When asking about the best racing game franchises, aficionados often mention “Gran Turismo” or “Forza Motorsports.” These series have rightfully earned a spot on any best-of list because they’ve been consistently great over several years.
Despite being just as successful and older than both entries, “Need for Speed” is often left out of that conversation. Part of the reason is the prolific and varied number of titles released under the banner. The other issue is the general quality has ranged from excellent to awful.
After 22 games over 21 years, it became obvious to the developers at Ghost Games that the series needed to refocus itself and again establish a distinct identity. Is it more of a sim akin to “Need for Speed: Shift” or is it more of an arcade racer as in “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit”? With the latest revamp, the team points wholeheartedly toward the latter.
At its core, Ghost Games figured out that the Electronic Arts franchise has always been about street racing and the developers zeros in on that. It puts players in the role of a newcomer who has joined a racing crew in the fictional city of Ventura Bay. The group consists of five members, each of whom specializes in an aspect of “Need for Speed.”
Spike focuses on speed, which mainly deals with races. Manu’s specialty is style, which encompasses how players drift around corners. Meanwhile, Amy’s expertise lies in building vehicles so they can go faster, and her events encourage players to do that. To round out the cadre, Robyn specializes in crew events bringing groups together, and the Outlaw enjoys missions where players must outrun the cops.
They provide a diverse set of missions that take advantage of a locale that’s loosely based on Los Angeles. Players will be wending their way down the Crescent Mountains during a touge competition, where players score points by drifting. Elsewhere, Spike’s races smartly use the city’s long freeways so that a car’s top speed shines.
In a lot of ways, this game resembles past efforts like “Need for Speed: Rivals,” but the big differences are the improved customization options and a quirky narrative element. This time around, players can paint and upgrade vehicles with a number of different parts. These are unlocked through an experience system based on Reputation points earned by performing driving feats such as hitting a top speed. The system isn’t robust or as easy to use as in “Forza,” but it’s serviceable.
With its full-motion video, the narrative element has a throwback feel reminiscent of 1990s games. Starring live actors and racing icons such as Ken Block, these scenes are shot in the first-person and try to make players feel as though they’re part of Ventura Bay crew. Unintentionally or not, it’s campy with a mixture of cheesy dialogue and over-the-top acting that defined a past generation of games. It lends “Need for Speed” a retro vibe, but at the same time, there’s a touch of contemporary tech in the scenes as Ghost Games blends realistic in-game graphics with video.
It’s cutting-edge and shows off what the team can do with the Frostbite 3 engine. That visual beauty extends to the playable game, which captures the L.A.-inspired atmosphere. That’s partly because of the unusual decision to set “Need for Speed” solely at night. It not only explains the reason for the lack of soul-killing traffic, but it also highlights how driving until dawn can offer beautiful moments that players don’t always see in a video game.
The look is nice, but that push for realism is a double-edged sword. Although the game makes sense in some aspects, the fact that you don’t see the light of day and that the mix of quests don’t always mesh creates a disconnect.
It’s not perfect, but “Need for Speed” does manage to realign the series, so that it has an identity. The new direction has promise but the developers need to focus on a specific tone and cohesive storytelling if they want to move the franchise forward.