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Need for Speed – and it's plain old Need for Speed this time out, with no fancy subtitle – is back after a two-year hiatus. During that time, developer Ghost Games has done some serious "soul searching" with the franchise, and created a game that, in many respects, takes the series back to its roots.
There's no playing cop like in Rivals. Instead, this newest Need for Speed goes back to urban car culture basics with a stable of highly modifiable autos, and a whole bunch of racing to participate in – plus a filmed narrative. Yes, you read that right. Need for Speed features a full story where you are the star (in an initially reasonably-priced car).
That reasonably priced car is one of a choice of three – a Subaru BR-Z, fox body Ford Mustang, or a Honda Civic Type R – that you're gifted once you've finished watching the game's introductory preamble. This very slick and well-produced video is shot from a first-person perspective, essentially through the eyes of you, fresh-faced talent who's new to the racing scene of fictional-but-inspired-by-LA city, Ventura Bay. You're introduced to some new friends who run a car modification garage in the middle of the game's open-world environment (and it's a big environment too – about twice the size of the last NFS game, Rivals), and then it's time to select your first vehicle. And choose wisely – in this Need for Speed, the focus is on sticking with your car and building it out to make a unique ride. Sure, you can buy new cars, but they're expensive and you can't buy them very often – indeed, your garage can only house five cars in all.
Once you've chosen your car and driven it out of the garage, your in-game phone almost immediately starts to ring – the first of a myriad of calls you'll receive while playing. Basically, the way the game works is this: phone calls come in detailing racing activities to participate in. These fall into one of five different categories: Speed, Style, Crew, Build, and Outlaw. All you have to do is select a mission on the map, either drive or fast-travel there, and then you can participate in the event. It's refreshingly simple and very straightforward. Just remember that as we go into the next series of paragraphs, which are going to make the game sound a lot more complicated than it really is.
These five categories represent Need for Speed's "five ways to play the game." Speed missions are basic races such as sprints against opponents, and solo time trials. Style events are gymkhana – a combination of drifting and racing. Crew is pure drifting - either solo, or "drift trains" against other drivers. Build offers a variety of racing styles where there's a focus on having a car that's customized a particular way, and Outlaw is a series of challenges and races involving police pursuits.
Each category features its own sub-plot, which slowly unfolds as you progress through its missions. All five story arcs overlap with one another to build an overall narrative in which you rise to the top in each of these five racing styles. At least, you can do if you have the talent and skills. The objective is to become the ultimate icon – and you do that by winning races initially, and eventually challenging and racing against real-world racing personalities who represent the pinnacle of each category. There's legendary Porsche collector Magnus Walker (Speed), Ken Block (Style), Japanese car customizer Akira Nakai-San (Build), the Risky Devil drift outfit from Chicago (Crew), and finally, Japan's Morohoshi-san (Outlaw).
But before you encounter any of these guys, you first have to befriend and race with the five main Need for Speed protagonists who, like the icons above, represent the different threads of the story, and essentially guide you through it. They’re an affable enough bunch, who are often found fist-bumping one another at local diners and hangouts. I'm not normally one who enjoys the narrative aspect of games, but I thought that Need for Speed's is exceptionally well polished. It's intelligently shot, very well acted, and smartly edited, and you really do feel like the actors are talking to you. The dialog is good, and while it does sometimes veer into yo-dude-bro territory, it stays just on the right side of the line for it not to be painful. And speaking as one of the most manic hammerers of the X button when it comes to skipping scenes, that's a pretty big compliment coming from me.
So the story is very well produced, and the game offers five ways to race. But what of the racing itself? I'm happy to say that also works really well. What's interesting this time out is that you can fully customize the handling of your car, and set it up for hardcore drifting, or for grip – or somewhere in between. I spent a lot of time fiddling with the four sliders that make up the handling model, and found that there's a surprising amount of leeway in terms of handling characteristics. However you set up your car, the handling is ultimately very arcadey, but you can tune it to feel a little more like old-school Burnout where you tap the brake to drift, or set it up to be very grippy and behave a little more like a real car. I actually ended up tuning two different cars for specific purposes – a more race-focused car that uses the grip model, and a drift car that's set up to be very tail-happy. That gave me the best of both worlds and means I don't have to fiddle around with the handling every time I want to change racing styles for an event.
Racing starts out fairly easy, but soon becomes quite challenging, and it's at this point that you need to start tuning your car. There are the usual broad array of items that you can buy for your marque to improve its performance, as well as a selection of bodykits and other visual modifications that you can use to give your car its own bespoke style. Most of them are based on real-life parts, and you can make some really quite impressive mods to your vehicle. Add in the comprehensive wrap editor, and you have the means to express yourself quite creatively.
