Need for Speed Heat is a racing game set in an open world environment called Palm City, a fictionalised version of the city of Miami, Florida and its surrounding area.
The in-game map features diverse geography, including mountainous areas and open fields.Unlike Need for Speed Payback, the game does not include a 24-hour day-night cycle, but players can switch between day and night. During the day, players can take part in sanctioned race events, which reward players with cash to spend on new cars and upgrades. They can also take part in illegal street races at night, which would earn players rep. The more rep player earns, the more aggressive the police will be during the night.
Players must escape the cops and get back to their safehouse, before they are busted, or their car is wrecked. When players return to a safehouse, the rep they have earned during the night will be multiplied by their "Heat Level". If players are arrested, they will lose their rep multiplier, but will still receive their unmultiplied rep. The rep multiplier mechanic works similarly to the SpeedPoints multiplier from Rivals. The game also features a storyline in which the players interact with the city’s police force, led by authority figure Lt. Mercer. Players can smash neon flamingos hidden within the map, which rewards them with a small amount of money or rep depending on the time of day.