Need for Speed Heat Hands-On Gameplay Impressions
Back in August, I was given an extraordinary opportunity that I never would have expected – I was flown out all the way to Cologne, Germany to attend Gamescom and be one of the first in the world to go hands-on with Need for Speed Heat. Not only that, but I was able to chat with many of the developers from Ghost Games and play a Behind Closed Doors demo of the game shown exclusively to press and other content creators (more on this in a separate article soon).
Over the few days I was at Cologne, I and many others had the chance to play and record several hours worth of gameplay (which you no doubt would have seen a lot of my footage over on BlackPanthaa’s YouTube channel). The demo featured vehicle and character customization, exhaust tuning, a Speedhunter Showdown event during the day, an illegal underground city race during the night, and five minutes worth of free-roam pursuit chases.
While this write-up is almost a month late, I wanted to collect my thoughts first and ensure my first impressions on Need for Speed Heat – both positive and negative – were genuine. For instance, there were times playing the demo I felt very disappointed by particular aspects, only to come to enjoy them after I invested more time into it. I also wanted to ensure I covered EVERYTHING (no Cross pun intended) that people have been asking about, and I hope with this that I’ve managed to do so.
These are my first impressions on Need for Speed Heat after several hours of hand-on gameplay!
If there was one word I could use to describe Need for Speed Heat, it would be ‘Right’. For instance, the Driving mechanics, they finally feel right (for lack of a better term). All of the vehicles that were available to us in the Gamescom build used the default stock handling model, and while it felt very familiar to the likes of 2015 and Payback, the cars felt much more stable, grounded and like you had full control of all four wheels – being able to grip or drift through the corners when each scenario felt appropriate.
It’s not perfect mind you, there were a few instances the physics felt a bit wonky, but for the most part the issues I encountered simply came down to my own errors; over and under-utilizing the new Clutch Kick mechanic, which was something that took a few play sessions to adjust to. Ghost have made a substantial improvement to even just the stock (middle-ground) handling model with Need for Speed Heat, and that aspect alone is going to make many fans happy after several entries of disappointing physics and brake-to-drift mechanics (and we didn’t even try the revamped Grip and Drift handling!).
Cops are a crucial element to a Need for Speed game, a series stable, however Ghost’s efforts have always teetered on both ends of the spectrum. Rivals featured extremely aggressive cops to the point they broke more laws than the player, while 2015 featured cops so placid you’d have a more thrilling chase with a turtle. Payback cops were a good middle ground, but not quite there especially considering they were locked to Bait Crates and Abandoned Cars.
Need for Speed Heat takes cops to a whole new level. Mix the aggression and teamwork of Payback’s cops with the fear-inducing risk/reward element of the Rivals cops, and you have cops that will give you a good run for your money (Or well, REP in this case). Cops in the Gamescom demo were tough, and I mean tough, I don’t think one person at the event managed to takedown a cop in the short five-minute time we had – and if that wasn’t enough, the cops are going to be much harder in the final game… (Cops in the Behind Closed Doors session felt much tougher).
Need for Speed Heat’s plot revolves around rogue cops, the Palm City police don’t play by the books at night and one of things the demo helped to demonstrate that was the cop chatter. At night, the generic cop chatter has been changed with more natural and aggressive sounding cops, who will get angry and sarcastic towards one enough when one cop fails, cheer if they manage to successfully killswitch you or call you a bitch and start swearing at you if you start to evade (I’m guessing the rating boards will like this…). It was strange to hear at first, but was something I felt really fits the plot and makes this take on Cops feel more grounded in reality than hearing generic chatter.
From my time with the demo, those with big concerns about the health system can rest easy… for the most part. In terms of player health, damage inflicted by cops seemed to be very little, even head-on collisions with a Rhino seemed to take off at most about 10-15% of the health bar. I only ever encounted ‘Damage Critical’ mode once, and even then I survived several rhino hits and a Killswitch before finding a Gas Station to repair. Day Time cops work a little differently, however we’ll go more into detail on our experience with them in our Behind Closed Doors coverage.
In the Gamescom demo build we were given access to four cars from Heat’s car lineup to customize and drive: Porsche 911 Carrera GTS, Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport, Nissan GT-R ’17 and Mercedes-Benz AMG GTR. Admittingly I was pretty disappointed in the selection of vehicles for this demo, considering each of these vehicles have been present in both Payback AND 2015. New vehicles like the Evo X, C63 Coupe and i8 would have been much more exciting, or at the very least ONE of the new vehicles and not just vehicles we’ve driven for the past two entries.
