Need for Speed reboot can’t capture the magic of the Underground series

By Sherif Saed, Monday, 2 November 2015 08:00 GMT

The latest entry in the Need for Speed series treads familiar grounds and flaunts old fantasies, but it also fails to capture the Underground glory years.

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“Need for Speed brings back the extensive car customisation, night racing on damp roads, and the FMV cut-scenes that are so bad they’re good.”

Imagine for a moment the time is circa 2004. 2 Fast 2 Furious is the most popular movie you can think of, the street racing culture is in its prime, and you can’t walk five minutes without seeing a car with neon lights underneath and a wooden body kit.

Now, think about how much fun you’ve had with the two Need for Speed: Underground games EA released back then and how great it would be if they just allowed you a bit more. More toys to play with, more places to drive, and more points of customisation on your car.

This is, more or less, what the new Need for Speed aims to achieve. There’s no subtitle, but you can probably tell it’s going after the nostalgia you have for the Underground games, not to mention offering something no other racing game does these days with its ample customisation options.

These mixed feelings of nostalgia for the old and a sense of wonder for the new are what permeated the early few hours I played in Need for Speed.

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Need for Speed brings back the extensive car customisation, night racing on damp roads, and the FMV cut-scenes that are so bad they’re good. It tries to thrust you into a world where street racing is still a thing and where five influential figures – the game calls them Icons – are whom you’re looking to impress.

Each Icon stands for something; speed, style, build, crew, and outlaw. The way you race your car throughout the game’s various challenges is what determines your reputation gain with each of them. You don’t speak to these guys directly, however, at least not in the first few hours. Instead, you’re talking to five other actors who more or less represent each of these styles.

You’ll be inundated with in-game phone calls asking you to come to a show event, letting you know of this imminent race through downtown, or daring you to raise the ire of cops in chases. A little while afterwards you’ll start to accrue credits, which are then used to buy parts for your starting car, or upgrade to a new one.

This gameplay loop is for the most part innocuous, but it all feels like an attempt at summoning something that just isn’t there. From the different city districts that each try and evoke a specific real-world feel (long-winding highways, LA-style back alleys etc), to the type of acting and character you’d expect from the game’s caffeinated cast (self-serious and completely stupid) – it all scratches an itch Ghost Games believes we all have.

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Exploring the city isn’t too exciting. You have three types of collectibles only one of which is useful. And while I still felt a thrill going from the top of the mountains to the busy city streets, all while flashing past great-looking locations and dodging a cop here and there, it didn’t last long before I noticed how unlively Ventura Bay can get.

“Nothing really has you itching for another race or a part to unlock. It all feels very timid.”

Yes, most roads are wide enough for drifting or overtakes, but they all look like they’re built from the same texture of wet asphalt, like it’s just stopped raining this very instant all over the city. If you’re not racing against the incredibly rubber-bandy AI, you will be getting knocked out of place by a speeding player who’s participating in their own race and having their own fun.

Yet again, the game borrows the utterly useless always-online component from 2013’s Rivals. There’s no typical lobby to compete against human players in a standard race. You’re always playing against other players, though. They’re always there. In your instance of the world and on your map. If you don’t notice them rolling by on the road, you’ll see their names pop up every time one joins or leaves your game.

Other players are technically there, but, much like a few things about this game, their presence is rarely felt. The only way to get any sort of multiplayer going (outside of waiting to join faceless Crews) is to hang around, waiting for other cars to pass by so you can politely initiate a race against them.

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Perhaps what Ghost Games was hoping to achieve with this requirement is a situation where you see a cool-looking car, you tail it for a minute before the driver notices you and you both go on your merry sprint or challenge. Perhaps there’s some lost ideal of camaraderie that we just can’t get in a time when everyone mutes everyone else online, and when people generally avoid human interaction in online games.

And so nothing really terrible stands outside of some hitching and rare frame-rate drops. But nothing really has you itching for another race, either, for another chance at earning cash to spend or a part to unlock. It all feels very timid, even if it tries its best not to be.

After a few hours of this song and dance, maybe you’ll have enough to buy a new car, and a bit more time to unlock a few customisation or performance parts for it and take it on the road. Maybe you’ll take snapshots around the city’s scenery, too, while you wait for a character to call you or a player who isn’t a shmuck who wants to go for a ride across these fake video game roads.

Or maybe not. Maybe you’ll be left wondering if we really didn’t need an Underground 3, even if that’s what we’ve been asking for, not realising that what we really wanted was re-create the thousand forms of frolic we had with those games, under-car glow or not.

Need for Speed is out November 3 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with the PC version following in early 2016. These impressions are based on the first few hours of the final code via EA Access on Xbox One.

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