Cars don’t last forever, and they shouldn’t last forever. They get us where we are going, become a part of our personality, give us memories in the backseat. But eventually, they become a money pit that we have to let go of that which is destined to die.
Much like a beloved car, it might be time to let go of Need For Speed.
Over the past 25 years — mainly the last four — EA Games poured truckloads of money into returning the series to the beloved iterations of the early 2000s. Need for Speed: Heat – the latest attempt to spark passion — burns with new life, but it’s just not enough to merit the upkeep.
High speed, Slow Story
Since taking over for Criterion Games with Need for Speed Rivals, Ghost Games hasn’t been able to keep momentum. Many fans have voiced missing the timely cultural stories told in Need For Speed: Underground and its sequel, Underground 2. When I saw the welcoming trailer for Need for Speed: Heat during this year’s E3, I wanted to believe I was in for a heated (pun intended) story of law and order. What I’ve seen so far is a slow-burning story that takes itself too seriously as being something new, but it’s the same story high-throttle racing movies and games give time and time again.
The SpeedHunters tournament is set within Palm City (Heat’s fictional take on Miami), where your racing reputation makes you either a citizen or an implant. Surprise, surprise, you’re a newly-arrived racer looking to make a name and a home for yourself in the city’s scene. Queue the grind to do whatever it takes to make a name for yourself by winning races, buying better cars, and turning the heads of The League — a group of past winners who control what happens with racing in Palm City. But there’s another group who is out for control, and they come with a little law and not so much order.
The game continues a passionate leap from the starting line with an announcement that Palm City has a new anti-street racing task force, headed up by seemingly straight-laced Lt. Frank Mercer. However, once again, without surprise, he is not afraid to break the law to achieve his goals. In the opening scenes of the game, we see him nearly kill a man in order to halt street racing. And in my six-hour playthrough, that’s the most exciting storied element I’ve received.
Take it to the Streets
Your nameless protagonist meets Lucas and Ana Rivera, the son and daughter of a SpeedHunter legend. Lucas is reserved and seasoned, while Ana is only just getting over the loss of her old crew but burning brightly with youth and the hopes of following in her father’s footsteps. The character models for the game’s cast can be downright scary at times. Ana’s facial expressions are pure nightmare fuel. And I didn’t feel that the voices of some characters matched up with how they appear, but that’s just semantics.
The story progression works the same as it in many Need for Speed games: win a few races, earn bank, get noticed by an NPC, and beat them at their own game. In my time with the game, I felt more excited simply going out into the city and racing, rather than progressing the story. I’m not invested in this idea of discovering a new crew on the streets of Palm City when I want to challenge others online. I want to be able to dive into an online race right away. I want to feel the glory trading paint with a real person the moment the game sets me free to roam on my own.
Need for Speed: Heat locks its competitive mode behind a completion statistic that will take you about three or four hours spent in-game to unlock. Strangely, it taunts you with speed ghosts on those online by allowing them to appear in your garage and on the streets — even before you’ve unlocked the opportunity to network with them. I find that it makes what should be an interactive atmosphere feel void of partnership. I find myself wishing there were earlier interactions and the ability to interact with fellow players. Like in Forza Horizon, where you are given the ability to join and host races as soon as you cross the finish line of a subtle opening sequence. I find that forcing players to progress in the storey before unlocking the ability to play with others makes the process feel force-fed and stifled.
The Rhythm of the Night
Need for Speed: Heat graphically begs you to focus on racing at night since everything looks far better once the sun goes down. The warm neon glow of Palm City demonstrates what the Need For Speed series does well: nailing the rhythm of racing in the night. I love how the time of day cycle proves to be an interesting mechanic because it acts as a branching tactical point for progressing through the game’s story. You can switch between a night and a day at the press of a button.
During the day, the SpeedHunters tournament is taking place. There’s big money to be made and a decent amount of reputation points to rack up. Daytime races have sanctioning, so there are no cops around to ruin your competition, and no traffic to get in your way. But The League and serious fans are likely asleep, so don’t count on turning their heads under the sun.
But that’s where the night comes in. Ana will advise you that if she were in your seat, she’d stick to racing at night. You’ll earn reputation points faster because The League and the big wigs are out to play. However, so are the Palm City PD so it turns into a game of risk vs reward.
The night and day challenge aspect heartily lets players excel in their element. For example, I found that I’m able to perform better on the longer, more spaced out night tracks because I tend to oversteer. The daytime races are a lot less forgiving in the fact that they take place on tracks that are managed with the intent or emulating professional races, so they are tighter and less forgiving. There’s no rewind feature, so even one mistake could spell out a total restart. I’ve also found that while I haven’t been making the same bank by racing at night, I’ve levelled up about twice as fast as if I were to go back and play the same amount of time in day races. I want to be online and enjoy the competitive community, I’m not so invested in the game’s story, so I’ll be sticking to racing at night.
