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Need For Speed Heat preview: When the sun goes down, the street heats up

After the slight disappointment of Need For Speed Payback, EA’s taking its perennial racing franchise back where it belongs: under the neon lights and deep into the city mod culture that defined its most revered entries – namely Need For Speed Underground 2. But what sets this game apart from many similar open world racers is the new day and night feature. By day, Palm City (which is based on Miami) is a relatively safe zone, where you can explore at your leisure, compete in officially-sanctioned race events and tune up your ride, enjoying the game world at your leisure. But when the sun goes down (and you decide when it does), that’s when the shadier characters come out to play – and the cops are out in force to stop them, and you. Or at least attempt to. 

This night-time festival of illicit racing brings with it a prominent risk vs reward mechanism. The more races you complete in one night, the more respect you’ll earn, which gets multiplied by your Heat rating. This notoriety is great, but it’s almost worthless if you get caught. So at some point you have to cash in your newfound respect, mainly by visiting a safe house, although there are a few other cash-in points too, and trigger the next day. It’s a very cool idea, and one that means the cockiest, most reckless-yet-skilled racers will make the fastest progress through the game.

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

While the event types like point to point races and drift events are pretty standard fare, the game appreciates that too many collectibles, Ubisoft-style, can be daunting. So it splits its map up into districts, so every time you find something, the something-out-of-a-number found isn’t a dishearteningly small fraction. 1/4 flamingoes collected (why would we make that up?), feels much more doable than 1/100 flamingoes. Complete the set in any one district and you win the clearly-stated prize, which is usually a new modification or decal design. In Need For Speed Heat, the next objective is always clear. Whether you decide to follow it or do something else is entirely up to you. 

Even the windscreen is a canvas

(Image credit: EA)

There’s a real sense of car ownership, and the modding system is incredibly deep. Everything from brake calipers to different rims for front and back wheels are editable, and there’s a multi-layered decal editor too, which means you really can make your car look as mean or ridiculous as you like. And of course, you get to show it to the world online. 

The game can be played offline, or online in a persistent online game world, racing with up to 15 other players. While you can openly invite players around you to join your next race, they do need to be at the same time of day as you in order to see the invitation. Any vacant spots on the grid are then filled with AI drivers, who take realistically human lines through the destructible environments (by which I mean ‘straight’) and the police are always a danger, waiting to get involved. 

When they do, it’s entirely possible to smash them into submission – or each other – but you do need to pay attention to the condition of your own vehicle in the bottom-right. Pick up one too many knocks and you’ll end up wrecked, and hauled into the back of a panda car, losing your precious Heat multiplier.

(Image credit: EA Games)

The actual driving is predictably easy to get to grips with, but it’s worth noting that drifting is now triggered – literally – by letting go of the accelerator while turning, before applying it again. This ‘clutch kick’ can catch out players who like to jab the throttle to control their cornering speed, Ayrton Senna-style, but it does allow for easily-controlled drifts once you get the hang of it. 

It doesn’t usually matter if you do slide wide, though; large buildings and pillars are impervious to impacts, but everything else, from phone boxes to lamp posts and even entire trees disintegrate as soon as you touch them. Sometimes unrealistically so. The lack of any real obstacles then, while racing, feels a little odd, and there’s a distinct feeling of Forza Horizon as you smash through hedges and walls. That said, lamp posts do at least knock a few mph off your speed, so you will need to avoid them if you’re in a drag race with a rival to the finish line. 

Damage is more scrapes than ‘splosions

(Image credit: EA Games)

Graphically, the game looks very nice indeed, especially given the size of its game world, and seeing it in 4K on an 80-inch TV will make you want to buy one. Even so, it does only run at 30fps on consoles and only really looks cutting edge in busy city streets at night when the rain is making everything glisten and reflecting the lights. Crash damage is disappointingly understated (sadly that seems true of every modern racer bar Wreckfest), and it takes a lot of pretty severe abuse before your car looks like Father Ted’s attempt to bang out a dent. The characterisation and animation are decent too, with some rather impressive eyebrow raising going on as well as plenty of nattering over the radio as you drive around.

The only downside to all this is that the open-world street racing template is so well-worn the tread’s pretty much gone by this point, and surely there are only so many times you can play the rookie racer in a city controlled by rival car gangs (with corrupt cops in the mix too) story before it just isn’t exciting any more. But if you’re yet to enjoy an open world Need For Speed mod-tastic racer, or just long for a current-gen port of NFS Carbon, this will undoubtedly keep you playing well into the night. Or day, if you prefer. Just click L3.

Need for Speed Heat is squealing onto PS4, Xbox One and PC on November 8. 

Justin worked on the GamesRadar+ staff for 10 whole years. Imagine that. Now he is a contributor, specialising in racing games, retro, and Sanic.