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Wot I Think: The first few hours of Need For Speed: Heat

Off the boil

I've played the first bundle of hours of the latest release from the Need For Speed sausage factory, Need For Speed: Heat. Enough to tell you what's new. The answer is: oh dear. Here are my thoughts.

Heat makes the same mistake as the last few Need For Speed games, of entirely confusing the reason people play them. Yet again it’s a game that begins obsessed with the god-awful tissue-thin stereotype characters it’s starring, rather than the fun of driving fast cars around cities. Instead of saying, “Look! Brrmmmy cars! Skids around corners! Yay!” you’re subjected to acres of human facepalms blabbering inane drivel at one another. If there is anyone out there who has spent the last two years since Payback saying, “I can’t wait for the next NFS game, to find out which characters it’ll have, and what story it will tell!”, then you really wouldn’t want to be friends with them.

In Heat’s case, this opening is all about establishing that the police are VERY BAD AND CORRUPT, because they want to, um, stop people driving ludicrously dangerously on public streets of an evening. It’s such an odd sell. (And entirely unnecessary when it would have been so much easier to present the player as the naughty baddy, excitingly evading the actually-doing-their-job cops.) Instead we’ve got Lt. Frank Mercer, a grim-faced angry dad figure who is just so close to crossing the line. In the opening foray of cutscenes, we see him only just convinced not to murder a teenager to “send a message” to these darned kids about their reckless ways.

Even better, moments before this another cop sees the wayward teen barely survive accidentally driving his car off a bridge and exclaims, “What did you do to that sweet-ass ride?!” I laughed very loudly. This was not the scene’s intention. But it was good to be reassured that the latest NFS would be as embarrassing as so many before.

When you finally get to play, you’re asked to pick from a rogues gallery of dreadful-looking scrags. Now, who’s to say they’re not a realistic depiction of the sorts who like to illegally race cars, but hey, this is fantasy! Some of them could maybe not look like they work in a vinyl record store that only stocks music by unsigned bands.

Your gang of NPC buddies are at least not depicted via FMV like in 2015's Need For Speed - *bristles* - but every character is the same as every character before. They all talk in cliché and hackneyed aphorism, and say things like, “Yo I’ve got your back,” rather than in any way meaningfully communicating with each other. And none of them add a single useful thing to the game. It would work just as well, and be far more of a pleasure to play, if it were just the icons on a map it already is, without the dirge of interruptions.

Woefully, this desperate attempt to sound like the cool kids extends all the way to the game’s own language. It refers not to “money” at any point, but exclusively to, in all-caps every time, “BANK”. Oh it’s so awkward, like a supply teacher asking if anyone “did some good shit at the weekend?”. All I can picture is the team of adults at Ghost Games sat at their computers trying to code the game while wearing obligatory BMX gloves, sweltering under the heat of their floppy EA branded beanies.

Once it’s going, it sure is another open world driving game, and yeah, like before it’s a potentially half-decent arcade racing game plagued by many of the same issues. Race after race during which NPCs bark incessant gormless drivel at you, where you’re far more likely to lose not because you make a mistake, but because an AI-controlled non-racing car randomly turns right (without signalling) immediately in front of you. Or new for this game, is just merrily driving down the wrong side of the road.

(How is this still a thing?! Every game in the series is blighted with the same nonsense of AI cars making unpredictable turns immediately in front of you that knock you back from 1st to 8th with no time to recover. And yet it persists, a tiresome, senseless inclusion that can only ever reduce a player’s fun.)

The main change to how you drive this time is the drifting. It’s now triggered by tapping accelerate, steering, then holding down accelerate and leaning into the skid. Which is more complicated to describe than to do - the idea I think is to simplify it so you don't have to use the brakes, and to encourage players to embrace drifting more. It took a bit of getting used to, and I was still tapping on the brake for a while until my brain updated, but in the end doesn’t make a huge difference to anything. It’s still no Mario Kart 64. Annoyingly, it feels a touch glitchy, too often failing to trigger when I’ve absolutely clicked that trigger button down.

