunderous V12s and whirring sirens. This dichotomy between day and night sets Need for Speed Heat apart from its contemporaries, and makes for Ghost Games' best entry to date, stripping away a lot of the series' needless baggage to get to the heart of what Need for Speed is all about.
There's still a hackneyed story about crooked cops and racing crews that take themselves far too seriously; it's full of corny dialogue, farfetched stakes, and irritating characters that wouldn't make the cut in earlier Fast and Furious movies. Story missions occasionally crop up, too, forcing you to follow a character while they talk at you, and there's even one instance of a dire tailing mission. Aside from this, however, the narrative is mostly relegated to background noise that's easy to ignore, especially if you opt to skip any of its cutscenes. Need for Speed Heat is mostly focused on getting you behind the wheel of a car you've customized yourself, altering everything from the ludicrously oversized spoiler on the back, right down to the distinct sound of the engine.
Each aspect of the game's design is built around the core dynamic between day and night. Official circuit races dominate the faux-Miami streets when the sun is beaming, rewarding you with cash that can be spent on new cars, parts, and visual customization options. The autoparts companies and car salesmen in Palm City are a peculiar bunch, though. They won't sell to just anyone--such is their love of cars. They have to know that you're "cool" enough and are going to put their parts to good use, so the dead of night is spent competing in illegal street races to earn rep and convince them of your pedigree. This creates a clear divide between day and night that gradually cultivates this enjoyable flow, as you switch back and forth between the two time frames depending on whether you need money or rep.
The duality of this concept establishes an unmistakable vibe to each time of day--almost like they're two completely different worlds. The sunlit streets feel relatively safe, with sanctioned events emanating a casual, crowd-pleasing atmosphere. Courses are clearly marked with barricades, there's room to drift your car sideways around most corners, and the only thing you have to worry about is beating the other competitors to the finish line. By contrast, Palm City's nightlife is risky and fraught with danger. Rain that was previously casting a gloomy shadow over the day's races has now settled onto the surface of the road, as visually-striking puddles absorb the city's neon haze and reflect it back. Traffic clogs the streets, making races feel more claustrophobic, and the threat of the police getting involved is a perpetual source of concern.
Cops in Need for Speed Heat introduce a unique sense of dread because of the way they're intrinsically linked to your rep. As you win races and accumulate more and more rep during a night's work, your Heat level will steadily rise. Catching the attention of the boys in blue will expedite your Heat's ascension, with cops becoming more aggressive and plentiful the higher it climbs. There's an element of risk and reward here, as a higher Heat level means a larger multiplier for all of the rep you've accrued in a single night. The only way to bank that rep is by escaping the police and reaching a safe house, but this is easier said than done when the police are on your tail like a bad rash. You can play it safe and store what rep you have, or extend the night by antagonizing the police in the hope that you'll be able to shake them when your multiplier is higher. Need for Speed Heat's best moments come when you've led the fuzz on a jolly merry-go-round and manage to ditch them by the skin of your teeth to bank a considerable amount of rep.
Although the police do have a tendency to feel unfair. If they get close enough and bring your car to a sudden halt, a "busting" timer appears, automatically signaling an end to your escapades if it ticks all the way down. The problem with this, aside from how fast it runs out, is that it will continue to count away the seconds even after you've accelerated away from the police. It should be difficult to escape the cop's clutches, but since you can get arrested if they total your car, ending up in cuffs because an arbitrary timer counts down when you're not even penned in is frustrating. There are also very obvious moments when police cars will spawn directly in front of you to prolong a chase. Sure, they might be crooked cops, but that doesn't stop their blatant cheating from dulling the pulse-quickening thrill of each hot pursuit.
These scenarios can be thrilling, however, especially when you push your car into top gear. There's a fantastic sense of speed in Need for Speed Heat, as cars and lights blur past your wing mirrors at what feels like 300 miles per hour. A noticeable lag on your steering inputs does make each car feel slightly heavier than they otherwise should, though. The handling model also doesn't have the malleability to alter the handling from one car to the next, so they all end up feeling relatively similar to drive aside from variations in speed and acceleration. Drifting is also a tad iffy, borrowing its mechanics from the likes of Ridge Racer as opposed to Need for Speed's past. Rather than feathering the brakes to get your car sideways, Need for Speed Heat asks you to let go of the accelerator and then pump it again in order to achieve a successful drift. It's a realistic approach, boiling drifting down to deft throttle control, but it can be difficult to get a handle on at first, namely because pumping the brakes feels much more intuitive due to the past 15 or so years of racing games adopting this method. Thankfully you can alter the control scheme, and drifting is generally quite fun regardless. It feels a lot slower than it has in the past, but you have much more control over angles and potentially extending the length of your car's rubber-burning slide.
There are dedicated drift events, too, which require you to purchase the appropriate parts if you want to come out on top, and it's here where Need for Speed Heat significantly improves upon its immediate predecessor, Payback. There are no luck-based Speed Cards needed to improve your car, nor are you limited to using specific vehicles in designated events. Instead, the upgrade system in Need for Speed Heat gives you the freedom to take a Nissan Skyline and mix and match parts such as the suspension, tires, and differential, until you have a car that can compete in road races, off-road races, and drift events--it's just a shame there aren't a few more event types to partake in. On top of that, there are also myriad parts available if you want to fully upgrade each car's performance, along with a veritable bucketload of customization options, just in case you've ever wanted to control how much fiery overrun spurts out of the exhaust pipes. Each part is moderately priced so money is never much of an issue, and better parts are unlocked simply by increasing your reputation.
With only a select few events, no discernible difference between each car's handling, and a simplistic driving model, Need for Speed Heat does stumble into repetition during its final few hours. It's not quite a rip-roaring return to form, then, but this latest entry puts the Need for Speed series back on the right track. The duality of its day and night events props up what would otherwise be a fairly run-of-the-mill racing game, but the renewed focus on hurtling around the track, racing wheel-to-wheel, and customizing each car in numerous ways, taps into the essence of what Need for Speed used to be about. Need for Speed Heat may not revolutionize racing games, but it's the best the series has been in a long, long time.