Need For Speed has its heart in the right place. Ghost Games hopes players will rediscover the nocturnal open world of urban car culture. A return to the series roots — specifically, peak Need For Speed with 2003’s Underground — had been on the cards for a while. A break in releases has led us to here, undoubtedly the most ambitious entry in the franchise for years. Has Need For Speed been able to deliver on the promise of hardcore customisation and ruthless urban competitiveness? Definitely. Sadly, the broader experience is hurt by irritating online features, dysfunctional and frustrating AI, and childish live-action cutscenes.
Firstly, let’s talk about the good on offer here. Ghost Games has spoken in the past about an intention to return to what has always defined Need For Speed: customisation. The series has subtly shifted attention away from this in past years, and fans have been clamouring for a return to the street racing focus of Underground, and of course the heavily personalised and super accessible customisation features that made that game so great. As far as honing in on the fundamentals that made that street racer so good, Need For Speed nails it. My first car — a Ford Mustang Coupe — was my primary form of transportation for about six hours, just because I felt the obligation to customise and upgrade it to peak ability before I moved onto something else. Balancing handling of the vehicle in the garage next to the expectations of a race event is challenging (I’ll touch on that later), and there’s a good volume of performance-enhancing additions here to keep you in a constant state of upgrade.
The good news is that I had genuinely developed an affinity with my first car. There was no forcing you or pushing you to upgrade to a newer and better car, and up to a certain point, Need For Speed provides the means to get your first vehicle up to minimum requirements to compete in an event. I think this really hits at the potential success of a street racing game like this: personality, and the relationship you develop with a car. Most other races push you into building a “garage” of cars, and you may well end up switching between rides in this game, but the initial stages around the main story in Need For Speed are centered around your personal affiliation with that first car. It’s charming, and it made it tough to ditch my ‘tang once the going got tough.
This is where I think there was some design oversight, because I never wanted to ditch my car. Towards the end of the campaign my car just wasn’t up to scratch, and no matter how much I upgraded it I could never find the right balance for specific events. The game doesn’t really tell you this, and for as vocal and chatty the live-action characters are in the game, you’d think there would be some sort of trigger to tell you that maybe the car, built for a sprint, isn’t ideal for a drifting event. Obviously I could come to this conclusion by myself, but if I’m trying to create a well-rounded car and manage my handling with the type of enhancements I’m making to the vehicle, I shouldn’t need to keep returning to the garage to tune it and essentially downgrade it as a means to suit particular styles of driving. This in essence turns you away from sticking with your initial car beyond the 10-or-so hour mark, which is disappointing, not a deal breaker, but it seems counter-productive to the game’s obvious intention of building a rapport between you and your first car.
It probably won’t matter for some, though: you could easily ditch that first vehicle after your first hour on the road and upgrade then, because you earn so much and level up so quickly that you can certainly develop a relationship with another vehicle pretty soon. You might find yourself hitting the same brick walls later down the track, but the game’s fast and rewarding in a way that’ll keep you playing for hours. Events are scattered throughout the world, which you can either fast-travel to or set a way mark to drive to as a means of building up Rep Points and practicing your driving outside of the competitive circuit. The world is slick and pretty, with some truly stunning moments of beauty. It’s modelled mostly off of Los Angeles, although it’s mostly too dark to really care which city it is. Midnight Club LA still takes the cake when it comes to driving around Los Angeles in a street car, but Need For Speed is a close second. Music isn’t anywhere near as varied as I’d have hoped, but it’s mostly fitting for the setting.
I really do love travelling to and competing in event after event, although the game’s live-action cutscenes break the game up in a way I just can’t praise. The intention here is good and I appreciate that, but I never fell to like any of these characters like I thought I would, and the over-acting and cheesy dialogue never grew on me. These scenes do a little to add context to what you’re doing, but it’s mostly just for show: just assume you’re trying to make a name for yourself on the street circuit and you have the jist of what’s going on. These characters constantly call you as well, even during events (which is overkill), and rarely past the initial 40 minutes did I bother to really listen to what they were saying. It was all background noise to me, because all I wanted to do was race and drift.
Thankfully, the racing and drifting is great, but not perfect. The customisation elements give you an empowering sense of control over your vehicle, which is fantastic, but rubberbanding AI and a shocking navigation system really hinder the experience at times. Take a game like Midnight Club LA, for example: the AI was rarely if ever dumb enough to crash into a pole or wall, and if it did, so long as you stayed the course and didn’t crash yourself, you’d win comfortably. It made for an incredibly challenging (read: hard) game, but Need For Speed’s AI sometimes makes it hard to enjoy. All too often would I be blitzing the field in a sprint or race, only to see the AI come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake me. Mind you, all I’d need to do was slipstream for a second or two to pass them again, but it doesn’t quite make sense that I could get so far ahead to begin with, only for the AI to suddenly kick into another gear and make a comeback. Is this Daytona USA or a racing game in 2015? Then there’s the navigation system, which lines the street with blue lines but doesn’t indicate when a turn a coming, meaning you have to refer to your HUD to see if a turn is coming up. This blue line sometimes disappears into the distance, so crashing into walls and mistiming corners will happen often until you’ve come to memorise a particular stretch of road. If you’re going to have the line there as a guide, at least make it useful. Otherwise it’s just a distraction pretending to be helpful.
These two issues don’t quite compare to the game’s always-online functionality, however, when it comes to frustrations. For one, the first few days of play were made up of mostly being disconnected from EA’s servers. If you want to play with other people, that’s great, but combining both online and single-player is just silly. You can’t pause the game, so if you’re in the middle of an event against the AI, you have to finish the event or you risk losing any progress you’ve made. This is even if you aren’t racing against a human-controlled car. It’s ridiculous. Then if the game is left “paused” (you’re never paused, just in the menu) for long enough, you’ll get disconnected from the servers and will need to connect again just to ride by yourself. Why?
The Final Verdict
Need For Speed has so much going for it. The cars, the handling, the customisation, the visuals. Yet there’s so much in the way of these things, and the entire experience ends up as a bit of a disappointment. It really could have been so much better, but it’s intention here is to build the foundations of a special street-focused racing experience. It does offer that in patches, but silly cutscenes, smothering characters, rubber-band AI and ridiculous online connectivity get in the way all too often. If you can look beyond these factors, just as I did over long patches, there’s actually a really good racing game here.