Beyond that, it’s more of NFS’s air-headed arcade driving, no matter how silly they get with your ability to tweak tiny specifics of your engine. Yes, it affects whether you’re more skiddy or stable, better set up for off-road or road racing, but in the end you’re slamming into corners at 110mph, harmlessly bouncing off barriers, and goofing about.

Play is split into day and night. During the day races will win you (eeuurggh) “BANK” from legitimate racing events. At night you're racing to earn “Rep”, which gets you in with the cool kids and leads to being invited to join crews and new races and you know the deal. More interestingly, at night you play a sort of gambling game against yourself, taking part in races with the police pursuing you between them. The more you do, and the more you do it with “heat” (the police all cross with you), the more Rep you earn - however, get caught before you make it back to a safe house and you lose a big chunk of it plus half your current money. Which is definitely a nice idea, but it's undercooked here. The split feels artificial and mostly an annoyance as you have to reload the time of day to get to events you need to complete, and frankly there's little to be gained by risking a lot at night. You might as well just nip back and save smaller amounts of Rep.

These races can, in theory, be played against other people. This isn’t something I was able to frequently put to the test, since, despite only being able to play after release, there was often no one else to play against, my attempts ending in an "Event cancelled" message.

NPC AI is all but non-existent. Charge down the wrong side of the road toward oncoming traffic and none of it will attempt to even swerve out of your way - they all just carry on in a straight line regardless, hell-bent on their own freeing deaths. It’s the same reason they’ll suddenly turn right in front of you - they’re not reactive to anything that’s happening, just automatons on a track, incredibly inconvenient decorations.

Cop AI sort of exists, but it’s hard to give it more credit than that. They’re supposed to react to your reckless driving and get involved, but this is by no means a given. For instance there was the traffic-o-po-po who decided to let me off after I crashed headlong into his bonnet at 110mph. At one point I escaped a cop chase by, er, staying still. The rozzers all charged off over-excitedly and lost me via my ingenious technique of staying exactly where I was when they first spotted me. I evaded another squadron of flashers by driving into a lake!

The idea is a sort of Hot Pursuity intervention by the cops during night races, to add to the thrill of the illegal street racing by attempting to maim the police. But here the flawed AI and teetering pile of bugs show themselves all the more vividly. Police cars will randomly vanish from immediately behind you, or perform extraordinary displays like rapidly spinning on their center-point while whizzing toward you, like some sort of vehicular buzzsaw.

During one night race I’d just ticked my naughtiness to Heat Level 2 with three cop cars pursuing me on a straight stretch of road, and then one second later it declared that I’d “escaped”! Go me! During another race - and don’t get me wrong, this was my favourite moment in the entire game - a police car fell out of the sky on top of my car, and then boiiiinged off into the distance. God speed, bouncy police car.

Then it has so many of its own idiosyncracies. Like during a race you’re only told how many yards you are ahead of your opponents, not seconds. Yards! (I think they’re a fathom divided by shackle.) What use is this to me?! I mean, if I worked out the yard distance as a fraction of a mile, and then multiplied that by their possible speed based on being slightly slower than an average of my own, I could roughly work out how much time they are behind me? But call me a thicko, because I can’t do that in my head while drifting corners.

What next, what next? Oh, how about the servers randomly spitting me out with robotic error messages, then when I reconnect to a new one I've lost the last hour’s progress of Rep gain and levelling up. That was fun. Both times it happened in one evening.

Slightly more trivially, I do need to comment on the absolutely astonishing number of ambulances out on the streets. They're everywhere! Dozens and dozens of them, idling about, not seeming in a hurry. Which only makes the struggle to even get a cop to notice you at night all the more bizarre.

