Need for Speed Review
A reboot not worthy of the name
The Need for Speed franchise has a long and bumpy history, from the classics like NFS III, Porsche Unleashed, and Most Wanted, to the recent disappointments like Undercover and The Run. It has even attempted to branch out into simulation racing with Shift. But, after years of annual releases, EA has seemingly decided that enough was enough. With the help of Criterion Games, the franchise got a semi-reboot and a few entries were released under the same names as previous entries (Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted). The success of these reboots was erratic, though the most recent entry NFS Rivals was an enjoyable outing. But, it seems more franchise alterations were needed.
And thus we arrive at 2015’s Need for Speed, a game that so desperately wants to reboot the whole franchise that they used the original name. Taking the wheel this time are developers at Ghost Games (majority are ex-Criterion staff), who had a longer development cycle this time. The general idea was to bring the franchise up to modern racing standards and street culture. The end result doesn’t exactly scream of a reboot – after all, NFS has always been about supercars racing in exotic locations – and the new Need for Speed is more in line with NFS Underground. And unfortunately, it’s one of the worst games in franchise’s recent history.
The narrative follows a group of friends who each specialize in a certain segment of the street racing culture – this ties into the game’s main gameplay focuses: Speed, Style, Build, Crew and Outlaw. The group is trying to get the attention of an iconic driver in each discipline, those being real world personalities of Magnus Walker, Nakai-San, Risky Devil crew, Ken Block, and Morohoshi-San. Your job, as a new driver in the city, is to help them achieve this goal.
Taking inspiration from the original Most Wanted, the game features FMV cutscenes from a first person perspective. A cool feature is that these videos often feature your own car, overlayed on top of the real video footage. It looks a bit obvious at times, but it’s a nice attempt non-the-less. The acting is also okay for the most part, on par with any B-movie, and the attempts of the group to look and sound cool doesn’t become too annoying. When it remains a light hearted, fist-bump and Monster Energy-filled take on the modern underground car culture, it can be kind of enjoyable, in a campy sort of way. But when the writers attempt to create complex relationships and fake drama later on, the whole thing begins to fall apart. The characters are cliché and the storyline isn’t very involving. If you find it too cringe worthy, many of these cutscenes can be skipped.
Like the most recent entries in the franchise, Need for Speed takes place in an open world, in the city of Ventura Bay. Inspired by Los Angeles, there is a variety of locations, from the downtown core to the large open highways on the outskirts. The world feels a bit small, but there is enough thematic variety here to make the races feel distinguishable. It’s always night time, which makes for both frustratingly limited visibility and some nice looking midnight sights. Oddly, the conditions change depending on what part of the map you’re in. So it’s always dawn on one end of the map, while the other is in eternal, wet darkness. There is very little traffic, appropriately enough, but it does make the world feel rather empty. The only side activity worth doing is collecting some free car parts; the others are just fluff like finding a vista view or performing donuts. Given that players are able to fast travel between all events and the garage, there is never even a need to drive across the city. On the whole, this is a fairly forgettable setting that lacks activities or reasons to explore.
For all the actions you do in the open world, you’ll be earning Rep points. These points increase your overall profile and unlock new parts to purchase. The points can be earned by one of five categories of action: Speed, Style, Build, Crew and Outlaw. Drive fast, earn a speed rep point multiplier; perform drifts and earn style rep points; drift in a closely packed group, and earn crew points. Combining multiple types of actions into the same sequence earns higher multiplier, thus earning you more Rep. It’s a system that’s meant to promote different ways to play the game, but at the end of the day you’re just earning experience points. There are story events (and characters) tied to each type of the five categories, but that does nothing to alter the experience. Whether you’re doing a story race for Crew or for Build character, it’s still just a race.
A source of irritation is found in the Outlaw category. To progress this particular branch of the story, you need to pull off certain daring actions involving police. But, unlike the past few games, the focus on the cops is completely diminished. They are extremely rare in the game world, and put up very little resistance. Most of the time, you’ll need to slow down and let them catch up and resume the pursuit. There’s no radio chatter or complexity, and escalation takes forever. For a while, we were stuck with an objective to break through two police roadblocks because they wouldn’t put up any, even after a 10 minute pursuit – with only one or two cops on our tail. Breaking the law in Need for Speed is about as far from a thrill as you can get, and there is nothing exhilarating about the Outlaw storyline.
You’ll be racing through the streets of the city using one of the 50 or so cars in the game. There are a few Lamborghinis, but most of the list consists of manufactures like BMW, Ford, Nissan and Porsche. Given the game’s setting and car roster, the claims of a franchise reboot feel even more dubious, as the focus is on modern street cars rather than the exotics. You can complete the game by using one of the starter cars thanks to the mechanical upgrade system, so filling your garage with cars isn’t really a goal. Plus, you’re limited to only five car slots anyway; you’ll have to sell one of your existing rides if you want something new.
The abovementioned customization is Need for Speed’s attempt to bring back the days of Underground, but it’s fairly basic. You unlock new performance parts for purchase as you level up your profile, from new tires and brakes to NOS systems. The game’s economy is balanced enough that you’re able to buy a couple of decent cars and fully tune them all just by doing story-related races as well as few optional ones. The game’s two primary event types (races and drifting) figure directly into the mechanical customization – you can tune your ride for drift-focused or grip-focused handling; or anything in between. Some parts you buy (such as tires or hand brake) don’t give you any performance boosts, but rather expand how far you can tweak the handling model in either grip or drift direction. If you want, there are options to tweak many aspects of the car individually, or just use a simpler overall setting.
