The Need For Speed franchise has been in constant flux in the last few years since EA decided to streamline the branding of all racers with this title. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have mostly stuck to the former Burnout developer Criterion’s titles as well as the recent Ghost Games that includes many racing title veterans. If you’ve been playing Need For Speed as long as I have, you may have noticed that lately EA is playing it safe by remaking the classics that established the franchise. At this point the new Need For Speed appears to sit somewhere between Underground and Carbon, with most of the ups and downs that came with those titles. Clearly someone on the leadership team was smitten with Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift because in truth this is the video game equivalent of that movie down to some oddly specific details. What results is best summed up in a tweet I put out over the weekend: “Need For Speed is totally like your first crazy girlfriend. The bad times are so bad you lose your mind, but the sex is amazing so you stay.”
After a fun loving joyride that results in a cop chase, you end up evading the boys in blue and a young up-and-comer named Spike (speed) takes notice of you and invites you to hang with him. From there you are introduced to Spike’s crew: party blonde Robin (crew), smooth talking drift-lover Manu (style), gearhead tuner Amy (build), leader and criminal Travis (outlaw). The parenthetical titles correlate to the type of driving and racing you will experience in the game and the five major campaigns that intersect constantly as you progress. As you may have heard or even seen yourself, the cutscenes in this game are live action, which given the nature of this title I feel are completely appropriate. The uncanny valley with actor digitization is becoming far too apparent to the point that I prefer seeing real people for a chance, especially in the world of Need For Speed where most of your gameplay is viewing the car as the person. These live action scenes allow the acting to seem more real, fluid, and it translates to the racing portions with ease. This is also apparent when you’re out on the town driving around in one of the most realistic looking games I have ever seen. At first it seemed to good to be true, especially with full day/night and weather effects, but as you play along the trick soon reveals itself. When standing still the fictional town of Ventura Bay looks blurry, cartoon-like, and fake as I can get out; but that’s just the buffer for how freaking amazing it all looks in the blur of a vehicle running triple digits in speed. The grainy palm trees that are laughably bad look picture perfect when speeding past them and Need For Speed keeps you redlining it so often that the effect completely nails it. At times people would drop into the room where I was playing and think I was watching a movie, especially with the random live action sequences. So, despite being able to see behind the curtain a bit, I doubt many players will sit still long enough to notice or care about the smoke and mirrors.
I am a meticulous completionist that likes to do things in order, so naturally I picked a campaign and planned to stick with it. In my case I went for the gearhead Amy because I loved the concept of custom parts and tweaking my car, not to mention I had a penchant for her personality. Those early moments were fantastic as I picked a starter ride (you get your choice between a Honda Civic-R hatchback, a 90 5.0 Mustang, or my choice the 2014 Subaru BRZ Premium) and set out to build it up. It doesn’t matter who you pick, it will just assist in defining what you focus on first, but mark my words you’ll have to deal with all of these factors to get past the occasional stifle in your progress I like to refer to as “the wall.” Amy’s missions were somewhat straightforward with a handful of fun missions where you do time trials, sprint runs, basic races, and to make it fun for you the game doesn’t even care how well you finish at first. The goal is just to gain money to upgrade your ride and rep (think of this as experience points) to level up your racer. Your rep is a passive and cumulative number of points that unlock different customization, parts, and abilities but doesn’t really have anything to do with game progression or abilities per se – you will of course level up faster if you are a better driver.
This is the part of the game where Need For Speed brightly shines. It’s a blast building up your initial ride into something rather impressive and you’re constantly seeing rep points build up with that pleasant pat on the back for participating. Most of these early races end in success because you only have to run it or at the most finish in the top 3 to progress, which early on is no massive task. Heck, before the game offered me a challenge at all I was easily four hours in, felt a decent connection with the crew, and had some quite thrilling races. In fact I was able to buy one of my dream cars, the 1997 Toyota Supra (more on cars later), and get to tweaking it like I wanted to in high school. It was around that time that I hit my first wall: drifting. I have never been a fan of drifting in video game racers and as the difficulty increased I found Need For Speed Underground unplayable about half way in. As expected, I was reluctant, devolving into playing all other campaigns until finally having my map full of drift challenges. I was furious, I was falling out of love with the game, and I was frustrated. Turns out all I had to do was slap on those drift tires – a very inexpensive part that I knew was available but intentionally avoided because I was foolish enough to think I could ignore drifting altogether. After using those in a handful of races I not only was blasting through drift challenges, but I was feeling very comfortable with drifting as a racing style. This was good because Amy’s campaign quickly moved into races where I had to finish in a short period of time but get enough drift points (which includes not hitting walls) to complete the mission. Even now when I use my Supra I will employ drift tires (unless it’s a sprint race or something) as my preferred method to drive. So if you hate drifting like me, hang in there and embrace it, you’ll be happy you did. My other wall came again in Amy’s campaign when suddenly I ended up in a brutal sprint race with the top end cards of the game. These cars cost over $100,000, which will take you hours to build up the scratch, but I was getting along fine with my Supra on the other campaigns and getting a bit invested in the story. Eventually I was able to purchase another dream car that was way out of the realm of possibility, the 1995 Lamborghini Diablo V12, and compete with these super cars. On the subject of cars, clearly I’ve mentioned my favorites, but there’s a good mix of modern speed and classic muscle for you to play with. While the selection leans a bit to the Fast and the Furious cascade of vehicles – notably not having a Mitsubishi Eclipse for some reason – I think most car fans will find a few favorites.