Or the way it seems to have no concept of rubber-banding, which means if you crash at any point in a race, you’ll just restart rather than have the pleasure of trying to catch up. Although it has a far more condemning effect too - it means the AI also won’t challenge you back once you’re in the lead. Unless I make a dramatic mistake, once I got a lead I’d always just extend it ever-more, just dully driving on my own. The game starts to feel a little bit fun in those overlapping moments where you are vying to get ahead, or trying to prevent the AI overtaking after you’ve messed up a corner. But gosh they’re so rare. More often than not - even when my car doesn’t meet the recommended spec for a race - I’ve finished 1000 yards or more ahead. (I believe that’s a twelfth of a furlong.) I’ve seen my lead listed for huge stretches of races as “1 miles” (sic). I’m not that good!

The game’s graphics are technically good, in the way a technical drawing by an architect is technically good. It feels so austere, so clinical, like an outline drawing of reality. This isn’t helped by the incongruous implausibility of there being no one living in this vast city at all. No one walks down the streets, no one drinks coffee outside of cafes, no squirrels scamper past picnickers in the parks. Despite the peculiar party line into which you are permanently dialled (I found myself giving too much thought as I played as to how these people, both friends and rivals, are able to all hear one another talking, all the time), there’s no glimmer of a living creature outside of the cutscenes or finish lines. Presumably this is to avoid the awkwardness of either letting you mow down crowds a la GTA, or having humanity be amusingly impermeable, but the result is bewilderingly sterile.

However, importantly, EVERYTHING SMASHES TO BITS! It’s a spectacularly breakable world, in ways this series for too long has not been. You can plough your car through pretty much everything that isn’t a building, to no personal harm, but lots of splintered mess. No reason to, but it’s a lot of fun. Alongside that, it adds Burnout Paradise-style billboards back into the mix, but then marks each one on the map as if it’s a local tourism spot, rather removing the joy of stumbling upon them.

I should say, to be scrupulously fair, that the game starts to look so much better in the rain. The reflections of puddles on the roads are absolutely extraordinary. Of course, it only makes everything all the more stark when the weather’s more clement.

But Need For Speed: Heat’s main crime is the most damning: It just feels unnecessary. It’s not a great leap forward for the series, let alone the genre. It doesn’t interestingly iterate on its previous successes and failures. It doesn’t exist to be anything unique. It’s just, in the most wearying of ways, another Need For Speed game. And while the recent games in the series have mimicked the Ubisoft model of a big map smothered in icons, it doesn’t re-dress the set, or tell a new tale, or repurpose the notion for subversion, or anything that might motivate its creation beyond, “We need to make another one.” It in fact feels pretty dramatically galling that the ‘story’ here is, somehow yet again, a new racer making their name in the underground street racing circles. Just anything else would have done.

However, it's worth noting what it doesn't do. It doesn't have side bets, its characters aren't quite so abhorrent, it remembers that women are people too, and crucially, the cars now handle the same in and out of races. And handle better - there's some weight to them this time out, although the drift never felt right to me, always ending too harshly. Which is all to say, this is nowhere near as terrible as Payback, an absolutely atrocious driving game. Heat is a much better game than Payback. Like the flu is much better than getting your armpits caught in a combine harvester.

So if for some reason you need to play another one, and for some reason you haven’t previously cared about its lacklustre delivery, woeful AI, and deeply irritating attitude, then sure, it does it all over again. They built a whole new sprawling city and its surrounding countryside, albeit without a single scrap of charm. (It’s impossible not to think of Forza Horizon 4’s bucolic interpretation of the British countryside, and yearn for a Need For Speed that could be so imaginative.)

Being better than Payback is not really praise. There are lots of races, and story challenges, and jumps, and things to smash, and, sigh, graffiti to ‘collect’, and engine parts to tweak, and decals to spray on your growing fleet of cars, and on and on and on. But not a single bit of it feels like it ever needed to exist.

Perhaps the story twists off into totally unexpected directions the more one plays. Maybe it suddenly blossoms into a wonderful introspective walking sim on wheels. We weren't given time to find out before letting you know if this was worth your money. But from the first bundle of hours, it's pretty clear it's not deserving of a whopping £55.

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