The Need for Speed franchise, which turned 18 this year, has become older than some of the players who’ll buy it. Unfortunately, this latest reboot might not offer a convincing argument to pick it up again.
Don’t get me wrong: Need for Speed, as it’s simply called once again, offers a definite improvement over recent installments in the franchise. The graphics look distinctly better, the nighttime setting makes things moody, and car customization reappears. But some odd choices, bad A.I., and a few frustrating quirks sap some of the long-term fun from this chapter.
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You’ll spend this Need for Speed competing to raise your rating in five areas: speed, drifting/style, how many missions you do for NPCs, building up your car, and breaking the rules/evading the police.
Ghost Games developed Need for Speed for Electronic Arts. It launches tomorrow for PlayStation 4, Xbox One (reviewed here), and PC for $60.
What you’ll like
The graphics and video
All those screenshots and video you’ve seen of Need for Speed so far? They’re real. While this game doesn’t devote the lavish, overwhelmingly loving attention to car models that Forza does, the combination of car and background frequently stuns — or at least pieces of it do. In a number of scenes, I stopped to watch the reflection of trees moving in water. The trees themselves didn’t look too impressive, but their reflections dazzled.
In motion, things start to break down, and with all the water and splash effects and windshield damage and whatnot, some parts of the background begin to look blurry. You get no cockpit view in this Need for Speed, and it’s always nighttime (more on that in a second), so after a while, the graphics won’t enthrall you as much. But they definitely make up one of the most enticing features of this game. I spent a lot of time at the start just taking screenshots of cool vistas.
I did note some framerate stutter at high speeds, but was unable to reliably predict when it might happen. Sometimes many cars were with me on the road; sometimes I was alone. Sometimes it happened when players joined the game; sometimes it seemed triggered by nothing at all. In all cases, it disturbed the action.
The storyline video is full motion, campy but well-performed by actors with a self-aware smirk, and it integrates graphics (notably, your car) with those videos in an absolutely seamless way. I found myself peering at the screen at first, trying to determine whether the video was in fact computer-generated, because of the natural presence of my personalized ride. Well played, Ghost Games.
Your car’s damage models in real time, adding to the appearance but not affecting much in terms of its handling or speed. You can fix it up at any time by visiting the garage, which is a menu button away. The damage itself looks semi-realistic: steel crumples like steel, carbon fiber crumples … like steel.
The nighttime setting
The marginally fictionalized “Ventura Bay” area of Los Angeles serves as home for Need for Speed, and its layout feels surprisingly real. Hopefully you enjoy seeing it in the dark, because this game takes place between dusk and dawn. It feels like an odd choice at first, but I have to admit blazing down the I-5 highway at 200 mph wouldn’t be tremendously realistic during daylight hours.
It also rains a lot more in this fictionalized L.A. than in the real thing, apparently, because the streets are always wet. The video scenes suggest that all the action takes place in a single night, which makes the weather slightly more believable, but not the time spent, since the missions would take you far more than a single stint in the dark.
The darkness creates many opportunities for beautiful reflections, however, and after a while, it gives the city a mysterious urban vibe the real, sunny L.A. can’t match. The setting goes much further than the campy video in making you feel like you’re part of the West Coast racing underground.
The car customization
Car customization menus in Need for Speed don’t offer as many deep options as true tuning games, but those options that are available to you — typically four to five selections to start in about a dozen categories — make a big difference in how your cars drive. How much or how little you fiddle with is up to you; the game offers general sliders if you want it to make the choices for you, or specific part adjustment and replacement if you’d prefer to direct the action.
One of the five types of advancement you can do in Need for Speed is based on how much you add to your cars (in terms of parts) and how well you use tools like nitrous on the street. Leveling up in that area gives you access to more parts to add to your rides. This much customization is a good thing, since you can only have five vehicles at a time.
Customization for how your cars look reminded me a lot of Forza, though I would have liked more paint options in terms of fade and multitone. Decal options and the tools to distort and modify them were both numerous and easy to use.
Car game lovers fall into two camps: realistic drivers and arcade drivers. For the Arcade folk, Need for Speed is definitely for you. At first, I thought the handling was just horrifically awful, like some other recent arcade titles (The Crew, for example). But the addition of performance parts really did make a huge difference in how my cars hugged the road.
After that, just driving around became a lot of fun, figuring out how to whoosh by innocent vehicles inches away, do 180-degree turns with the handbrake to elude the cops down a wrong-way exit ramp, drift and donut like a madwoman, and make the windy turns up in the hills of Ventura Bay. It reminded me of some of the older Project Gotham Racing games, something like PGR4, which I’ve often thought had some of the best arcade-style driving on the virtual road. (Yes, PGR4. Don’t judge me.)
In short: If you like arcade driving and don’t like the way your car handles in Need for Speed, swap cars or swap parts until you get what you like.
What you won’t like
OK, seriously: that A.I.
