Need for Speed is one of the most iconic and revered names in all of video games, but even icons need to adapt and innovate from time to time. After skipping 2014, developer Ghost Games has worked to bring the legendary racing series into a new generation, one that revolves around multiplayer-dominated online play. The reboot that launched just this week requires an online connection to play (which has its drawbacks and I’ll get to those in a minute) and features a somewhat barebones and largely clichéd storyline. But the technical achievement is nothing to sneeze at, the multiplayer is great for racing fanatics, and the accessibility is a big bonus.
This city is just brimming with sharp visuals and fantastic driving effects, so you needn’t worry about a lackluster presentation. You really start to feel as if you’re zipping through a movie set, with excellent lighting and shading and effects that would satisfy even the most demanding action movie director. The streets shine with the remnants of a recent rainstorm, the cars are meticulously designed and detailed, and when flying along at breakneck speed, the visuals don’t skip a beat. There are a few minor instances of lowered frame rate but it’s nothing to get in a twist about. Above all, this really looks like a next-gen NFS experience, from the large and vibrant world to the TLC given to each and every vehicle.
The sound is great, too. I’ve always thought Burnout was top dog in the racing audio category, but the latest Need for Speed is chock full of gut-wrenching crunches, anxiety-causing scrapes, and throaty engine growls. When you combine the effective – and somewhat realistic – exhaust sounds from your favorite ride with the rest of your environment, which crackles with ceaseless energy, you’ve got audio that’ll make your headphones happy. I’m not the biggest fan of the soundtrack, though, and the voice performances range from mediocre to merely decent. Still, if we’re being optimistic, it’s clear that Ghost Games spent a fair amount of time in building this racer paradise, but perhaps they should’ve spent a bit more time fleshing out the gameplay…
Need for Speed has undergone a variety of transformations over the years. This time, the franchise has gone the underground street racing route, perfect for “Fast and Furious” fans and those who love the illicit danger, the idea of flaunting convention and thumbing one’s nose at authority. In order to capture this atmosphere, the team opted for a series of live-action cut-scenes featuring real-life drivers and a cast of decidedly rambunctious characters. When I first heard about this approach, I thought it was a good plan but one riddled with potential holes: Could we really get a compelling narrative within a racing game? Does such a feature really add to the experience? Will such scenes feel like they “fit,” or will they feel tacked-on and somewhat unnecessary? I hesitated to hope.
As it turns out, the result is pretty much what I expected. While Ventura Bay is a super slick atmosphere and I love the city and everything about the presentation, it’s hard to fall in love with a lame plot and formulaic characters. The dialogue is just plain bad, the acting is barely passable, and it’s difficult to grow attached to a cast that you only see for a half-minute at a time. The biggest issue facing this script is that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I mean, where’s the conflict? There’s no hero or villain, per se, and none of these characters really exude a special kind of charisma or style. I just sat and watched each scene with a wry grin and a shrug of the shoulders; it did little to involve me and while I appreciated the attempt, the end result feels contrived and uninteresting.
But this is a racing game. I can’t go telling people not to play it because the campaign doesn’t really deliver the solid story goods, right? And besides, you spend the overwhelming majority of your time on the streets, so gameplay certainly takes center-stage throughout. This is where NFS really shines, too: You have the freedom to tackle any event just about any time you wish, which lends the adventure a laid-back feel, which is perfect for the casual crowd (and me, as I don’t qualify as an avid racing fanatic). It’s not GTA out there; there aren’t a ton of civilian cars driving around that you have to avoid, and the cops aren’t on your ass at all times. Your goal is to win races, unlock better cars, and customize to your heart’s content, just like in any good racer.
There are lots of cosmetic options that can turn your car into a veritable feast for the eyes and while the mechanical upgrades aren’t quite as robust, they’re certainly effective. Various engine, suspension, ignition and exhaust upgrades have a significant and immediate impact, and don’t forget about the 16 different sliders that allow you to fine-tune the experience even further. We’re starting to see this slider depth and intricacy in all sports-related games these days and I love it, because it means just about anyone can enjoy a game. Even if it sets out to be a simulator, like Madden , you can alter those sliders and turn it into a full-fledged arcade-y riot (well, with the added authenticity of realistic physics and crazy in-depth off-the-field practices).
