The long-running Need for Speed franchise is stuck in a rut. The 2015 reboot, simply titled Need for Speed, was criticized for its cringeworthy live-action cutscenes. Its successor two years ago, Need for Speed Payback, had an irritating upgrade system built around collectible Speed Cards. The last game to broach the 80 mark on Metacritic, Need for Speed Most Wanted, was developed by Criterion and released in 2012. The pressure is therefore rising around Ghost Games, the series' current steward, and its next entry, Need for Speed Heat.
Unsurprisingly, the new game is vastly different to Payback. You no longer need Speed Cards, for instance, to upgrade your ride. "Speed cards were a little abstract," Riley Cooper, creative director on Need for Speed Heat, told Engadget. "So we're leaning much more grounded and straightforward [this time]. You get money, you buy the part you want. And the part improves the performance of your vehicle in the ways you would expect for that part."
And if you're worried about loot boxes, don't be. "There are no Loot boxes in Need for Speed Heat and there won't be," EA Community Manager Ben Walke wrote on Reddit last week.
Cars are no longer separated by class, either. In Heat, any vehicle can be tuned for drifting or speed. "We've pulled those two [styles] apart as much as possible, so it's very clear to the player what they're building with their cars," Bryn Alban, the game's vehicle art director told Engadget. Alternatively, you can build a "heroic" car that sits in the middle of this customization spectrum. Your ride won't be specialized enough to dominate online, but it'll get you to the end of the story mode, Riley promised. "You can take the heroic handling model from the beginning of the experience to the end," he explained. "If that's your cup of tea, you can do that."
To build up your cars and progress through the story, you'll need to compete at different times of the day. Unlike previous entries, Heat splits its campaign neatly in two. When the sun is up, you'll be competing for cash in a series of race, drift and off-road events called the Speedhunter Showdown. Curiously, Ghost Games has dropped the straight-line drag races that were prevalent in Payback. They weren't the most compelling event type -- to win, you merely watched a bar at the top of the screen and pressed the right button when the cursor hovered over a green section. Riley wouldn't say why the mode had been dropped, but hinted that it could return in the future. "It's something we know our fans enjoy," he said. "So we're looking at different ways to give that to players."
At night, you'll be accruing a currency called reputation that unlocks new events, cars and parts. In general, you can choose how long you want to spend in each setting. The fastest way to progress through the game, though, is to regularly alternate between race times.
The day-night cycle also influences the police presence in the city. Need for Speed Payback restricted cop chases to specific Runner events and cinematic set pieces. Heat, meanwhile, makes the law an ongoing threat to your racing crown. During the day, officers will generally leave you alone unless you ram into the side of their car or break the law in a way they can't ignore. That makes it easier to complete side challenges and track down collectibles in the open world.
At night, the cops are noticeably more aggressive. You also have a heat ranking that slowly rises as you complete after-dark events and earn reputation. The police will increase their efforts in accordance with your heat ranking, eventually deploying helicopters and heavily armored trucks. If you get caught, your nightly earnings will vanish too. It's your decision, therefore, when to cash out and bank your rep at a safe house. "How much you want to push a single night," Riley explained, "will have a big effect on how much rep you earn."
The concept sounds a little like the high-risk Dark Zone from The Division. "Without naming games, there has definitely been inspiration from within the industry," Riley said with a grin.
In Payback, players were encouraged to ram into cop cars. Runner-class vehicles were built like tanks, essentially, and would keep you safe unless the police managed to group up and box you in somewhere. Need for Speed Heat, meanwhile, switches the emphasis from battling to escaping. Your car has durability -- a health bar, essentially -- that will whittle away as you jostle with police cars. You can fight back but frequent collisions will accelerate this depletion and ultimately force you to end the night early. "You can battle strategically," Riley said. "But you have to be smart about it, because you're going to lose health in the process."
The new campaign structure is supported by a fresh setting, Palm City, that is loosely based on Miami and other parts of Southeastern United States. Ghost Games has also returned to the tuner culture that was prolific in the much-loved Need for Speed Underground and Carbon entries. That means lots (and I mean lots) of underbody neon lights, over the top spoilers and side skirts. "Neon culture is actually coming back into car culture," Alban explained. You can even tweak the sound of your exhaust with four -- yes, four -- different sliders called tone, timbre, overrun and resonance.
In addition, Heat has a new approach to storytelling. With Payback, Ghost Games went for an action movie vibe with fully-voiced characters and a bombastic revenge plot that was clearly inspired by the last few Fast and Furious movies. Heat, however, will let you race as one of 12 customizable avatars. You won't be a silent protagonist -- the company tried that with its 2015 Need for Speed reboot -- but you won't be terribly talkative like Ty, Mac and Jess were in Payback, either. "You're not a mute [in Heat]," Riley said. "You do speak. But we let you define your experience much more."
There will be a story, but the team is being coy with the details right now. "I think people are going to be very pleasantly surprised," Riley said. "It's much more serious and much more grounded. It's focused on street racing and the surrounding experience of that. And it really speaks to the game. So it's less like 'Oh there's the game and over here there's a story.' It's more like, 'There's an experience, and the story is a part of that.'"
As a consequence, Ghost Games has abandoned the movie-inspired set pieces of Payback, which included stealing a Koenigsegg from a moving truck. "It's not to say those experiences don't have a place in Need for Speed, we just feel like we want to focus more on the core experience and build from there," Riley said. "Some day you may see those experiences in Need for Speed again, but we just felt like there was so much we could do just around street racing, that we didn't need to reach that far."
Much has changed, but at its core Heat is still an approachable arcade racer. If you've played Need for Speed Payback, or any instalment developed by Ghost Games, you'll instantly feel comfortable with the effortless drifting and NOS-powered boosts. The game requires skill, of course, but braking and turning is generally more forgiving than realistic 'sim' racers such as Forza Motorsport 7 and Gran Turismo Sport. "People will feel that it's Need for Speed," Alban promised. "It'll be, I dunno, your comfortable sofa at home. It'll feel like you're playing Need for Speed right from the get-go."
At first glance, it's a promising package. One that, at the very least, won't repeat the same mistakes as Need for Speed Payback. Heat could, of course, make a whole host of new errors that disappoint or aggravate fans. But for now, I've seen enough to be (very) cautiously optimistic.