One of the biggest pet peeves I have when it comes to racing games is the often empty backdrops. For a major festival, doesn’t it always feel like any of the Forza Horizon games are devoid of any life aside from within the scarce bleachers? Need for Speed: Heat suffers from this affliction. There are no pedestrians in the streets, none of the frequently mentioned tourists on the beach, and even scarcely a fan cheering aside from in pre-race cutscenes. For a game that boasts in its own story that thousands of racing fans have to the city to take in all the action, there seem to be very few of them out and about.
Lucas remarks early in the game that you can live in Palm City for years and still find new things. He isn’t wrong, there’s so much to explore on the map, like a stand-in for Cape Canaveral, extensive wetlands, an active mine, and downtown core, but without people to fill the spaces, they all feel hollow. Perhaps the most populated the game has felt to me up to this point is during a downtown race where several cheering fans line a bridge to cheer you over the finish line.
Fear the Police
Earlier I mentioned that you play with fire when taking on the Palm City PD, but the burn is first-degree at best. If you’re caught by the cops, you lose a small amount of bank and reputations. I feel that this makes me feel less likely to run whenever the cops are chasing me. There’s a certain point where giving up just feels better than risking it. This is also partly because any damage you receive in chases carries over to races. If you are close to totalling your car, your day is coming to an end. I find it annoying to escape the heat only to have to limp or fast travel back to a safe house and call it a night.
The police chases have exciting randomness to them, which I’m sure is going to keep me on my feet at all times. There’s a pure joy to skirting out of a cop’s sightlines so that you can get to that next race or into your safe house. And things get real the moment cops jump right into your race, but it’s just not as good as it once was. Cops appear to spawn closer to areas where there are high concentrations of races or landmarks like gas stations and safe houses. It can catch you off guard sometimes.
However, If you are vigilant enough to catch a cop ahead or you, they are rather easy to avoid. The patch they follow seems almost pre-calculated, so you only have to pull a quick U-turn to avoid a confrontation. If you do get sighted, the A.I. becomes herculean in its attempts to pull you over. Cop cars are often much faster than your own and require that you fully break sightlines before giving up. If you’re unlucky, a chase could drag you out to the wetlands. Also, don’t expect to be able to outrun more than two cops. I’ve found in my playthrough that the second a third offending car is added to the mix, the chase is over. The A.I. will use combination maneuvers to shut you down. And they seem to always work.
I made the grave mistake of playing Need for Speed: Heat on PC. This is the first game I’ve played on my 2019 Dell G5 that lead to a blue screen crash. My Dell comes with a 9th generation Intel i7, an NVIDIA RTX 2060, and a 250 GB SSD – the port feels half baked on PC and disappointing.
With the graphics set to “high” and without V-Sync and without ray tracing on, I achieved 35 fps while in-game and 10 fps while in cutscenes, which is unacceptable considering my specs aren’t mid-to-lower level. By no means should this game run so sluggish on my rig and yet, I’m struggling to take advantage of the benefits of ray tracing and unlocked frames.
Graphically, Palm City can be a little ugly — especially during the day. Not only is the vast map an essential ghost town, but it’s also not entirely pretty to look at, at least in the PC version. There’s a lot of sharp edges, poor shaders, a horrible motion blur, and textures that look flat. I wanted surroundings that felt better than mobile game-like. I’m having trouble finding them aside from the incredible amount of detail displayed on the cars themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, the cars and the city look great. The game’s colour recreation is nothing short of incredible. But there is a feel to Palm City that says this isn’t finished. I’m having a hard time forgetting one instance where I was driving down along the beach and saw a sign for a restaurant where there was no texture or shaping at all. I stopped to see if it would buffer, and it never did. I can’t remember having this problem with any of the recent entries into Need For Speed. I’m also struggling to get over the fact that backgrounds seem completely unrendered and untextured. There are so many palm trees in the distance that often just feel like flat drawings. I really would’ve liked to see some more depth to what is a giant map in a year of games with giant maps.
I think EA, Ghost and fans are going to have to have one of those heart-to-heart chats you often have with mechanics. You know the ones I’m talking about, where you have to ask, is it time to let go and to stop pouring money into a vehicle for just a little more life. Preserving something like Need For Speed to keep the memories can be important, but it has to be done well. In this case, Ghost has spent close to half a decade working on something kept alive to reignite worlds and stories from the days that have long since gone. In my opinion, there’s a flicker of that present in Need For Speed: Heat, but not enough to bring those memories of playing Need For Speed Underground or Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. With that said, I’m all for going forward, and I’m going to finish this game, but much like a car on its last legs, I’ll be praying this series holds up in the future.