We have to be honest with each other here and admit that the current generation wasn’t too kind to the Need for Speed franchise. Sure, there were some highs, but such were nothing in comparison to the rather damming lows. From corny FMV cut-scenes, through content barren cash grabs, all the way down to soul-destroying loot boxes, the Need for Speed franchise has rather rapidly turned from the flagship racing series, to a throwaway racer which would populate discount bins come Christmas. And when I first heard of Need for Speed Heat, I was neither thrilled, nor excited, as I knew that this flashy racer will be nothing like the Need for Speed of Old – and boy, was I wrong.

First things first, Need for Speed Heat, while brandishing a robust story mode, is significantly less extravagant, than its direct predecessor Payback. While it may not be entirely grounded within reality, as the narrative involves a special police taskforce, which is both incredibly evil – and corrupt. Then ultimately, the narrative is still much better than the ones of Need for Speed 2015, and Payback. However, strangely enough, all the quote-on-quote good guys are all of ethnic backgrounds, whereas all the bad guys happen to be white men – so make of that what you will.

Ultimately, what makes the story of Need for Speed Heat great, is that it is incredibly non-invasive. Sure, it’s there for you to explore, but you can easily complete all the races, sprints, drifts, and time-rushes, without ever touching the story mode. And that is mainly due to the fact that all the vehicles, upgrades, and most importantly activities are all unlockable through free roam. However, the progression can feel a little unbalanced at times, as it relies a little too heavily on the night events.

The core gameplay of Need for Speed Heat is split into legal races which take place during the day, and the not so legal activities which take place during the night. And the main difference between the two lies in the fact that day races, while allowing you to compete without police constantly being on your case, only award you with cash, and unlock next to nothing in terms of actual content. Whereas the night races, where the police are constantly on the lookout, allow you to unlock all the activities, vehicles, and upgrades. So ultimately, there is really not much point in concentrating on the ‘dailies’, as they offer very little in terms of variety, and reward.

Overall, there are 50 REP levels which can be earned through night time activities, and such require you to earn progressively more REP points, then funnily enough, the higher level you are, the easier it is to level up. I know it may sound weird, but end-game activities can offer up to 50k rep points, and with the HEAT multipliers, you can easily earn around million points per night – which can be anywhere between two-to-six levels – if not more.

The proverbial grind within Heat is there, but it is nowhere near as gruelling as within Payback, or the original The Crew. However, while loot boxes may be gone, then the vehicle power levels are still there. Suggesting that loot boxes might have been a part of the game, at some point in its development. The in-game power levels allow you to compete with greater ease, then unlike in Payback, you should easily be able to compete in, and win activities which are 100 or more power points, above the level of your current vehicle. And this is definitely a change for the better, as within Heat you will never find yourself in a situation where you are getting lapped, purely because AI’s number is slightly higher than yours.

Talking of AI, it can be both immensely impressive, and depressingly underwhelming at the same time. Computer controlled drivers don’t always follow the same route, often make mistakes, and can be rather aggressive whenever they’re being overtaken. But at the same time, AI’s pacing also leaves a lot to be desired. As the vast majority, if not all races, play out exactly in the same manner. As you’ll have anywhere between 7 to 11 AI controlled vehicles, of which 5 to 9 will stick in a single stack, whereas one car will be always good kilometre behind it, and another, will be a good 500 metres ahead of the stack. And a feeling of hopelessness can often creep-in, as you can drive flawlessly and not make any gains on the leader, but no matter how good he/she is, you will always over take him/her sometime towards the final third. And once you realise that Heat’s gameplay involves a steady amount of scripting, the title will lose all sense of urgency in your eyes, as you’ll know that no matter how well the AI does, you will always be able to overtake it.

As far as the hostile, police AI goes, it is the same old. No matter what car you drive, the police always catch up with ease. And even once you reach REP level 50, and drive the 400+ power level Koenigsegg, then the standard high patrol police cars, will still catch up with you, even if you are driving at 350 kilometres per hour. And this makes escaping the cops, in the traditional way, immensely difficult, especially on the higher heat levels. However, as in most games, Heat’s hostile AI has its downsides. And one of them is its inability to track you vertically. So, if you’ll hit a jump and land on a roof a building, or on a stack of shipping containers, then the AI simply gives up, and leaves you alone. While escaping the police in such manner can feel cheap, then after 10 hours of playtime, it will simply be necessary, as by getting caught or totalled, you lose some of your BANK (the in-game currency), and all of your heat multiplier.

Unlike previous titles in the franchise, Heat is a game of patience, as the longer you persevere, then the bigger will be the reward. However, as far as finances go, Need for Speed Heat is much more balanced, than all the previous current gen instalments of the franchise, as no matter where you are in terms of the story, or the REP level, there is always something for you to buy, either a vehicle, mechanical upgrade, and/or a visual customization. And the latter of the three, will be on your shopping list often, as visual upgrades are immensely cheap. And you can completely overhaul any in-game vehicle for 20k of BANK or less. Furthermore 20k, after five hours into the game, constitutes a single race. And towards the end of the game, you’ll be earning 20k for every lap you complete.

Doing laps, can be a little tiresome. As after 20 hours of daytime racing, you probably would have finished all the in-game races at least twice. However, Heat prevents boredom from creeping in, thanks to its rather exciting driving model, and having drifting allocated to either of the triggers, can get a little getting used to. Then once it clicks, it feels superb. And the rather impressive driving models, in conjunction with the immense sense of speed, create for an experience which is not just thrilling, but also incredibly exciting. And the driving model alone, does enough to keep you, rather ironically, driving forward.

What’s rather disappointing, is the fact that Heat in the age of ‘games as a service’, features very little in terms of end-game content. Because as you’ll reach REP level 50, all that you’ll really have to do, is simply clean-up the remainder of the collectibles, side activities, and trophies/achievements. And this will surely take you a better part of 50 hours, then it does feel a little disappointing that Heat just ends. Especially when you take into the consideration the world which has been built within the game.

Another positive aspect of Heat lies within its visuals. As all the in-game cars look impeccable, and this is especially impressive, once you take into the consideration the fact that there are 127 of them. And this is rather surprising, as not so long ago, Codemasters have said that it is impossible to suck anymore performance out of current gen consoles, yet Ghost Games, have managed to create a much more impressive vehicles, within a vibrant and captivating open world.  While that particular world may not have the same level of polish as the one of Red Dead Redemption 2, then it looks perfectly fine. And I may even go as far as to say that it is rather impressive, especially during the night, as the combination of neon lights, numerous weather effects, and special effects, results in a spectacle which is a joy to behold.

When I was playing through Heat I didn’t really notice it, but now looking back at it, it is borderline perfect as far as its technical side of it goes. The framerate is constantly stable and doesn’t hitch even for a fraction of a second. Loading times are acceptable, even if they can stretch at times, and there is absolutely no pop-in or in-game texture rendering. Meaning that Ghost Games have done a much better job performance wise, with much more complex open world racer, than Codemasters has with the boxed-in GRID.

All in all, Need for Speed Heat, is by far the best Need for Speed of this generation. Sure, it’s not perfect. The pacing of the content could have been improved, and the post-story activities could do with a little more fleshing out. But as far as the spirit of the series goes, Heat is the closest that we have gotten to the olden days Carbon and Most Wanted. The driving feels fresh and exciting, the selection of vehicles is superb, the in-depth customisation both technical and visual is simply fantastic, and the title as a whole is downright satisfying. And I can easily say that for the first time in years, Need for Speed is finally worth the day one, £40 purchase. And even with GRID taken into consideration, Need for Speed: Heat is by far the best racing game of the year!