Need for Speed is back! Much like its simple title, the eponymous Need for Speed ditches many of the superfluous elements the franchise has gathered over the years to return to the core of what makes this series work. Though the game is a return to form (of sorts), it doesn’t exactly accelerate enough to bypass the classic entries of the series.
I usually shy away from comparisons in reviews since I like to judge games on their own merits. However, I can’t write this review and ignore the obvious: this game is essentially Need for Speed: Underground 3. From the never-ending night of the open world, the emphasis on car tuning, and the thin story line that ties things together, Need for Speed is clearly a spiritual successor to the Underground series. This isn’t a bad thing since those titles rank among the best of the franchise (and are a personal favorite of mine), but let’s just be upfront about what this game is.
The game’s world of Ventura Bay, which is loosely based on Los Angeles, is massive, with many types of terrain to race through. This includes city centers, rural country sides, mountain tops, warehouse districts, and long stretching highways which connect all of the boroughs together. You’ll engage in missions for your crew members, each of whom has you doing races that emphasize one of the five aspects of the game: Speed, Crew, Style, Build, Outlaw. You’ll earn experience points (Reputation Points) and cash from participating in events or simply driving around and performing one or more of the aforementioned feats. The more points and money that you gather, the more vehicles and upgrades that you can buy.
Speed is pretty self-explanatory. This involves driving as fast as you can and maintaining those high velocities. Style is all about drifting, jumping ramps, and doing donuts. Build is about building a car with unique modifications and using it to win. Crew is about doing challenges with your crew and sticking as close as possible with them while winning races. Lastly, there’s outlaw which is all about destroying anything that stands in your way and giving cops the slip as they try to hunt you down.
Customization is both simple and complex. For the purposes of tuning, players can use one slider to make their vehicle have tighter or looser grip. However, they can also manually adjust sliders for many aspects of the car if they want. I personally love drifting so I adjusted the car for that. Since I don’t like dealing with minutiae, I just set the slider to Drift as opposed to Grip. However, I appreciated that the game lets players get into the nitty gritty of tuning if they wanted.
Driving itself is excellent and is easily the best feature of the game simply because of how enjoyable it is. This is an arcade racer and not a sim so it’s not about how authentic the driving experience is; it’s about how much fun you’re having while riding. Driving at full speed, pulling off successful drifts, fleeing from the authorities, and just destroying shit in my path never got dull. As far as driving mechanics go, this game is hard to top and is the one aspect that feels like a true return to form for the series since its driving mechanics were always excellent.
As far as vehicles go, this game doesn’t have as many as those of other racing games. The emphasis is more about fine-tuning your ride rather than having a wide variety to choose from. I stuck with the first car I was given for most of the game since tuning the vehicle made it be able to compete in the progressively challenging races. Tuning up the car is as simple as buying the next upgrade. There isn’t really much thought that needs to go into what upgrades you need or don’t need. Any upgrade bought will enhance your car.
As great as driving around is, the single biggest downside of racing is the rubber banding. Rubber banding can make or break a racing game for me and there were points where Need for Speed really tested my tolerance for this. In many races, I would be so far ahead of my opponents that they wouldn’t even show on my mini-map for long stretches of time. Yet when I slowed down to turn a corner, they all magically flew by me out of nowhere. I like a challenge as much as the next guy but this sort of stuff is basically the computer cheating and it annoyed the hell out of me when it happened.
Story missions blend CG and Full Motion Video together in a pretty cool way. Even though the actors in the game are basically racing movie stereotypes, they’re endearing and I actually found myself looking forward to hearing their one-liner banter. I thought their interactions with me were hilarious because I was just a mute guy who fist bumped everyone within fist bumping distance. I also thought the transitions between live action and CG were done exceptionally well. None of the transitions felt awkward and were as smooth as can be.
The presentation in this game is exceptional. Graphically speaking, this is one of the most gorgeous looking games you’ll see this year. Though the entire game takes place in darkness and rain, you can clearly see the fine detail of the cars, how the rain runs off them and accumulates into puddles on the street, and the various city lights that illuminate the dark. There’s a reason why every trailer emphasized that all footage was in-game. Need for Speed looks absolutely fantastic.
The audio is just as impressive as the visuals, with authentic car sounds that make you feel as if the metal beasts were about to run you over. Tires screeching, plastic and steel grinding against each other, police sirens, all of it sounds great. The only downside is the soundtrack which doesn’t contain anything that stood out to me. However, it did fit with the overall tone of the game. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it’s right for this title.
Even though my knowledge of car culture begins and ends with The Fast and Furious movie franchise (the first four movies of course), I enjoyed that aspect of this game as well. I liked seeing everyone being so enthusiastic about their cars and using lingo that went over my head. I’m not a car-head so I imagine that this is what it must be like when a non-geek person hears Star Trek‘s technobabble. The game even features car culture celebrities like: Morohoshi-san, Ken Block, Nakai-san, and Magnus Walker. These names don’t mean much to me, but I’m sure car nuts will appreciate these men being included in the game.
Outside of the missions given to you by your crew, there isn’t much to do in the city of Ventura Bay. You can take snapshots of certain areas of the map, though they aren’t very interesting and left me wondering why I was even taking pictures of them to begin with. You can also find car parts scattered around the city which you can use to modify your vehicle. Besides that, the city is pretty dead.
Surprisingly enough, there is very little car traffic in the game, which makes the world seem even more barren and lifeless. The city evokes a sense of loneliness which is something I wasn’t expecting. I don’t remember experiencing this in any other Need or Speed or racing game I’ve ever played. I’d say that the perpetual night and frequent rain lead to this feeling as well, but Underground 2 had the same thing going and I never had that sense of solitude that I do here.
Playing with others online isn’t as easy as going into a lobby and getting into a race. The game is always online which means that you are always playing with others. To challenge someone, you’ll first have to find them. Considering how large the map is, this can take a while. It doesn’t help that very few players are ever in the game with you, making hunting them down even more of a chore. You can participate in large-group races online as well, but again, it’s a matter of actually finding people to race against which is the biggest hurdle to overcome.
In all honesty, this game has no reason to be always-online. The single player portion could have easily been partitioned off from the online component. This way, players would actually be able to pause their game whenever they needed to. Another EA game, Burnout Paradise, had the online and offline portions of the game separated so I don’t see why Need for Speed didn’t utilize a similar feature.
Though hampered by a barren-feeling world, rubber banding issues, and being always-online, Need for Speed has more redeeming qualities than negative ones. It isn’t a racing game that will blow people away or one that revolutionizes anything, but it does set up a solid foundation for future installments in the franchise. I haven’t been interested in this series since Underground 2 but I’m now keeping the series on my radar since I believe Ghost Studios has what it takes to deliver a true standout game in the franchise.
This review of Need for Speed is based on a digital copy for the PlayStation 4 which was provided by EA.