Need for Speed – Review

Title   Need for Speed
Developer  Ghost Games
Publisher  EA
Platform  PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Genre  Racing
Release Date  November 5, 2015

Quick, someone call the team at Ghost and let them know that their graphic designer made a huge error – there’s no colon or subtitle in this latest Need for Speed release.  We’re not Most Wanted, there’s no Shift involved, and nobody is being Unleashed.  This is just Need for Speed, pure and simple.  It’s being considered a ‘franchise reboot’, so first impressions are going to make all the difference here.  When you first kick things off, there’s bound to be a certain uneasiness for those who prefer to play on their own or with select friends, as you’re immediately told that you’re connecting to the EA servers and that they’re trying to find a game for you to join.  It’s annoying as hell.  It’s an odd way to get started, given that there’s a story mode attached to it and one would expect that it’ll be necessary to progress through a certain chunk of the story before being able to buy or customise cars, but more on this later.

You start off by being greeted by a guy called Spike.  He’s all about the speed, which his on-edge and jerky nature further reinforces, and takes you to meet a couple of his street-racing-enthusiast friends.  Before you know it, in some bizarre twist of “we really need you to be part of a crew, so we’re just going ahead with this” logic, everyone is your best friend and loves to hang out with you.  So much so, in fact, that you can’t turn on your ignition without one of them bugging you with a telephone call to ask what you’re up to and to suggest that you meet them to tear up the streets.  Accepting their call is as simple as hitting the left shoulder button, but it’s still jarring when you consider that it can be quite relentless at times.

Another distraction, at least early on in the game, is that objective notifications and gameplay hints pop up when you least expect them.  They do so right in the middle of the screen.  And the screen gets covered by what looks like a 50-60% opaque wash of black.  Not only that, but the gameplay continues beneath, so there’s no quick pause to let you read whatever’s popped up before dropping you back into the action seamlessly, like you’d find in other titles.  Instead, you have to either stop (not ideal when you’ve just started a race), keep going (not ideal when you’ve just started a race), or immediately dismiss the message (not great when… when you actually could do with knowing what they’ve just told you).  It’s a pretty major design flaw, but one which stops happening quite early on – it’s basically a seriously intrusive tutorial mode.

While the cut scenes are impressively shot, in one continuous take, they’re actually entirely unnecessary.  The British actors do a half-decent job of their American accents, but you can still tell that they’re being put on, yet the greatest issue is how unrealistic it all is.  You’ve not known these people for any more than a few hours, yet they’re trusting you with so much inside information and underground contacts without any sort of vetting or introduction.  It’s just odd.  There’s a real awkwardness with the whole thing where they’re trying to be super-friendly with you, even though you don’t respond, and the constant eye contact makes it feel a little odd as nobody in the real world would talk to their friend while looking at you.  I suppose it goes back to the old theatrical method of addressing the audience, but it doesn’t work.  We could do without all the theatrics, to be honest.

Setting aside all the unnecessaries, Need for Speed can be broken down into six main challenge categories – Speed, Drift, Style, Build(?), Destruction, and Special.  Progressing through the story mode involves random phone calls and meetings with the various street-crew personnel.  The dungaree-clad Amy is all about tuning and upgrades, so whenever she ropes you in to a race you know that you need to impress with fast acceleration, bursts of nitrous and, of course, beating her to the finish line.  Manu (he’s too big for me to say anything negative about) prefers style over substance, so his challenges will invariably involve handbrake turns, tearing around corners in built-up areas at high speed, and getting a bit of air here and there.  Robyn, who needs to get a smaller t-shirt, loves to drift, so whenever she calls you know that you need to be prepared to use your handbrake on practically every corner without hitting anyone or anything.  Spike’s only real concern is getting from A to B in the shortest possible time but his races tend to be open enough that you can incorporate all of the other play styles into his challenges for a bit of variation.

Then there’s Outlaw.  He doesn’t call as often as the rest of them, but that’s because (unless you’re either a really bad driver, or a really great one) you won’t naturally fulfil his objectives.  They tend to involve destroying everything around you – phone booths, bus stops, lamp posts, bins, post boxes… anything, really – and getting the cops as riled up as possible by smashing into them or generally just pissing them off.  When the objective of most challenges is to come first, the last thing you care about is destroying council property and so Outlaw’s points don’t build up quite as easily as the others.  Every now and again, a Special challenge will appear where you need to meet with one of your new-found crew and take down one of the local legends by playing them at their own game.

Customisation in this particular Need for Speed is much more involved than with prior releases,with a huge array of after-market parts available in twenty-one different areas: air filter, brakes, cam shaft, clutch, cooling system, cylinder heads, differential, electrical system, engine block, ECU, exhaust manifold, exhaust system, forced induction, fuel system, handbrake, ignition, intake manifold, nitrous system, suspension, sway bars, and tyres.  Each item unlocked (either by levelling up or by completing street-crew challenges) will affect top speed, horsepower, torque, and acceleration either negatively or positively, depending on tuning and other installed components.

Levelling up takes place whenever a certain amount of reputation points, or RP, is gained.  While challenges and events will give you a breakdown of all RP earned at the end, you also collect RP by driving around in free-roam mode, depending on what you’ve been doing.  RP is split into five separate earning potentials – speed, style, build, crew, and outlaw – but is applied to your ranking as a single score.  Certain after-market parts unlock as you level, but others will only become available after playing through certain challenges set by Amy and her friends.  If you’re up for a grind, however, raising your level through free roam isn’t very tough at all as long as you keep things interesting – accelerate as quickly as you can, use your handbrake on practically every corner, smash into as many things as you can, and if you see anything that can give you some air, take it.  The more you do in the shortest amount of time, the more the multiplier kicks in so if you need just a fraction to get you to another level, it’s always quicker to dart up and down a single alley a few times than it would be to find an event to complete.

