The Need for Speed franchise has been a lot of things to a lot of different audiences over the years. But with such a large back catalogue comes bloat and mis-steps as the well of new ideas goes dry. With the back-to-basics reboot Need for Speed, the series is given the chance to head in some much-needed new directions. Sadly, even with a completely clean slate, Need for Speed still doesn’t seem to know which direction to head in first.
For a start, we’re presented with the same open-world, drive-here-to-start-the-next-race foundation that has been a near-constant in the series since Need for Speed Underground 2 (a game for which developers Ghost Games obviously have a lot of love). Ventura City is certainly large and littered with the sort of backdrops you could expect from a map of this size – urban, industrial and commercial districts along with some winding countryside on the outer edges for the drift fanatics – but none of is particularly memorable. You’ll often see the same bits of the city again and again in different events and before long you find yourself getting a little over the repetitive scenery.
Similarly, the topography of the city is quite bland – it feels like there isn’t much to do off outside of the actual racing. This sticks out because Need for Speed takes any number of design cues from previous developer Criterion (Burnout, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit), and the lack of jumps and billboards to ruin leaves the city feeling a bit empty. That’s not to say there’s nothing to do on the side – there’s a few minuscule jumps, a handful of rather uninteresting collectibles and a shortcut or two to find, but none of it made me want to get to know Ventura City any better.
There’s a substantial online component to the racing in Need for Speed. The world map will be filled with other drivers, both human players and AI-controlled, all of whom can be challenged to whatever type of race you like at any time. If you’re feeling especially social, you can put together a crew of players and attempt daily events to earn rep and level up. A good idea in principle but something that the world map curtails by, again, not being very interesting. None of you care enough about Ventura City to even drive around it as a group and there’s no dedicated multiplayer modes to keep you all coming back.
The online nature of the game rears its head all the time – you have to be online in order to play Need for Speed, even you switch to private and get stuck into it on your own. This means that, much like Ubisoft’s The Crew, the game simply won’t let you play it if you don’t have a connection or their servers go down.
Cops, something of a touchstone of the franchise, also make a return appearance but they’re so brain-dead and easy to lose that it might have been better to not include them at all. If you get caught speeding, they’ll attempt to give chase but, by the time you’ve turned three corners and gotten on the freeway, they’ve become completely bamboozled and given up. They’re not even aggressive enough to have any significant effect on a race, should they bust up in there half way through. On more than one occasion, I finished an event and they just stopped chasing me.
As if the vegetative police AI wasn’t bad enough, your AI controlled racing opponents don’t offer a much stiffer challenge. Rubber-banding is rife and, while some sort of catch-up mechanic is par for the course in arcade-style racers of this type, even if I pranged it within ten checkpoints of the finish, most of the time I could still recover and take first which, really, just shouldn’t be possible. The rubber-banding is even more noticeable during drift events when the entire pack in front of and behind you are trying to compensate, leading to some awkward paint-trades and dropping of multipliers.
There’s a story-line to tie all the racing events together but, as usual, it’s barely worth paying any attention to. In a rather similar gimmick to FreeStyle Games’ Guitar Hero Live, Need for Speed uses live-action FMV cutscenes to advance its narrative. Don’t get me wrong, they’re about the cringiest things in the world but every last actor gives it their all, chewing the scenery and delivering their lines with a level of sincerity that the weak script doesn’t deserve.
What’s worse, they never shut the hell up, calling you constantly and repeating information you already heard in the menus. Speaking of menus, why does Need for Speed display huge transparent dialogue boxes with tips and tutorials while the game is still running? It even happened to me during a race! Pause the game or something, why am I being forced to navigate wet city streets at breakneck speed and read a Wiki entry at the same time?!
I’ve been pretty hard on Need for Speed so far but there are parts of this game I actually really like. Customisation is back in a big way, both in terms of decoration and performance. It’s now possible to create some truly tacky looking cars (a vital component in any racer in my opinion) and a wide variety of performance sliders let tuner fanatics tweak almost every aspect of their vehicle’s performance to their heart’s desire.
There are also, I’m pleased to report, still a few instances where all of the nonsense and amateurish design drops away and you get a fleeting, perfect moment of what makes a Need for Speed game sing: the rush of hurtling along a city street late at night, convinced you’re going to lose control and die at any moment, all the while refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the brake pedal.
It’s also surprisingly pretty once you’re allowed to get away from the cutscenes, with some nice rain and reflection effects to keep the graphics snobs happy. It all moves along without many noticeable hitches in the frame rate and the car models have been put together with the obsessive eye of a true enthusiast.
The whole point of rebooting any property is to fix, or avoid altogether, the things that made you want to reboot it in the first place. While Need for Speed does its best to give you the things that you want, it doesn’t really improve on any of them and it certainly doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before.
Review Score: 5.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great customisation; Drift racing is damned fun
Lowlights: Bland city; Bumbling AI
Developer: Ghost Games
Released: November 5, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Reviewed on PlayStation 4