In recent years, we've been served new games in the Need for Speed franchise with varying success, including 2017's Need for Speed Payback, which fell short with many, but now Heat is here hoping to get the engines going once again. That leaves one burning question - has Ghost Games turned the tide and taken us back to better, more solid times?
We've been playing Need for Speed ever since we got our hands on the original PlayStation. The first games granted us many hours of pure fun, but those hours have since tapered off, especially in the last few years. It's been a while since we really got into a game in the franchise, at least not in the same way as we used to. Need for Speed Heat, however, brings back some of the passion that we had back when going Underground games was the rage, although we should note that there are some aspects that still leave us wanting more.
Upon starting the game up, we're prompted to pick our difficulty preference, and as per usual, we headed on into the game on medium so we could find out what the game thinks it is. In this case, as it quickly turned out, medium difficulty was rather easy, so we'd urge you to pick the hardest difficulty when starting the game up if you're a racing game fan used to the genre. This will give you more of a challenge, because anything lower than that will prove way too easy, despite Heat having a brand-new control scheme.
The story mode starts like any other within the genre. We get to pick a character to use and we meet a duo that, as it turns out, were partners of ours back in the day. Lucas and Ana Rivera are two very different siblings though; Lucas is the quiet type and likes to work on and sell cars, while Ana is more erratic and just wants to race all day long.
Our arch-enemy in the series is Lieutenant Frank Mercer, the leader of all-new High-Speed Task Force. Mercer wants to stop illegal street races and the culture that surrounds it and will, at night, become a growing nuisance.
The city becomes a different place in the dark, and it's during the nighttime that the real challenge begins. During the day, we compete in what can be described as legal street races (does such a thing exist?), but at night, the dark side of Palm City emerges and the police department become more vigilant. If you encounter a police car at night, you can trigger them to follow your car via dialogue, which will prompt your pursuer to do whatever they can to stop the car. In the daytime, however, we found we could easily get away with almost anything.
This brings us to the main focus of Ghost Games' latest instalment, as the difference between day and night is vast and it changes up the game significantly. We raced for respect on the street by gathering rep points at night, and by day we raced for money to upgrade our roster of cars and their performance (as well as acquiring new customisation items, such as clothes).
The impact of the day and night cycle is where the likeness to the Underground series hit us. Although there have been plenty of opportunities to make changes to the cars in the latter Need for Speed games, it was Underground that set the standard for many, and Need for Speed Heat seems to have taken quite a bit of inspiration from those racing gems. From the get-go, we could choose from over a hundred different rims, multiple side skirts and spoilers, as well as a whole bunch of stickers and design elements to customise our car with.
In addition, we could also unlock even more as we got further into the game, and upgrade the car's performance by replacing the engine, exhaust system, or by upgrading the turbo. Eventually, we could even install an anti-EMP device that prevented the rabid policemen from deactivating our vehicle's electronics. Believe us, that final gizmo will serve you well.
Although staying away from the police as much as possible is always the better choice, there are missions in the game that involve some form of contact with the long arm of the law, prompting you to either escape or hit them with your car to put their vehicles out of play. The more we annoyed the police, the higher the "heat" we got, which granted us more and better rewards, but it also posed a higher risk of being caught. When we were caught by the police during the day, we often just got a slap on the wrist and a small fine, but if we were caught at night the punishment was far worse, resulting in the loss of any points we'd earned and some hefty fines.
We have to make one thing clear; Need for Speed is an arcade car game and should not be compared to the likes of simulators like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport. The focus of Need for Speed is - and always has been - to have fun while driving an outlandish car, and that's without necessarily being realistic. Need for Speed Heat is no exception, and Ghost Games manages to bring the fun back in a big way, especially with regards to the physics. It's easy to manage your vehicle when drifting and you don't lose a lot of speed when doing so. Just that in itself is a huge plus, at least for us, and what's more fun in a racing game than drifting through turns? Not much, if you ask us.
When talking about one aspect in Need for Speed Heat, however, we can compare the game to games like Forza Horizon and The Crew. Ghost Games has tasked players with collecting billboard signs, committing vandalism through graffiti, and competing in photo booth (speed trap) leaderboards, and we need to complete these activities to unlock various rewards. This is all well and good at first, but we quickly got bored, and after a time this part of the game started to feel like a chore, a necessary evil, rather than an enjoyable distraction.
Audio-wise, Need for Speed has an advantage that helps it outperform most other racing games, namely the option to change the sound of the car to fit a certain style. Whether we wanted the powerful rumble of a Mustang or the fiery tone of a Civic, we were able to adjust things to suit our preference. Beyond this, the soundscape isn't anything special, but we didn't expect it to be. We quickly disabled the music in the game, and although this comes down to personal preference, we would have liked a bit more variety pumping through our stereo.
There are many different ways to play the game against others too. You can join a crew of up to 32 players, jump into dedicated servers with up to 16 players, and ride with your friends using the party function. Players can also choose to take their friends with them into public servers, where they can race with or against other players, and there is even a feature that lets you set up so-called Crew Time Trials, where you'll be able to compete against each others' records, letting you play with your friends even if they're not available. Unfortunately, there's no split-screen option, so if you're looking to bust out a racer for some couch co-op, this ain't the game you're looking for.
In short, we think Need for Speed Heat is a step in the right direction for the series. The one draw-back for us was the idiotic manoeuvres of the AI-controlled cars, otherwise, we enjoyed most of the content it offered and we can finally say that we're excited once again about what the future holds for the franchise.
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