Most of your contests in Need for Speed will be against other NPC driving opponents or NPC police officers. You can’t play the police this time around; they’re always there to dog your tail. Unfortunately, the A.I. controlling both sets of opponents felt far from fair. I saw cars spin out, literally get forced down a wrong side street, or lag far behind me — only to be right on my butt a moment later, passing me the second I failed at perfectly braking a turn.
Cops who were well out of sight during the cooldown from a chase (in which you have to hide while a timer runs out, based on how badly they want to catch you) suddenly determined where I was from blocks away. I passed stationary police and opponents going well over 100 mph and had them on my quarter panel moments later. And so on.
Unfair A.I. is not the same as hard A.I., where the fictional drivers are just better than you at picking lines, drafting, drifting, and controlling their vehicles. It’s far more frustrating.
I’m so far, so far away from you
Ventura Bay offers a vast network of streets and freeways, and in some ways, that makes it a truly awesome place to drive. I spent the first half hour I played the game doing nothing but circling the city, getting the feel for my little Civic and seeing just how fast I could go and the things I could see. Freeways offer truly long stretches of straightaways where you can get up to fabulous speeds, until if you strike a glancing blow on another car or object you’ll force a damage restart (which places you roughly at the same location, but at a standstill.)
But when you’re trying to find the missions — which typically pop up incredibly far from where you are — it leaves you with a few mildly frustrating choices.
You could pop there immediately, teleporting using your map. But in a free-roaming world like Need for Speed’s, that feels like cheating and a wasted opportunity. You could ask the game to plot a route on your minimap, which feels a little like James Bond asking his Aston Martin’s GPS for directions. Or you can try to find an organic route to where you need to go.
That last is nearly impossible, I discovered quickly, because it frankly doesn’t have many routes from here to there. Freeways offer the only links between some parts of the city, and it’s not immediately clear which you should take to get there if you haven’t wimped out and asked for help. So you can drive around for a half-hour trying to find a route to a mission before you break down and do the equivalent of asking Siri for a hand.
Always online, but not always for a reason
Need for Speed forces you to always link up online, and in a truly obnoxious way. You have to maintain an online connection at all times, so my solo games were interrupted repeatedly as prerelease servers went up and down and up again.
Even worse, Electronic Arts forces you to connect your Xbox account with an Origin/EA account, including providing your birth date and email address. My Xbox thinks I was born on New Year’s Day in 1930 (git offa mah lawn!), and I already have an Origin account due to game reviews, but still. I’m not a privacy nut, but even I think that’s creepy.
In addition, as I said earlier, you’ll spend a huge amount of your time working on solo missions that never involve another player — but they will always be in your game. And by “in your game,” I mean able to deliberately troll you by smashing into your car, interfering with your missions, repeatedly challenging you to races, and a host of other interruptions.
(It’s worth noting that you can challenge other cars to races if you get close enough, but not to a drag race — as far as I can tell, those don’t exist in the game at all, unless you choose to manually simulate one with a friend by challenging them to a race and then both stopping to line up.)
Sure, it was fun at first seeing other people randomly speed by in Need for Speed, pursued by a phalanx of police cars. But the realistic open-world feeling lost its luster fast when other players, seeking destruction points, cracked up the car I had just gone back to make pretty in the garage. This kind of realism I can do without.
Need for Speed strongly encourages taking screenshots and posting them publicly, because “likes” by other NFS players translate into in-game dollars for you to spend on parts. People with short friends lists better have mad photography skills or they’re out of luck.
The always-online nature also completely removes the ability to pause. Yes, you can plop yourself into your garage, which takes you out of the action. But it literally moves you to the garage, so any race you had in progress, any part of town you had laboriously driven to, are now miles away.
What to do, what to do
That long distance to your nearest mission would be less frustrating if you had more to do between locations.
The game offers static location-based missions, but not many at any given level. Unless you spot a named NPC or another gamer to challenge to a race, a cop to buzz for a chase (which turned out to be surprisingly absent, especially early in the game), or you get lucky with stumbling across a static mission that matches your driver level, you’ve got a long drive ahead with no real rewards except the occasional drifting or destruction points.
This is the other downside to Ventura Bay’s huge size; it feels really empty, when it comes to playing. At any given time, a drive of many empty miles can separate you from the nearest challenge.
The Need for Speed reboot improves upon several of the more recent installments in the game, which were plagued with problems more serious than these. But I was disappointed when my pure joy in the look and driving feel of NFS drained away over time, sucked out by boring treks across the city and one too many encounters with unfair A.I.
The high polish of the game was marred by these nagging issues, and the occasional framerate drops. The always-online requirement and fairly crass commercialism of how that policy was presented were also off-putting, and didn’t serve much purpose for most of the game.
Need for Speed offers meaningful customization, great arcade driving, a cool look, and a five-part advancement system that gives players different things to do. Unfortunately, after a while, doing those things — especially after missions become repetitive — just doesn’t provide that much fun.
Need for Speed is available November 3 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. The publisher sent GamesBeat a digital code of the game for the purposes of this review.