'Need for Speed: Heat' Keeps Sabotaging Quality With Quantity

It's a mostly empty world out there, full of racing to upgrade your way out of.
NFS Night 2
Screenshots courtesy of EA

The more time I spend with it, the more I start to think there’s a great game inside Need for Speed: Heat, but it’s like a vein of gold that you can follow for a few feet before it vanishes back into the strata of grind, forced downtime, and unexpected jank.

There are a couple things that Heat does really well. For one thing, a lot of its courses have well-hidden shortcuts, and it’s a delight each time you find a side-road or a cleverly concealed alley that can save a couple seconds. The satisfying work of finding the ideal racing line is that it’s complicated by what your car excels at. A drifting machine might gain time by sweeping around a hairpin on an apron of gravel and dirt next to the road, while an off-roader might cut the corner entirely, and a precision-tuned road car is best if it brakes on entry and accelerates out of the apex. There’s a ton of room for discovery in Heat.


There’s also room for a lot of excitement. When the cops get on your case at night, and their reinforcements start swarming, it arcs from fun and exciting to tense and harrowing as you try one tactic after another to try and shake them. If flooring it down the highway doesn’t work, you try cutting through city streets to lose them in the maze of intersections and buildings. If they’re still on you… you can try cutting the odds by leading them into oncoming traffic or bashing them off a pier. If and when you finally get away from them, and get a massive “reputation” multiplier (the game’s version XP), it feels like an honest-to-God escape.


And it’s more fun than usual because these cops suck. It’s one of the weirdest and most unexpected things in Heat: It takes the conceit from the Forza Horizon series (a racing festival has taken over the region), and then adds a corrupt and violent police department. They’re straight out of Rise of the Warrior Cop, a group of “tacticool” bullies that is terrorizing its community under the guise of tough-on-crime, law-and-order rhetoric. While their commanders erase video evidence of misconduct, the police rank-and-file are moving from “civil asset forfeiture” at the barrel of a gun to outright extortion. I’m genuinely curious where this story is going to end up— right now after about ten hours I’m ostensibly trying to get my friend’s car out of impound—because there is a specificity to its portrayal of shithead cops that feels heartfelt.


In one scene, as your main character and their friend get braced in a parking lot, there are vivid details like the way the cop veers from soft, almost playful interrogation to violent threat to mocking japery at your characters’ obvious terrified discomfort. It’s honestly unexpected to come across a portrayal of police this harsh in a piece of mainstream media. If you told me right now that the game ends with the chief of police being set on fire with a flaming Thin Blue Line flag as your racing crew breakdances to “Fuck tha Police,” the least believable thing there would be EA licensing an old song.

I’d like to keep playing a game with all those things. But Heat is designed to frustrate your attempts to focus it. Because it’s a modern arcade racing game, for every minute of exciting fun, there must be a minute of aimless wandering down empty roads, or navigating different progression systems. It ends up making my time spent with it feel wasted, like a set of errands that all end up taking too long and suddenly you’ve lost a whole day.


For instance, if a race feels a bit too tough, you have two options. You can re-run it and try and improve your approach, and uncover some of those shortcuts and approaches and basically get better at the course and your car handling. Or you can drive to a parts dealer or a garage and buy upgrades (or even a new car) and just win the race because suddenly you’re way, way faster than every other car in the event. I over-upgraded my Mazda RX-7 and ended up winning a series of races with a lead of over a full kilometer. Literally no other competitors would have finished by the time I was through the menu screens getting my rewards, because the race had gone from tough to trivially easy. It’s surprisingly rare that you are in the “sweet spot” of tough, fair racing, and the very nature of Heat’s progression system too easily sabotages that balance.


But there’s only so far you can go with buying new gear before you have to do night racing for reputation. This opens a different selection of races, usually point-to-point races rather than the multi-lap circuit design of the daytime racing events. But transitioning to nighttime means going back to a garage, toggling it to “night” when you leave, waiting for the nighttime version of the city to load, and then driving back out across the city to different event starting locations. Oftentimes, this means that for five minutes of racing, you spent two minutes commuting. Why does my high-intensity racing fantasy so often involve commuting?

This is the end result of the open-world racing game becoming synonymous with the arcade racing game. Arcade racing games have become designed to be “all filler, some killer”, a depressing side-effect of the success that Burnout: Paradise enjoyed. Paradise was exciting because it was a fresh and novel approach to arcade racing in its own day, as it connected the genre to the increasingly popular open-world framework. But that shift involved a lot of trade-offs that the genre never really reckoned with, but explain a lot about why so many arcade racers feel boring and dead on arrival. The Burnout: Paradise model is familiar and opens up a lot of cool possibilities, but it also introduces a lot of potential pacing problems that can be exacerbated by progression mechanics.


So when I have a good race in Heat, like in a lot of arcade racing games, it feels like a happy accident. Something that happened by chance as I tried to make my Rep and Money numbers go up so I could unlock more events and more cars and find something new and interesting to do beyond familiar races in a car I could easily upgrade to near-perfection. But most of the time, Heat leaves me feeling like I’m driving circles around town, waiting for something to happen. That’s good fodder for a Spingsteen song, but it’s a lousy feeling in a racing game.

An open-world racing game that I loved, Forza Horizon 4, has a lot of these same characteristics. But Forza Horizon is so much more interested in its setting that the vehicles themselves become secondary to the experience of driving across its fantastical Scotland. You could remove most of the cars from Forza Horizon 4 and it’d still be great. You could remove all the racing and it would at least be interesting just as a place to spend time.

Related to that, Forza Horizon 4 never looks anything less than stunning. Playing it in 4K on Xbox, it’s nearly seamless and heart-stoppingly beautiful. Its goal is to put you in a vast and beautiful world and it always feels vast and beautiful. Need for Speed Heat sometimes looks beautiful, but struggles with draw distances, pop-in, framerate, and convincing weather and lighting. It feels like what it is: a glitching video game in a slightly uninspired setting.

So even though I can catch glimpses of greatness in Need for Speed: Heat, I know that by both design and execution, they are mirages. I could chase them for hours, for days, and I know I’m supposed to. But I don’t think I’d ever get anywhere, because I think the destination I want to reach is just a small fraction of the game that Ghost Games made with Heat.