But as mentioned, you can also remain competitive by simply sticking with your starter car and upgrading it all the way – the AI won’t switch to supercars until you do. The only annoyance with the upgrade system is that the game doesn’t indicate if any new parts are available to be installed, so you’re repetitively forced to scroll through every single category to see if any upgrades can be purchased.
Visual customization is the other half of the equation. But before you get excited, don’t expect a return to the days of Underground. This is more of a serious and perhaps modern take on what people do with their cars these days. No neon under-car lights to be found here. It’s mostly hoods, bumpers, spoilers, lights, body kits and so on. Overall there’s a decent amount of parts to choose from, but the issue is that most cars have very few aspects that can be tweaked. It’s not an “all parts fit any car” approach, so your creativity will be severely limited. You can change the colors and liveries to your heart’s content, but most physical changes will likely come with a caveat – too few part options for a particular car you’re using. There’s no real way to share your designs with others either (as in Forza) apart from image sharing on the Need for Speed Network social area.
With your car tuned and covered in stickers, it’s time to hit the starting line. Be sure you approach from the correct direction – apparently the game isn’t capable of starting an event if you’re facing the wrong way (despite there being a reset and cutscene anyway). Most of the events fall into standard categories – point to point, beat the clock, a single opponent or multiple, and so on; the other event types are focused on drifting specifically. The standard races are best suited for a grip tune, letting you pull 180 degree turns on the spot, in the rain. Yeah, this is still a very arcade approach to racing. The drifting events meanwhile also have a few variations – beating a specific score within a time or distance limit, or beating your competition directly. The drift events obviously recommend a car you’ve tuned accordingly, helping you score points easier and maintaining speed through the corners. Drifting isn’t particularly fun in Need for Speed; the handling model lacks the accessibility for casual fans, or the accuracy for more experienced racers. But with enough tweaking, you can probably find the balance you enjoy.
Regardless of the events you choose to undertake, you’ll have to struggle against the game’s poor AI drivers. They are poor in a sense that they have a very strong rubber band effect, on par with last year’s equally frustrating The Crew. From the very first race, they will crash and drift through corners without losing momentum, beat you on straight-aways and then slow down to let you pass them again. There is zero consistency, and you can literally manipulate the race and the AI depending on how fast you choose to drive. It means there’s no real sense of competition – you will experience easy wins because the AI slowed down on the final stretch; you will also feel complete frustration and helplessness as that same AI passes your tuned Lambo on the final corner, using a Ford. It’s pretty much the game’s killing blow when it comes to racing. Trying the same race - first with a Honda Civic and then with a Lamborghini - yields the same result; the AI uses the same supercars and sticks with you. If you let any of them get too far ahead, you might as well restart the race right away.
So perhaps you’d like to race against other people instead. Autolog is alive and well, creating dynamic recommendations for new players to meet up and leaderboards for each event. In practice however, finding willing opponents is much more difficult than it should be. Like in NFS Rivals, the game world is automatically populated with a few AI racers as well as some real people. There is never many of them, so chances are you can play the whole game and never even drive by another player. To do anything together, you’ll need to invite them into a crew, and then simply do one-off events across the game world. There’s no lobby or matchmaking that help keep the multiplayer events going, and you’ll just be doing the same things you can by yourself anyway. If you want to race a stranger, you’ll have to find them and reach them first, and then hope they accept the challenge.
The presentation is decent; the city offers some fairly immersive locations, but on the whole the night time setting makes it all a bit difficult to see clearly. The visual effect when the cops get involved is needlessly seizure-inducing. A limited soundtrack focuses mostly on techno music, with some catchy beats but also some forgettable tracks. Car engines sounds are satisfying but a bit flat. Some poor design decisions include tutorials that dim your screen too much in the middle of an activity (there is no pausing in this online-only world, regardless of what you’re doing). You get tons of calls from your crew members, about as annoying as Roman from GTA IV. So much so, that there’s even a dedicated shoulder button on the gamepad just for your cellphone.
What’s much more troublesome is the game’s technical aspects. First off, the game is needlessly always-online. That means if you lose connectivity, or EA’s servers go down for maintenance, you’ll be booted from the game - whether you were mid-race or making a new vinyl design. There is absolutely no reason for this, as the game doesn’t offer any multiplayer features that take advantage of this; on the contrary, there's nothing worse than a random player crashing into your story mode event, cops in tow. Even the simple act of buying cars and upgrades takes a moment, because the game is seemingly checking-in with the server to record your purchase. There were also cases of lost event progress or new parts not showing in the garage after you’ve quit and returned for another session – because the game must not have sent the update to the servers. It’s a needless online centric design all-around.
It’s also not a very well performing game. The Xbox One version doesn’t look particularly good – despite some nice lighting and other visual effects, the whole game is shown through a filter that blurs out the details. Given that it’s also night time and often raining, you’ll be hard pressed to make out any detail in the environments. But even with average visuals, the game suffers from constant framerate issues. Whether it’s due to poor optimization or the fact that the game is constantly communicating with EA servers to drop players in/out of your game, it’s very detrimental to the experience. The hitching and framerate problems is just another in a line of big deal breakers that a racing game must not suffer from. The game also crashed outright a couple of times.
A return to glory, this is not. Need for Speed had hoped to reboot the series (yet again) for a new generation of players, but there are far too many problems to contend with. The decent car selection and occasionally enjoyable events in the atmospheric game world is all but undone by problems with AI, technical performance, and general gameplay design. Need for Speed 2015 isn’t just a poor reboot for the whole series, it barely qualifies as a decent sequel to the Underground series of spinoff games. There’s some fun buried here beneath a mound of issues; some could be patched, but at launch, this is a difficult game to recommend.