Need for Speed Heat Review

Screenshot of NSX driving down the hill towards Palm City in Need for Speed Heat
It's a pretty game, even on low-end systems

Quick Info
Reviewed by: Mark Goninon
Developer: Ghost Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
Time played: 30 hours

The Need for Sequels

It's been a while since I've played a Need for Speed game. Besides dabbling for a very short time with one of the 1990s Need for Speed games, my first proper introduction to the series was 2004's Need for Speed: Underground 2. In the early 2000s, street racing had become a popular topic in media, thanks to movies like 2001's “The Fast and the Furious" and its 2003 sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious", so it's probably no surprise that EA wanted to get in on the action. 2003 saw the release of Need for Speed: Underground and shortly after, NFSU2 was released.

The graphics in NFSU2 were phenomenal for its day, it had a great soundtrack (the main menu music, the Fredwreck Remix of Riders on the Storm featuring Snoop Dogg, is a certified earworm), an engaging story told through comic book cutscenes and the ability to modify a Honda Civic so much it could outpace Nissan Skyline GT-Rs. It was great fun and remains my gold standard for the Need for Speed series and story-based racing games in general. These early Underground titles set up the formula that would be repeated in many titles to follow such as 2006's Need for Speed: Carbon and 2008's Need for Speed: Undercover, two games I have also played. While the latter games felt similar to Underground 2, I felt the series was starting to lose its sheen. 2010's Hot Pursuit was fun but the game eschewed the storyline to focus purely on gameplay (not surprising since Criterion Games was behind the helm on this one). My final Need for Speed game before Heat was 2011's Need for Speed: The Run, which was also the final Need for Speed game that EA Black Box developed.

Since 2011, there have been 7 more Need for Speed games including one that was released just last year called Unbound. Between 2004 to 2011 I had been playing a new Need for Speed game every couple of years but in the years after Run, nothing really took my fancy as every time I read about the latest Need for Speed games, they were either totally different to NFSU2 or they had some similarities but received average reviews. It wasn't until Choicest Games Contributor Luke recommended I take a look at Need for Speed Heat that I finally got back into the franchise: the game being heavily discounted at the time probably didn't hurt either!

The Class and the Curious

In Need for Speed Heat you start the game off as someone who wants to get involved in the local racing scene of Palm City (a city modelled off Miami). You'll have 12 avatars you can pick to represent your character and while character customisation isn't as advanced as your typical RPG, it's very much welcome since you never had this level of choice in earlier titles. In earlier games, your character would be a silent and faceless protagonist, complying with any orders that were barked at you. Don't get me wrong, the campaign is still very linear despite your protagonist having the ability to talk, but roleplaying a character that appears in cutscenes adds an extra level of immersion, especially when the character shares my tacky taste in Aloha shirts: there are literally hundreds of options when it comes to hairstyles and clothing so you're bound to find something that suits.

Cars also have many cosmetic options available but this depends on the model of car (some only have a few while others have many). With some of the kits available to you, it's quite possible to make a car look nothing like the base model. There are also plenty of options too when it comes to performance upgrades for your car and like Need for Speed Underground 2 you don't need to be a gearhead to understand which parts will improve your vehicle: each time you select a potential upgrade the game shows you what projected impact it will have on the car's performance in terms of power, top speed, acceleration or nitrous. If you're upgrading tyres it will show you whether the tyres are suitable for on-road, off-road or drifting.

Screenshot of modifying a Volkswagen Beetle in Need for Speed Heat
Don't mind me, I'm just tripling the horsepower on this Beetle

Another way the game is similar to NFSU2 is the ability for you to take seemingly mundane cars like a Honda Civic or Ford Focus and modify them so much that they're able to take on supercars. It's totally ridiculous which is why I love it and it's yet another way this game channels that old NFSU2 vibe. In fact, prior to finishing up the main campaign, I decided to purchase the 1963 Volkswagen Beetle and see how far I could go. After replacing the original 101hp 1.2L Flat 4 with a 369hp 1.5L i3 hybrid engine (which is apparently used in the 2018 BMW i8 Coupe), the humble Beetle was turned into a monster that could go toe-to-toe with a Lamborghini Countach. Madness!

