Need For Speed
PC, PS4, Xbox One
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