A series that was once beloved by fans, the annualisation of the Need For Speed franchise has resulted in some less than stellar releases over the years, and the varied nature of the games has also left it without a clear identity.
It was a surprising and also welcome move last year then, for EA to forego the yearly release schedule and give developer Ghost Games one more year with their follow up to 2013’s enjoyable Need For Speed: Rivals.
Looking to take the series back to what many consider its heyday, Ghost Games’ newest crack at the series, simply called Need For Speed, goes back to the murky night time street racing and car customisation of the Need For Speed: Underground games, but whilst it does successfully capture the spirit of those fondly remembered releases it unfortunately ends up feeling little more than mediocre thanks to its by-the-numbers racing and a handful of unfortunate issues.
It’s probably a bad thing to say about a racing game that perhaps its most memorable and entertaining moments are the full motion videos spread throughout its running time. You see, as the new kid on the block, the game begins with you impressing a local street racer who insists that you meet his friends, and before you know it you’re an integral part of the group. With each friend generally into their own style of racing, you’ll be watching videos of them talking amongst themselves and to you every few races or so, and whilst they are nothing more than mindless fluff they are also cringeworthily entertaining. Each racer has their own little dramas and goals, and for some reason, despite the fact you’ve only known them for two seconds, it’s usually down to you to help them or impress them. It’s all rather silly, but it works, and is a great way to accentuate the five gameplay styles on offer.
With each gameplay style having its own main character and story, there’s a fair amount of content for those wanting to complete them all – and you’ll probably need to if you want to unlock all the car customisation options on offer. Whether you choose speed, style, build, team or outlaw, you’ll find around 20 or so events each geared towards that gameplay style, and every time you cross that finish line, you’ll earn a nice chunk of rep and some cold cash for your troubles. There are many event types on offer, such as drift, time trials, street races and team-based touge, and whilst winning obviously nets you the most rep and cash, even placing poorly is still quite rewarding. This is most definitely a good thing, as losing can be a commonplace occurrence, particularly when it comes to the actual act of street racing.
Paramount to any racing game is its handling, and unfortunately Need For Speed’s inconsistent handling model just doesn’t cut the mustard. With the ability to change the handling of your car between grip and drift with the help of a simple sliding bar, it’ll take some trial and error until you’ve found a setting that just clicks for you. Full grip is next to useless, and full drift is unenjoyably unruly, so you’ll be cursing your car a lot when it misbehaves until you made multiple journeys to the garage to fine tune your handling setting. Luckily you can warp back to the garage – and also any event for that matter – whenever you like, which is a small mercy, but why not just let you change your handling on the fly between races? Once you’ve got your car handling just how you’d like it to – or at least how you can tolerate it – you can seriously take to the track, but the chances are you’ll encounter more bugbears that will hinder your enjoyment.
Whilst the omission of features such as an in-car view, manual transmission and steeling wheel support are disappointing, one of the more bothersome issues is the AI and ghastly rubber banding, which, whilst has definitely been improved since the closed beta, can still be problematic in straight-up races. Unless you improve your car’s performance to outclass the competition, you need to be nearly perfect in races at the later stages of the game, as one small error can see you left behind no matter how well you’ve performed for the rest of the race. Combined with the sometimes erratic handling and the fact that race layouts can often be poorly signposted and confusing, you will at times feel robbed of a win. Of course, a repeat of the race will see you in better stead thanks to your knowledge of the layout, but arcade racers such as this should be more dynamic than their circuit racing counterparts when the action can sometimes be chaotic.
For many potential purchasers, what may be more worrying is the game’s technical performance. Whilst Need For Speed is undoubtedly a pretty game, it comes at a cost, as the framerate can often drop noticeably low on the Xbox One version tested. What makes it perplexing though, is when you consider that the game world is quite sterile, with very little traffic on the streets. It doesn’t matter too much when you’re just cruising – the sumptuously designed car models and neon-drenched streets take the edge of the occasional stutter and slowdown – but in the midst of a high speed race it’s disconcerting and troublesome. A part of the performance issues may be attributable to the fact that the game requires a constant internet connection – server issues and people frequently joining and leaving your game world are bound to have an effect – and this is unforgivable given that the game is pretty much a single player experience.
With the game requiring a persistent online connection, you’d imagine there’d be a strong emphasis on online player vs player racing across multiple race types, but in the case of Need For Speed you’d be wrong. Players can enter your game and go about their own business, meaning that you may bump into them from time to time racing and drifting around, but your interactivity with them is limited to challenging them to a short race. If they give you the cold shoulder and don’t accept your challenge, that’s the end of it, so it’s likely that unless you have a game filled with friends you’ll be sticking to single player activities only. There are also irritating side effects of being always online such as being unable to pause the game whatsoever, and sometimes having difficulties loading into the game whilst downloading other games in the background.
One of Need For Speed’s most successful aspects is its car customisation, which is both deep yet easy to use. You’re given space for five cars at the beginning of the game and it’s up to you which ones you buy and customise to best represent you. From Volkswagen Golfs to Lamborghini Aventadors, there’s such a great range of cars that surely everyone will find five they adore. Once you’ve obtained a car or two you’ll be pleased to find that pretty much everything on them can be changed: the bonnet, front and back bumpers, side sils, wingmirrors – the choice is vast, which makes each visit to the garage a blast. There’s not just visual customisation either, as there are a whole host of performance upgrades too. New customisation and performance upgrades are unlocked as you complete events and level up with your rep, so there’s a steady stream of new things to check out as you progress through the game. Unfortunately, as the visual customisation has no effect in the game whatsoever other than the appearance of your car, and there are no real online features to show your creations off, it’s all rather pointless. You’ll also find that most of the high performance cars already have a great deal of enhancements equipped, meaning they have less visual and performance options available.
I have to say I’m pretty disappointed with Need For Speed – as a fan of the series I want to see it carry on and return to its former glory – but I feel that this release jeopardises that. With an extra year in the oven and a promising premise it could – and should – have been something special. Instead, what we have is a pretty solid game let down by some poor design choices, iffy performance and a strict online requirement, all held together with some well-realised video sequences. It’s certainly not a bad game – I’ve enjoyed my time spent with it on the whole and look forward to more – but in a generation where there are stellar arcade racing games available such as DriveClub and Forza Horizon 2, it’s just hard to recommend Need For Speed to anyone but die-hard racing game fans.