I feel it’s best now to talk about why my initial tweet talked about the bad, because when you see it in Need For Speed the frustration is acute. First of all let’s tackle the game’s AI, which must have been rushed at the end of development because Ghost’s previous title Rivals did not have this problem. The other drivers on the road are insane at times, making drastic decisions that will send you into a frenzy. Sometimes it’s a semi truck that will suddenly go from the far left lane and swerve at the last minute to exit an on-ramp only because you took that route as well. Oncoming traffic will swerve to hit you rather than stop or avoid you and of course when you’re in the flow of traffic drivers will magically come to a complete stop on the highway or block an off ramp, which would be suicide anywhere else. Your competing drivers will often drive with a perfection that can only exist with an AI only to randomly swerve into the wall when you get close and cause a pile-up. See the AI doesn’t care if it loses because it only needs one of the 5-7 drivers to beat you whereas you don’t have multiple teammates to help pave your path (something clearly overlooked when emulating Fast and the Furious). Once I even saw a car flip a 180 out of nowhere and take off in the opposite direction while in a race with me. Not only that, but the cops are also an annoyance you just don’t need. When they randomly start coming after you, no biggie, because the cops are a joke in this game; however, when they decide to suddenly jump behind you at the beginning of a drift race you now basically have a cop joining as a random stupid driver. Crashing isn’t as detrimental as it was in Rivals and there’s no health bar so you can really put your car through hell, but in a race it immediately shoots you to last place with almost no hope in tighter late races. I also didn’t understand how tapping the side of a wall resulted in a catastrophic crash some races and then just a random bump on others, so often times on late races I was just praying that my dink didn’t result in a crash to win. I played the Xbox One version and there were random hitches all the time in the game, enough to be noticeable but not to ruin it for me. That being said when it did happen during an intense race or just on the cusp of a drift, I would lose my mind because it basically meant I had to restart the race and deal with the 20-30 load time that came with it.
All of these gripes are significant, and frankly had me not wanting to move forward in the game around hour nine, but they aren’t deal breakers. They are really the point – along with the difficulty – where the casual or non-racing crowd checks out. You have to be ready to get sharp on your racing, fire a Lambo down a fully populated highway at 150 mph, and not screw up to win the hardest of the game’s races. You may have to be in a thick six car drift race with hairline lanes and keep up skillful drifts for five minutes in order to get the style attention. Even the mostly mundane cop races from most of the game become quite a bear when running that final mission, but it was all in good fun. If you’re going to succeed at this, at least for me, you’ll have to reset and re-run races again and again, some races taking me more than an hour to complete. Even if none of the late game impresses you (and the story isn’t that compelling that you’ll feel robbed not finishing), there’s a lot to enjoy in the first 8-10 hours. Couple that with the fact that you get a free 10 hours with EA Access and XB1 owners on the program should definitely give it a download and play until they get burned out. Need For Speed is all over the place, but in the least it’s a robust title that will take 15-20 hours to get through the main campaigns and there’s still a decent amount of game to play beyond that. Post campaign (and that is assuming you conquer all five, unlike me) you can go collect the 30 donuts, 30 viewpoints, 12 free parts, and a ton of random races for your enjoyment. Your world is also populated with random racers for you to take head on or get in your way while running a race, but participation as a whole is quite light from my experience and I always had a full city of online racers. In the end this game is just fun to run around in with your ideal car and some rap or techno song you don’t know pumping in the background. You will want to throw your controller when it ramps up difficulty or throws you a new random challenge, especially when you are forced to play a car you didn’t build or want, but when you overcome the challenge it feels so damn good. While not quite a balanced experience, it’s a fun racer that switches the formula up and makes a solid case for live action cutscenes.
Final Score: 3 out of 5
This game was played with a conjunction of time with the closed beta, pre-release EA Access demo, and eventual purchase. No review copy was provided. It was played for approximately 15 hours and not all campaigns were completed. Need For Speed is available on Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Origin (PC) for $59.99.