What are the best Need for Speed games? As racing game fans, it’s a question we often ask ourselves.
It’s no secret that the Need for Speed series has had its ups and downs over the years. While the first Need for Speed was a racing game with serious handling (at the time, anyway), newer iterations have been happy with simply providing spectacle. But one thing has pretty much remained constant throughout though: exhilarating police chases.
With 2017’s Need for Speed Payback being one of the lows for the series, we’re glad that 2019’s Need for Speed Heat was a marked improvement. And Need for Speed Unbound, release just last year, was similarly a step up, too. Now we’re hoping that the next entry in the series goes even further to put it back in the spotlight, especially with Criterion at the helm.
Until then, however, lets look back at the best Need for Speed games of all time. These games are why we love the series, and want it to return to its former glory.
1. The Need for Speed
Year of release: 1994
Formats: 3DO, PC (1995), PlayStation (1996), Saturn (1996)
Upon its release in 1994, The Need for Speed was a revelation.
Its visuals were amazing, its sound design was equally as good, and working with Road & Track, EA tried to make each car handle as realistically as possible. Needless to say it was a hit.
Featuring both circuit and point-to-point races, players had to avoid traffic while speeding to beat their opponents. And police pursuits played their part, too. The icing on the cake was detailed information about each real-life car present in the game, including videos.
You wouldn’t want to play it today, but in 1994, The Need for Speed was the game for car fans.
2. Need for Speed: High Stakes / Road Challenge
Year of release: 1999
Formats: PlayStation, PC
The fourth Need for Speed game, Need for Speed: High Stakes – also known as Need for Speed: Road Challenge in some territories – is notable for the host of new features and modes it brought to the series.
Vehicle damage and customisation were just two of the new features added, and on the mode front there was a new career to go at. The most interesting of the new modes was High Stakes though, in which players could bet their cars in duels.
While the game was released on both the original PlayStation and PC fairly close to each other, they had some pretty notable differences. The PlayStation version inexplicably looked better than the PC version for one, and also had better physics. Some modes that were in the PlayStation version weren’t in the PC version, either.
3. Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed / Porsche 2000
Year of release: 2000
Formats: PlayStation, PC, GBA (2004)
Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed, known as Need for Speed: Porsche 2000 in Europe, was a Need for Speed game that unsurprisingly only featured Porsches.
It featured a wide range of Porsche models released between 1950 and 2000, and they could be driven on picturesque tracks that really did look great at the time. Though they didn’t look as good as the cars, which were meticulously detailed.
Like High Stakes / Road Challenge, the PlayStation version of Porsche Unleashed / Porsche 2000 was pretty different from its PC counterpart. While the PC version was said to have the most realistic handling of any Need for Speed game upon its release, the handling for the PlayStation version was very arcadey.
4. Need for Speed: Underground 2
Year of release: 2004
Formats: PS2, PSP (2005), Xbox, Gamecube, GBA, Nintendo DS (2005), PC
No doubt inspired by the success of 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, the Need for Speed series truly took the action to the streets in 2003 with Need for Speed: Underground. Though it was Underground 2, released the following year, that really had the most impact on the future of the series.
With all events taking place at night, Need for Speed: Underground 2 continued the story that its predecessor started. What really captured players imaginations, though, was the emphasis placed on car customisation. To progress through Underground 2‘s career, you needed to not only tune what was under your car’s hood, but also make it visually appealing, too.
More importantly, Underground 2 was the first Need for Speed game to feature an open world. No longer did you just select events from a menu – you had to actually drive to them. Since then, the majority of Need for Speed games released have also featured open worlds.
5. Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Year of release: 2005
Formats: PS2, PSP, Xbox, Xbox 360, Gamecube, GBA, Nintendo DS, PC
One of the first games released on Xbox 360, Need for Speed: Most Wanted was a success both critically and commercially.
Like Need for Speed: Underground, Most Wanted had a story. It also had cosmetic car customisation, although there weren’t quite as many options available. But Most Wanted took place during daylight, letting you see more detail in its open world. And while the Underground games were devoid of police chases, they were back with a vengeance in Most Wanted.