And speaking of cars, there's a very diverse range of cars here for you try from Pagani Huayras and Koenigsegg Regeras, to 80s classics like the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa. You can even drive the Volvo 242DL if you're so inclined! In fact, I had so much fun unlocking cars I ended up becoming a little sidetracked after unlocking the likes of the Honda NSX, Buick Grand National and Pontiac Trans Am.

One Person's Grind is Another Person's Pleasure

Different races will be available to you depending on what time of day it is with legal racing that earns you money running during the day and illegal racing that earns you reputation running during the night. You will need each of these in order to progress through the game since you need money for new cars and parts, and reputation to unlock higher tier cars and parts. Thankfully, the game has a system that allows you to instantly change between day and night in order to access the relevant event so you don't need to twiddle your thumbs and wait until the right time of day for a chosen race to become available.

Screenshot of character being arrested by the police in Need for Speed Heat
Bad boys, bad boys. Whacha gonna do? Whacha gonna do when they come for you?

The game does have a damage model although I found that it was very forgiving most of the time, to the point I didn't even realise one existed until I finally took on an illegal night race and the cops started chasing me: it seems whenever the police ram your car, the damage is amplified. The police always seem to have a car that is as fast or faster than yours so it makes evading them nigh on impossible at times. The penalties for being busted by a cop seem quite lenient though as all you really lose is any money or reputation you earnt during the same night and your car will be fully repaired the next day.

Besides reputation, another measure of success is how powerful your car is. Your car receives a performance rating depending on what upgrades you've applied to it and while you'll be able to access most events, storyline missions will be locked until you reach a certain level. I never found this too onerous but there are people who would consider this “grind" which got me contemplating why I didn't feel the grind in this game was as bad as others?

Ultimately, I think it come down to a combination of personal preference on what you find fun in terms of gameplay, what busywork you're willing to do that won't drive you insane because let's be honest here, open world racing games are just like other open world games: instead of exploring dungeons or hunting dragons, you're competing in races or drifting contests to collect cash and reputation; instead of using your spoils to better equip your characters, you're using your winnings to upgrade your cars. I find the grind far less boring in racing games though, maybe because racing games rely more on skill than picking the perfect combination of gear and stats.

Screenshot of a Ford Focus rally car in the garage in Need for Speed Heat
Kitting out a rally car requires more time and effort than on-road racing cars

Anyway, back to the performance rating: I mentioned I never found it too onerous although that's a bit of a fib since there was one occasion where I did find it somewhat laborious and that was when I was trying to get into off-road racing. The recommended performance ratings tend to favour cars that are geared towards on-road racing. If you change your tires or suspension to be better suited for off-road racing, the performance rating goes down, despite no changes being made to the car's engine. This means, for an off-road car to have a similar performance rating to an on-road car, you have to invest more time and money into it, which is why I eventually gave up with the off-road side quests and decided to continue with the main storyline. I don't mind a bit of grind with racing games but it was starting to become borderline excessive in situations like these.

Finding Crashes of the Desktop Kind

A final note on this game is that it wasn't a smooth experience at all on my old PC. Mind you, I suspect the Frostbite engine doesn't play nicely with older hardware as my i7 7700 and RX 6600 were not the most stable combo. While I played the game I encountered occasional stuttering and slow framerates and several crashes to Desktop. For those running on modern systems, I suspect you won't encounter any issues but be warned if you have older hardware.


Need for Speed Heat is a fun, open world racing game with many cars to choose from and a myriad of customisation options in terms of performance and looks. The game even grants you the quirky ability to turn seemingly boring vehicles, like the Volkswagen Beetle, into supercars, an ability I haven't really seen since Need for Speed Underground 2. There are many events you can participate in across Miami-lookalike, Palm City, and while I had no qualms about participating in most of them, the grind can sometimes become too much and you'll just want to get back to the main storyline instead of pottering around with side quests. Performance issues can also rear its ugly head for those running the game on hardware from a few generations ago.

Is it the spiritual successor to Need for Speed Underground 2? Not quite, but it's pretty close. And when the game goes on sale for only a few bucks, it's worth the price of admission.

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