While you're racing, you earn "rep" for pulling off maneuvers, stunts and objectives. This is added to your rep total, which is basically experience. The more you earn, the more you level up, and the more items and performance upgrades are unlocked.
Missions and their associated stories can be tackled in whichever order you want. When I started playing, I went through most of the Speed missions one after the other, and almost reached the end before I realized I needed to earn some serious cash so that I could modify my car enough to take on the penultimate challenge. That's when I went back and started playing missions from other categories, which were pretty easy with my souped-up motor. Ultimately, there's no "wrong" way to play the game, and Need for Speed is very well designed to ensure that you can play it however you want, and there's always something to do.
The game is set from dusk 'til dawn in what seems to be a permanently rainy Ventura Bay, and looks absolutely astonishing. It has a certain cinematic grain about it that makes it look near photographic, and while playing, for long periods of time your eyes are fooled into thinking that you're looking at something quite real. The wet roads give the game a distinct look, and the way that light glistens off the streets, and bounces off the car paintwork is simply brilliant. Even close-up, the effect looks totally convincing.
As well as being exceptionally well rendered, Need for Speed's environment is very nicely designed to deliver a wide variety of tarmac to drive on. From dense urban streets through high-speed freeways to twisting touge-type roads in the hills above the city, Ventura Bay supports pretty much every conceivable kind of racing style. The various challenges and story races make the most of Ventura Bay's roads, and as a consequence, the racing is varied and interesting.
One of the few downsides I have with the game is that sometimes there's a degree of luck to the racing – as is often the case with open world games. When you're racing at the highest difficulty level, and where every second counts, vehicles can sometimes get in the way - such as being in the middle of the road around a blind corner - and the subsequent collision can cost you the race. That's the nature of the game, but it can sometimes be frustrating to run into a car that you couldn't avoid because it just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I did also have some concerns about the game's long-term appeal. Once the storyline is done, there's not much kind of an endgame beyond re-running missions and trying to improve on your times and scores. However, EA has announced that Ghost Games will be producing additional free content for Need for Speed later on this year, and that's great news – essentially extending the game's interest beyond its storyline.
For those who care about offline gaming, a word of warning. Need for Speed is a permanently online game, and even if you're only playing single-player, you still need a persistent connection to play it. I don't think Ghost Games has done a particularly good job in making the most out of the game's online aspect: you share Ventura Bay with seven other players, and can challenge them to races and involve them in what you're doing, but while playing, I've found that interactions are rare - most people just do their own thing. I guess the multiplayer aspect of the game is good for those who play online with friends, but for the most part, apart from speedwall leaderboards for the different challenges, this might as well have been a single-player offline game.
Finally, I did run into a few glitches here and there. Nothing serious, but I did encounter the odd frame-rate drop in the middle of races when the action got particularly intense, and sometimes ambient AI cars can disappear off the road when you're going really fast. Like I said, it's nothing that impacted my play in any great way, but I noticed it nonetheless.
Despite those few negative points, I'm really impressed with Need for Speed. Indeed, I'm hooked on the game and have been playing it every night since I got it last week. What I like is the fact that its action is nicely varied – from drifting through gymkhana to straight-up sprint racing, the game challenges you in different ways, which makes it compelling and interesting. It's tough too – some of the later missions are really quite hard, and the racing becomes a white-knuckle adrenaline ride. Especially when you're weaving through traffic at ridiculous speeds.
I also like the fact that you can play through the different aspects of the story in whichever order you wish, and the game builds a cohesive narrative no matter which way you play. The biggest surprise of all for me has been that I've really enjoyed the storyline overall. It works very well, and the characters are all likeable – despite some of them initially seeming more like caricatures than characters. They all grow on you, and the actors do a great job in making it feel like they're really talking to you – that this is your adventure, and that you're the star of the show.
Ultimately, Ghost Games has very successfully rebooted Need for Speed. By going back to its roots, and focusing on what made the series great during its heyday, the Swedish studio has created a simple, straightforward racer with five interesting facets that challenge your racing prowess in different ways. It can be tough at times, but the game is solid, addictive, and looks absolutely stunning.
InterfaceComprehensive, good looking, and well designed to make getting around the game quick and easy.
Lasting AppealThe game is challenging in its own right, and EA has promised additional free content will be available by the end of the year.
SoundThe raw-sounding effects perfectly capture the spirit of the tuned-up cars, and the dance-inspired electronic soundtrack is great to drive to.
VisualsExceptional graphics really capture the mood and atmosphere of a city at night. The way light reflects off the cars and wet pavement is astonishingly realistic.
ConclusionNeed for Speed returns to its urban car culture roots with a gorgeous-looking, very well designed game that offers five different racing styles to tackle - and a bevy of interesting cars to modify and make your own. Its story is a lot of fun, and it's set in an impressively large environment that is very enjoyable to drive around. A great arcade racer that's both challenging and addictive.