Customization is back and better than ever, with a brand-new feature: Exhaust Tuning. For the first time in a Need for Speed game, we can customize the sound of our cars to create something truly unique. As an audiophile, I loved playing around fine-tuning the sounds and creating meaty backfire pops from my cars, and I reckon will be a BIG fan-favourite on release. The paint system has also seen a complete overhaul, adding 12 different types of materials including Carbon Fibre, Composite Carbon and Flake, as well new effects such as Colour Shift, Chameleon and Iridescent, which resulted in some amazing colour combos and something I loved messing with in the Livery Editor.
Character Customization also makes its debut in the series, with Need for Speed Heat’s main protagonist being a customizable avatar this time around. In the demo we were able to select from 12 different preset characters, featuring five categories of customization: Head, Accessories, Top, Bottom and Shoes – each with hundreds of options to select from. Customization options are gender neutral too, which was funny to see my male character rocking a crop top and short shorts (and he looked pretty funky doing so!).
As for body customization, its exactly what you’d come to expect from a Ghost NFS game, which is both fine and a bit disappointing. Despite a few new spoilers, rims and menu tweaks (which FINALLY display the rim model below), there isn’t a whole lot of new parts for older cars, which is made extremely apparent when using cars from the last two games. How this will translate to the final game remains to be seen, though if the Weekly Car Drops on the NFS Heat Studio app are anything to go by, returning cars won’t feature many new customization parts which is a huge let down.
One of the first things I noticed was just how good the game looked, even running on a PS4 Pro. Visually the game is a huge step up from the disappointingly dry and bland look of Payback and I’d go as far to say even trumps the visual fidelity of 2015 by a country mile. Palm City during the night oozes with atmosphere; towering skyscrapers, bright neon lights, rain-soaked roads, swaying palm trees and the flashing lights of the pursuing police all set the vibe, with a dark Miami green sky to top it all off. Day time looks equally as gorgeous, with a very bright but gritty Prostreet vibe from the circuit race we played in the Port area of Heat’s map.
Races are just what you’d come to expect from a modern Need for Speed game, Heat doesn’t ‘revolutionize street racing’ by any means, but it does have some neat changes that make it all the more better. For starters, there’s street races in the city again (looking at you, Payback) with cops that will interact with other players during night races besides trying to shut you down. Another is Heat’s new checkpoint design, with massive neon blue and purple lights that help pave the way throughout a race. Not only that, but these neon lights transition as glowing direction markers during races to help define which direction the race heads next, which from a design aspect is a great improvement over previous games. I enjoyed the two races on offer in the demo, they felt well-designed and fun to play through with some slightly challenging AI so hopefully this race design transitions to all the other races in the full game!
Sense of Speed was an aspect to Need for Speed Payback’s driving that many felt underwhelmed with. In Need for Speed Heat however, you can REALLY feel the sense of speed. This is extenuated by Heat’s motion blur and effects that really help sell the idea you’re travelling at insanely high speeds - with a constant barrage of rain and wind streaming towards the camera in addition to crazy camera warping and chromatic aberration the moment you hit the NOS (which gets more intense the more NOS bottles you chain!)
As far as it goes for music, as a big music nerd, the demo we were allowed to capture didn’t feature any of the soundtrack due to potential copyright issues when YouTubers upload their footage. However, the public demo on the show floor and the Behind Closed Doors demo both featured the soundtrack, and it sounds promising and true to Heat’s atmosphere. Heat features a very modern soundtrack focusing on a lot of Electronic and Trap music, and quite a bit of Latin American music too which I enjoyed during the Day Event race.
The one thing I was definitely impressed with was the Pursuit music – its tense and really gets the adrenaline pumping, something I felt certainly lacked with Payback’s pursuit score. Heat also features a ‘dynamic’ soundtrack, where more relaxed pop-esque music will play during the day (bar in races), and at night will feature more aggressive and electronic music – something that has me very intrigued to see the games full soundtrack.
Overall while I enjoyed my hands-on with Need for Speed Heat, I can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the content in the demo – what with the lack of the new vehicles to customize, and not letting us get a taste for Engine Swaps and the improved Grip/Drift handling system. There are so many great new additions with Need for Speed Heat that I felt this demo didn’t do justice, but I’m also glad that Ghost are saving these things for the full game as to not spoil us too much.
In many ways, Need for Speed Heat feels like the culmination of the best elements from Ghost’s NFS games, and a true successor to Need for Speed 2015 - while also looking ahead to the future and making changes that the series has been long overdue for. 2015 and Payback laid the foundation for what fans do and don’t want in an NFS game, and while Heat still has the look and feel of a Ghost-made NFS game, there is a substantial amount of changes (both subtle and obvious) that make the game feel like the franchise is heading in the right direction again. It truly feels like everything Ghost envisioned almost half a decade ago for their rebooted take on Need for Speed has finally come together, and I hope to still say this about the final game in November.