So, it’s certainly true that the latest NFS entry can cater to a wide variety of gamers, from the hardcore racers to the casual crowd. And above all else, the control is accessible and reliable; it’s hardly Gran Turismo or Forza out there, but there is at least some semblance of authenticity in how each car performs. Over the years, this franchise has flirted with simulated elements but has always retained its arcade-style roots, and that’s precisely what you get with this reboot. The cars really do aspire to their real-life counterparts when on the streets but there’s a welcoming flexibility that most gamers will appreciate. And as for the customizations, you needn’t be a confirmed gearhead to succeed in this particular aspect, because the upgrades aren’t that detailed and the game tells you precisely what each enhancement does.
Unfortunately, there are some problems that really hinder one’s enjoyment. For instance, if there’s one thing I absolutely cannot stand in racing games it’s rubber-band AI. It was pretty much the only reason I couldn’t deal with Burnout for extended stretches of time and it’s awfully pronounced here. I understand its purpose; it’s to keep competition high at all times, thereby supposedly increasing the tension. However, it also diminishes the importance of performance, which is something I can’t abide – in video games or real life – and as such, it drives me nuts when opponents that should be miles behind are nipping at my heels. And no, I don’t think it’s a fair trade-off to say I can play catch-up if I mess up; I messed up and I should be punished for that.
Then there’s the navigation system during a race, which doesn’t work well enough. You’re forced to constantly check your mini-map for those blue arrow prompts and frankly, this has been handled much better by other racing games in the past. I’m also not a fan of the fact that it’s almost always night, as this greatly limits visibility, another pet peeve of mine. My final pet peeve – and as you can see, this game has hit my pet peeve trifecta – is one that requires you to be online. I get that most gamers today are automatically connected when they start to play, myself included. But when EA servers drop you, you’re kinda screwed, aren’t you? I understand that the “social” element is essential but if it’s no big deal being connected, why make it a requirement? At least give us the option.
If you can overlook these drawbacks, however, you will end up with an awesome garage filled with totally tricked-out rides. And in the end, all racing fans want this. The city always beckons and despite the fact that Ghost Games could’ve implemented more events (there are nearly 80 but they go by very quickly), the multiplayer is always a draw and the races are always fun and highly competitive. Yeah, the stupid rubber-band AI forces them to be more competitive than they should be, but that doesn’t cripple the fun factor. Challenging your friends and coming out on top is always a thrill, and giving the police the slip or simply outmaneuvering the field in one of your favorite cars never gets old. It’s just too bad that the story doesn’t really do anything for the game, and there are some significant issues that plague the gameplay.
Need for Speed is a fun, accessible racer that’s both aesthetically impressive and technically stable. The always-online requirement means server problems can affect your game and oh yeah, you can’t pause, either. I’m sorry but it just wasn’t necessary. The story is sort of a joke and there isn’t quite enough content in my estimation, but the actual racing is still extremely solid and enjoyable. Rubber-band AI can’t destroy the fun factor and growing your garage of sweet cars is extremely satisfying. The customization feels just about right for this kind of game, fighting your friends for first place is intoxicating, the city is well-designed and very attractive, and the production values are suitably high. It’s just not quite the complete package in this insanely competitive next-gen market, that’s all.
The Good: Fantastic visual style and presentation. Audio excellence in regards to vehicle sound and racing effects. Accessible and responsive controls. Cool progression system and satisfying cosmetic and mechanical upgrades. Sense of speed is pretty great. Playing with/against friends is a huge highlight.
The Bad: Mediocre acting and dull storyline. Rubber-band AI is far too pronounced. Always online requirement does have its drawbacks. Not quite enough content overall.
The Ugly: “Five seconds. That’s how long it took you to get back on my ass after you fu***** crashed. Awesome.”