Although not revolutionary for the genre in any sense, 'Need for Speed: Heat' brings with it the best gameplay of the series’ 25-year history.
Composed of two main modes – day and night – you’re brought through the Miami-inspired setting of Palm City to rise against a corrupt law department. It’s standard enough stuff story-wise for a street racer, but the real crux of 'Need For Speed: Heat' lies in those two modes.
By day, you play on sanctioned racing circuits, neatly cordoned off by barriers and guided by chevron signs. The objective here is to win as many races as possible, earning bank used to upgrade your vehicle and customise it, sometimes outrageously. When you flip over to nightfall, you enter the seedy world of illegal street racing, racking up rep credit and escaping the feds. Herein lies my only quandary with the game – the cops are insanely challenging to escape from.
After completing a nighttime event, you gain heat level, a system akin to wanted level in games like 'Grand Theft Auto' or 'Red Dead Redemption 2'. No problems with that as it’s a pretty typical mechanic for any game where you play on the opposite side of the law. The problem arises from the difficulty involved in escaping. Every vehicle has a damage indicator, visualised by the status bar left of the speedometer on the HUD. No matter what crash, you should take some form of damage although this isn’t always the case. Some devastating crashes outside of chases leave you with nothing but a flesh wound and distract from the semi-realistic driving experience.
In pursuits, this is a different story altogether. Cops that ram you have the upper hand, wrecking your car quickly. Trying to fight back is a futile effort and should only be attempted once certain upgrades can be equipped later in the game. Sure enough, there are gas stations serving as a method to fully repair your vehicle on the go, but the use of this quick fix is limited to three per night. That’s assuming you’re able to make it to the gas station before you get wrecked, causing you to lose a hefty amount of bank, and most of the rep you gained from the night's work. Having such a penalty, and not making it easy to escape the cops, makes for a game where you’ll have to grind to make it to the next level. Hearing a shaming result from a night of grinding from other characters will become standard, but if you have tough skin, you’ll get through the game no problem.
Apart from that, there is a lot to love about 'Need for Speed: Heat'. A full roster of cars is available to tune-up, with plenty of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches and the like ready to tune and customise and leave your personal stamp on.
More to the point, the game really opens up once you reach the point that all event modes are unlocked. The standard street sprints and circuits are there from the get-go, but where the real fun lies in the game is in the drift, time-trial, and off-road events. Each of these have car setups that work best for them, and most cars can be adapted to perform well enough to win in each event. The trusty '65 Ford Mustang available to choose at the game's start is a great all-round workhorse and can be used right up to the endgame if you so desire.
One major feature is the new drift controls. Drifting is now initiated by letting go and tapping the gas button again, making the skill more accessible for most players. If that doesn’t suit your play style, there’s a live tuning system that can be adapted at any point in the game by pressing right on the d-pad. From here you can switch up the steering sensitivity of your whip, its downforce and the drift style from gas to the more traditional brake method. It’s a super handy workaround when you need to modify on the fly for tracks with sharper turns, or long straights.
All in all, 'Need for Speed: Heat' is a highlight for the series, but still has some tweaks to fine-tune before it reaches the dominance it once held of the genre with games like 'Need For Speed: Underground 2' and the original 'Need For Speed: Most Wanted'.