Challenging you to take down the 15 racers that were on your blacklist, everything just came together to make Most Wanted the most captivating and exciting Need for Speed there had been. Some might even argue that Most Wanted is the best Need for Speed game ever made.
6. Need for Speed: Carbon
Year of release: 2006
Formats: PS2, PS3, PSP, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii, Gamecube, GBA, Nintendo DS, PC
Following on the story from Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Need for Speed: Carbon plunged players back into darkness again.
Taking down racing crews is what Carbon was all about, and to do that you needed to build your own. But having a crew did have benefits – you could call them to assist you during races, or get them to provide useful support when trying to evade the police. Although police pursuits were toned down compared to Most Wanted.
The best thing about Carbon, however, was its Canyon Duels. Challenging players to keep up with their opponent in order to score points, those who gained the lead and stayed there for ten seconds automatically won the event. These battles, due to the narrow and bendy nature of the tracks, proved to be tense.
7. Need for Speed: SHIFT
Year of release: 2009
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360, PSP, PC
A huge departure for the Need for Speed series, Need for Speed: SHIFT took the action to the track, and it was serious.
Street racing was out, replaced by pure racing action. Instead of being rewarded for outrunning the police, you were being rewarded for taking the perfect racing line through corners. And while SHIFT didn’t feel like a Need for Speed game, it was still pretty damn good.
Developed by Slightly Mad Studios, which has since delivered two Project CARS games, Need for Speed: SHIFT was a success because its racing felt authentic. Even now, years after release, few games have managed to capture the on-track feel that it delivered.
8. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
Year of release: 2010
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PC
After SHIFT, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit returned the series somewhat back to its roots.
There was no open world, and car customisation was thrown out of the window. Hot Pursuit was all about racing fast cars in stunning locales, often while outrunning the police. And you could also play as the police in Hot Pursuit, employing numerous tools to bring down racers before they could cross the finish line. It was glorious.
Developed by Criterion Games, the same company behind Burnout, Hot Pursuit was visceral. The handling was weighty and there was a real sense of impact when battling it out with other cars. For all these reasons and more, it is undoubtedly one of the best Need for Speed games ever made.
9. Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Year of release: 2012
Formats: PS3, PS Vita, Xbox 360, PC
No, it’s not a mistake. There are indeed two Need for Speed games with the suffix Most Wanted. And they both feature open worlds. While the Most Wanted released in 2005 was developed by EA Black Box, however, 2012’s Most Wanted was developed by Criterion Games.
Criterion Games’ Most Wanted differed from EA Black Box’s in many ways though. Only 10 cars were on the blacklist for one, and there was no story as you went about taking them down. Also, most of the game’s cars were available to you from the outset, with a few hidden in the world for you to unlock for good measure. And there was no visual customisation whatsoever. Only performance upgrades were available.
Despite being pretty different to 2005’s Most Wanted, it was still a great game. It felt a bit like Burnout Paradise that was released four years earlier, but its racing was more exciting and its world more interesting. Multiplayer is where the game really excelled though. Thanks to Autolog, which was introduced in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted was one of the best entries in the Need for Speed fans for those who like to play with others online.
10. Need for Speed Rivals
Year of release: 2013
Formats: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Developed by Ghost games in collaboration with Criterion Games, Need for Speed Rivals let players take on the roles of either a racer or a cop, essentially providing two careers to play through.
New features included dynamic weather, online co-op, and the ability to purchase a number of ‘Pursuit Tech’ gadgets. But what really set it apart from its predecessors was its focus on risk versus reward.
With a number of safe zones spread across the game’s open world, the more events you completed in succession the more points you could score. Wrecking your car before returning to a safe zone, however, resulting in you losing them. And so with that, a relatively simple racing game was made all the more interesting, with players competing to see just who could rack up the most points. There have been numerous Need for Speed games since, but Need for Speed Rivals was the last that we fully enjoyed.