Every time a new Need For Speed game comes along I eagerly await to see what the new hook (if I’m being positive) or gimmick (if I’m leaning negative) is this time. For 2017’s Need For Speed Payback that was “action driving”, which initially felt promising, but ultimately failed to deliver. Thankfully this year’s Need for Speed Heat feels different. I’m happy to report that after five hours of hands-on time, the game’s ‘hook’ of day-night switching not only feels refreshing, but also an interesting direction for the series.
When I sampled Need For Speed Heat at Gamescom I was initially concerned about how the day-night switching worked. After all, Payback had introduced a seamless day/night cycle to the series for the first time, and to abandon that after only one outing felt like an odd choice. After more time with the game though, I now understand this decision as not only a game mechanic, but also a unique step in helping mould this games’ character.
The new day/night system works like this: every time you leave your garage you’re prompted with a simple choice, do you want to leave in the day, or at night? This choice affects far more than Miami-like Palm City’s visuals. Day time is safer and feels more like a traditional Need For Speed game. During your sanctioned races there’s less traffic and barely any police. If you do happen to see the fuzz, they’ll only chase you when prompted (a.k.a giving them a wallop!). The races available are a mix of circuits, time attacks, and drifting trials. You can also explore the world at your leisure, fast traveling to any of your discovered safe houses whenever you wish.
Night time though, is a very different kettle of fish. After dark the game feels like a combination of Need For Speed Underground and Hot Pursuit. Perhaps combining the two most popular entries from the series history is calculated move, but for fans like me it’s definitely a welcome one. The focus now is purely illegal street racing, where there’s the constant threat of the police trying to bust you. You can no longer fast travel, and any ‘Rep’ you’ve earned – the game’s version of experience points – can be potentially be lost.
Make no mistake about it, night is the place to be. Palm City comes alive with the neon lights, police sirens, and Underground-style aesthetics. It’s also the only time you can build up the aforementioned Rep, making playing at night vital to progressing your Reputation level and thus unlocking more events. Night mode is so much more attractive that I’m sure the thought you’re having right now is “Why would I ever play in the day?” It’s a valid question, and one Need For Speed Heat answers with its most interesting idea.
The reputation you earn during night-time races is never truly yours until you’ve returned to your home and banked your earnings. But returning home isn’t as simple as it sounds. After a night race you’re often caught in a high-speed pursuit with the police, and you have to shake them off before you can deposit your Rep. The plot thickens too, as the higher your ‘Heat’ (the game’s version of a wanted level) the more Rep you can earn. Heat acting as a multiplier actively encourages you to draw more attention before tucking in for the night. After every illegal race the player is presented with an opportunity: Do you play it safe and bank what you’ve earned? Or do you risk being busted (and lose a percentage of your Rep and your multiplier) to try more races, earn more Rep, gather more Heat, and essentially gamble for the bigger return? It’s an interesting system for a driving game and, to be honest, reminds me more of zombie game Dying Light than any of its petrol-head peers.
I love the idea behind the day-night switching, and I’m mostly impressed with how Heat evolves features experienced in other genres and adapts them for racing games. My only real concern at this point is that it all feels like a safe implementation of these ideas. I wanted the risk to be higher and the reward to be sweeter. Avoiding the police at times felt a little too easy and sometimes formulaic. But I only experienced all this in a small dose at the hands-on preview event, and so I’m hoping it really ramps up towards the latter half of the game.
No doubt the question still remains: “why would I play this game in the day?” Besides the Reputation experience earned during the night there’s also a far more traditional form of currency that’s earned during the day, the almighty dollar (referred to here simply as “Bank”). Unlike the night races, all money earned during the day is automatically saved and added to your pile. But where Rep is used for progressing the story, Bank is used for buying new, faster vehicles and modifications.
Gone are the awful Speed Cards from Payback, and back is a more traditional vehicle upgrade system. In my short time I didn’t experiment too deeply with the possibilities, but the visual upgrades definitely allowed me to add personality to my car in a way that’s very reminiscent of Need For Speed Underground. I’m talking coloured nitrous smoke, a ton of exhaust appearance and sound combinations, stance tuning, and, of course, neon underglows. It’s not just your car that gets a robust modification system; at the start of the game you’re prompted to choose one of 12 stock character models, but once you’re into the game their outfit is pretty customisable, too.
Adding personality to your avatar is welcome, if not a little jarring during the story mode. When your character looks Skrillex in a Hawaiian shirt and a Jason Voorhees mask they tend to stand out in the super-serious storyline. While we’re talking about the story, gone is the wacky adventures of obnoxious influencers in Payback, and in is a far safer story of corrupt police officers and street racing. I only dabbled with the story for a short while, but what I did see seems perfectly acceptable for a racing games, if not a little uninspired.
After my taste at Gamescom I voiced concerns that Heat wasn’t leaning hard enough into any particular ethos and I still feel this way, slightly. I still miss the selection of police-avoiding gadgets from Hot Pursuit, and the dedicated street style of Underground. Need For Speed Heat feels somewhere in-between these, and I worry that in an effort to please both audiences, it will satisfy neither. That said, the risk/reward mechanics that night mode presents is such a unique take – not only for Need For Speed, but driving games in general – that it feels like Heat is genuinely adding something exciting to the franchise that I can see being iterated on for years to come.
Dale Driver is a Senior Video Producer for IGN and he loves Burnout Paradise more than any of his future unborn children. Tell him he’s wrong on Twitter at @_daledriver.