Moving up the vehicular ladder can be daunting at first, with the rides ranging from just $8k up to almost $200k, and when you consider that most of your events early on will offer nothing more than just $2k or $4k for completing them if you come first or beat the target score, that Ferrari can easily seem a distant dream.  If you treat your vehicles like you would property, however, everything changes.  Pimp your existing ride with whatever money you have and you can sell your car for a considerable profit, allowing you to buy a much more expensive one.  Do the same with that, and you’ll see yourself at the top of the ladder in no time.  In fact, my entire career in Need for Speed involves only three cars – the Subaru they started me off with, a gorgeous Corvette (which I still miss, admittedly) and finally the Lamborghini Murcielago that I’d had my eye on since first flicking through the list of rides.

Graphically, damn.  There’s some seriously inspired shit going on under the hood here where Amy and her homies will be wandering around the garage and your car(s) will be there.  I mean your exact cars.  Whatever decals and colour schemes you’ve gone for, that’s what you’ll see.  Sure, we’ve come a long way in terms of CG where someone once convinced us that dinosaurs had been brought back from the dead and that Robert Patrick was actually made of mercury, but this is the first time I’ve seen this level of complexity rendered in real-time in-game.  Not only that, but the realism of Ventura Bay itself can be stunning in places.  Sure, there’s still that limitation of the consoles where there’s no anisotropic filtering and you don’t have the level of antialiasing that you would on PC, but that rain… it looks real where it sits on the road; where it drips off the back of your car while you’re sitting around, and while it bounces off your bodywork and windscreen while you’re driving.

A hell of a lot of effort has gone into making this particular Need for Speed more immersive than the likes of Hot Pursuit, which looked great but didn’t really have much variation in terms of vistas and ambience.  It may mostly be raining in Ventura Bay, and the transition between daylight and darkness last a mere few seconds (literally), but you’re so caught up in everything that you’re doing that it takes a while to notice how odd that actually is.  And when you see Amy or Travis walk past your own car in the garage like it had truly been there during filming, that’s a level of immersiveness that I needed.

I mentioned at the start that I’d cover the multiplayer aspect a little more, and it was just to say that it’s actually very easy to hate everything about Need for Speed when you first start playing.  The notifications are beyond distracting, the cut scenes are superfluous and annoying, the fact that you’re immediately their best friend is beyond unrealistic, and constantly being forced to play with randoms when you just want to hang out on your own or with mates is one of those inconveniences that modern games tend to thrust upon you.  It’s all so unnecessary, and the game would likely be so much better without it.

However, and this is important, the notifications soon vanish.  The fact that these strangers are suddenly your besties very quickly takes a back seat, so to speak.  The randoms genuinely never get in your way and get lost among the few AI racers in-game anyway, and when you’re playing with someone on your crew they can be pulled in to whichever events you jump into, so there’s still a strong sense of camaraderie.  The fact that I almost ditched Need for Speed entirely very early on is quite scary when I think about it now, as it’s by far the best racing game I’ve played since the fantastic Burnout Paradise.  As far as arcade racing is concerned, it goes beneath the surface foam of Burnout by introducing so much personal customisation, both in terms of parts and actual design.  The ability to tune your vehicle to your particular style of driving means that it’s not a standard arcade racer – you can use a ridiculous amount of drift, or you could go with a more considered road-hugging beast.

If you’d asked me a week ago whether I thought Need for Speed was a good game, I’d have ranted about everything I hated.  Ask me now, and I’ll offer full disclosure and admit that I hated it at first but, much like Dream Theater’s Scenes from a Memory CD, the hatred was short-lived.  If I could sum up how enjoyable Need for Speed is in just one sentence, it’d be this: I have waited seven years to play Fallout 4, and yet every night I allow my quests to stagnate while I tear around Ventura Bay in my Lambo.  The Boston Commonwealth can wait, as Amy won’t stop calling me and I’ve got leaderboards to tackle.

  • Looks great
  • Handles well
  • Aftermarket parts galore
  • Excellent customisation options
  • Very easy to play with crew and ignore other players
  • Not too difficult to get the best vehicles
  • The cut scenes are unnecessary, and can be quite jarring
  • No superjumps, barrel rolls, or flat spins, dammit
  • No custom decal creator, sadly
  • Being forced to play with randoms shouldn't be a thing

There are racing games, and then there are arcade racing games. Those who want hyper realism and tweaking will head towards one camp while those who just want to drive and have fun will go the other way. Ghost Games' reboot of the Need for Speed franchise does its best to bridge this divide by offering arcade-style gameplay with the option of tweaking and tuning the hell out of your car, and pimping it up with all sorts of visual customisations.

The inclusion of story mode isn't a bad thing, as we've had it in the Need for Speed stable before, but there are too many things within this particular style of narrative that jar. You're accepted by strangers immediately, they won't leave you alone, and for such an underground society they're ridiculously open about everything. That said, once you overlook all this (or accept it for what it is, as it's still well acted by all involved) and get down to the nitty gritty, Need for Speed is the type of racing game where you could quite happily tackle the same events dozens of times to improve your performance, without losing any of the thrill.

If you want the ease-of-control of Burnout Paradise with the customisation and tweaking of the likes of Forza, than you may not go far wrong with Need for Speed.

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