Need for Speed Heat review: back to basics

Published: 18 November 2019

► Out now
► A return to the franchise’s routes
► Reviewed on PS4 Pro, but also on Xbox One and PC

One of the longest-running racing franchises is back once again. Need for Speed Heat is the latest in a very long line of racing games where you build up a career of street racing using modified rides. 

This time, you’re in Palm City – a new locale that’s a mix of Miami and southern California, with white beaches, glitzy skyscrapers and plenty of island hopping. But you can also explore the hilly countryside, a huge industrial port and even a space centre that looks a lot like the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. 

The racing is split into two distinct flavours: in the day, you’ll earn money racing, drifting and taking part in off-road events – but at night you’ll earn a Rep in illegal street races where you’re subject to much harsher punishments from Palm City’s police department.  

NFS Heat: cars and customisation

There are 127 cars to choose from, including greats from Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, Chevrolet and Alfa Romeo. Classics such as an E30 M3, a 911 Carrera RS 2.8 and a DB5 rub shoulders against the most hot-off the press new models like the latest R8, McLaren’s 600LT and the Polestar 1, which happens to be the cover car.

Arguably the main thing that EA has gotten right with its latest NFS game is the level of customisation; bringing back memories of Underground and its sequel, plus Most Wanted. A select few cars can only have their paint scheme and wheels changed, but many more can be transformed into unholy machines built for maximum drifting, rally-spec off-roading or slammed-to-the-floor street racing. 

One of the coolest new touches is the exhaust sound modifier, allowing you to customise how your car sounds – instead of it just being tweaked by what modifications you make the powertrain. You can make the revs smooth or harsh, you can tweak how much overrun there is or if there’s any metallic resonance through the pipes.

The livery editor is detailed, too, allowing you to really personalise the cars in your garage. Paints can be applied in a varying number of ways, and you can add no end of vinyls including tags from real-life modification brands. If you’re online, you can also check out other gamers’ wraps for their cars and even download them for yourself.


NFS Heat: the career and driving

As we mentioned, racing is split between above-board racing in a seemingly never-ending tournament during the day and more illicit racing at night. You earn money to buy cars, upgrades and the like during day races, while night racing you earn Rep, which allows you to progress through the career, unlock more cars and better performance parts. 

The career itself is… nothing special. Without spoiling it, Palm City’s police department is coming down hard on all of these street racers to prevent them from racing at night, but there’s an element of corruption as to how the force goes about doing that. It’s largely forgettable, as it’s a path NFS has treaded many times before, but it doesn’t exactly spoil the game. 

As for the driving, it’s well balanced if not particularly stand-out. The physics system is easy to get used to but racing lacks precision if you’re used to simulation games like the Forza Motorsport, Project Cars or Assetto Corsa franchises. It’s accessible, though, and that’s what counts most for a game that’s designed to cater to a wide range of player ages.

Drifting by default is activated via a the acceleration trigger on console (R2 in the case of our PS4 Pro) but it feels a little clunky to have it there; if you let off the throttle then apply it again mid-corner, a slide is almost a guarantee.  

You can tweak things like how much downforce or the steering sensitivity on the fly and, if drifting via the throttle isn’t your thing, you can set cars to drift via the brake instead.

NFS Heat: the police chases

They are BRUTAL, genuinely making you fear the force of Palm City’s police department when you’re racing at night. The more you race at night, the higher your Heat level is; the higher that Heat level becomes, the harder the police come for you, the more tools they use to stop you and the faster the cars chasing you are.  

The technology is less elaborate or obvious as games like NFS Most Wanted and Rivals, for example, but they do use spike strips and “kill switches” designed to temporarily knock out your car. But what you really have to look out for in your periphery is a hard-charging copper whose sole mission is to smash you clean off the road.  

It’s genuinely pulse-racing the longer these chases go on, not least because your car suffers damage. Thankfully, you can repair your car by driving through fuel stations, but while that’s unlimited during the day, you have just three repairs at night before the police block them, raising the stakes that little bit more.

You want to avoid capture, too, as any rep you’ve earned from racing that night, plus a portion if your cash is taken away if your car is destroyed or you’re busted by the cops. The system of being “busted” is a little flawed, with a couple of our police chases ending far earlier than you would realistically think they would. Not enough to throw your controller with rage but enough to feel genuinely hard done by, by the game’s systems. Our strategy is to earn money during the day then spend as much of it as possible, then you have less to lose at night… 

NFS Heat: the verdict

It’s would be selling Heat short to call it fan service, but the latest NFS game definitely feels like an amalgamation of some of the franchises greatest hits (Underground 2, Most Wanted and ProStreet) all rolled into one, after years of lacklustre and weak story-driven titles.

Those used to hardcore racing sims might turn their nose up at Heat and the story continues to make little impact, but going back to what made Need For Speed games so good and so memorable again is just what the franchise needed. 

Heat’s customisation system, optional online setting (meaning you don’t have to always be connected to the internet to play it), the thrill-inducing cop chases and brightly coloured world make Need For Speed Heat one of the best games in the franchises recent history. Get a sweet new car, modify it to within an inch of its life and go bother some of Palm City’s finest.

By Jake Groves

CAR's deputy news editor, office Geordie, gamer, lover of hot hatches