Need For Speed

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

The Need For Speed se­ries has had many pre­vi­ous own­ers, not all care­ful. Pioneer Pro­duc­tions had the first set of keys, de­liv­er­ing the se­ries’ 1994 de­but on 3DO. But since then the chas­sis has changed hands many times, body pan­els beaten into what­ever shape suits, be it the street rac­ing of EA Black Box’s Un­der­ground, Slightly Mad’s track-day at­mos­phere in Shift or Cri­te­rion’s nods to its own Burnout se­ries. Ghost Games sees its sec­ond turn at the wheel, af­ter 2013’s Ri­vals, as a re­boot that co­heres all those dis­parate threads into a de­fin­i­tive Need For Speed offering. Yet its game doesn’t so much merge the se­ries’ many facets as reimag­ine Un­der­ground for HD con­soles.

So Need For Speed of­fers up a va­ri­ety of rac­ing, drift­ing and time-trial events – but dis­penses with dull drag chal­lenges in favour of gymkhana show­boat­ing – all within the bound­aries of Ven­tura Bay. It’s a sin­u­ous LA-in­spired city locked in per­pet­ual nighttime and bathed in a sickly ur­ban glow. The var­i­ous events are di­vided into five cat­e­gories (Speed, Style, Build, Crew and Out­law) each rep­re­sent­ing its own pro­gres­sion path that opens par­tic­u­lar up­grades, spe­cial cars and, of course, harder chal­lenges.

Speed and Style cover off ba­sic rac­ing, time tri­als, drift and gymkhana meets, while Build events place a fo­cus on tweak­ing your car’s per­for­mance – events are the same, but gen­tly en­cour­age you to up the out­put of your stock en­gine. Crew and Out­law mis­sions ex­ist at the so­cial and so­cio­pathic ex­tremes of the petrol­head spec­trum, the for­mer em­broil­ing you in Drift Train and touge events that re­quire you to stay close to oth­ers in or­der to score points, the lat­ter all about toy­ing with the city’s law en­force­ment. The more Out­law mis­sions you play, the harder the po­lice are to shake off.

Whether you favour a par­tic­u­lar thread, or want to work your way through all five si­mul­ta­ne­ously, you’ll re­ceive event in­vites from a group of street rac­ers, who have each thrown their lot in with a dis­ci­pline. Your crew are a needy lot, bom­bard­ing you with phone calls even when you’re driv­ing in the same event, and of­ten em­broil­ing you in awk­ward group chats in which their not-par­tic­u­larly-com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships play out. You can choose to ig­nore calls, though, and they’ll get back in touch at a later date or leave a mes­sage on your phone (which you can bring up at any time with a but­ton press), and ei­ther form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion drops a new mis­sion marker on the map. The Out­law events, how­ever, are buried in texts, mean­ing that you have to seek them out your­self and can there­fore min­imise po­lice chases if you’d rather fo­cus else­where.

The story is por­trayed by real ac­tors in cutscenes that adeptly blend ren­dered cars and en­vi­ron­ments with live ac­tion (though not as seam­lessly as the game’s E3 de­but sug­gested) in a lingo-soaked, fist-bump-heavy plot that des­per­ately wants to be much cooler than it is. The se­quences ring false but are cheesily en­ter­tain­ing, and add a wel­come hu­man el­e­ment to your pro­gres­sion. Progress far enough and you’ll start to meet real driv­ing stars, too, in­clud­ing rally driver Ken Block and the Chicago-based street-rac­ing col­lec­tive Risky Devil. It’s silly fun, and there is a buzz in hav­ing real driv­ers com­pli­ment you on your dig­i­tal per­for­mance – even if their tal­ent in front of the cam­era mostly doesn’t jus­tify a re­turned en­dorse­ment. If only the driv­ing was as cam­ply en­joy­able. Need For Speed of­fers up an in-depth tun­ing sys­tem that lets you eas­ily ad­just any ve­hi­cle’s ca­pac­ity to go side­ways or stick. But no mat­ter where those slid­ers come to rest, Need For Speed’s cars feel lumpen and aloof, con­form­ing to a heav­ily pre­scribed physics model that means driv­ing never feels or­ganic. Your hand­brake’s strength can be ad­justed, for ex­am­ple, but do­ing so sim­ply changes how many frac­tions of a sec­ond it takes for the car to lurch to the same 45-de­gree an­gle when you yank it – a help­ing hand pre­sum­ably in­tended to ease pro­gres­sion into drifts but which re­sults in a Scalex­tri­cesque ab­sence of nu­ance. Things im­prove if you rely on ex­cess torque and foot-brak­ing, but get­ting a car to drift flu­idly and pre­dictably of­ten feels like work, and there­fore rarely as much fun as it should be.

This sense of heavy-handed de­signer in­flu­ence is fur­ther un­der­scored in the odd sen­sa­tion of rid­ing on an invisible set of rails when you crest the stunt ramps dot­ted spo­rad­i­cally around the city, and the ag­gres­sive, op­po­nent-favour­ing rub­ber­band­ing, which en­sures the only sur­prises you’re likely to en­counter dur­ing events will be down to the AI’s fre­quent stu­pid­ity – we reg­u­larly wit­nessed cars driv­ing the wrong way around routes, get­ting stuck on scenery, and vi­o­lently ig­nor­ing our pres­ence. Your crew might ex­hibit ex­ag­ger­ated per­son­al­i­ties in cutscenes, but none of that is trans­lated to the track. At least you can suf­fer in com­pany, with up to seven other play­ers in the world, invit­ing lo­cal driv­ers and your crew to events, or drop­ping the gaunt­let for an on-the-spot race or drift­ing chal­lenge. Even this feels a lit­tle un­nat­u­ral, since ma­noeu­vring to a po­si­tion that gets the right prompt to dis­play is need­lessly fussy.

There are far more con­fi­dent touches, not least in the pow­er­ful car de­cal ed­i­tor and a dy­namic cam­era that twists and zooms dur­ing drifts, but they’re un­der­mined by a litany of de­sign mis­steps that ran­kle in iso­la­tion and fatigue as a whole. Why, for ex­am­ple, must we come to nearly a full stop and be fac­ing the right way to trig­ger an event when most be­gin with a rolling start cutscene and a track re­set? And why can’t we fast travel to fel­low play­ers’ po­si­tions on the map? Need For Speed is a dis­ap­point­ing fol­low-up to the flawed but big­hearted Ri­vals, and while it’s billed as a fresh start for the se­ries, it feels more like a false one.

Cars feel aloof, con­form­ing to a heav­ily pre­scribed physics model that means driv­ing never feels or­ganic

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