Need for Speed is the latest in a series which has been around for twenty-one years in one form or another. It’s EA’s racing game and as such is one they’ve played around with a lot in those years as they try to find - and crucially retain - the winning formula. It hasn’t always gone to plan. This 2015 edition seems an odd one on the surface, and for the first few hours as well. You see, EA had acquired Criterion Games in 2004. This was the twitch racing game studio extraordinaire, and creators of Burnout. It was decided they would not work on any Burnout games again after the wonderful critical and fan acclaim Burnout Paradise received when it arrived in 2008. Instead, they would be the latest team to have a crack at Need for Speed. We got two versions from Criterion - both fantastic, building on the Burnout platform, but making it all about the speed and latterly the cops.
Then something odd happened. Criterion announced it was to focus on games in other genres. The company downsized and many of those staff went to work for the recently (2011) founded Ghost Games. Effectively, Criterion became Ghost. Soon after the co-founders of Criterion left the company. Very little has been seen from Criterion since, although they are working on something - a driving game, but with all kinds of other crazy stuff. In the meantime, Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry (Criterion co-founders) have recently announced via their newly-founded Three Fields Entertainment that they’re working on a couple of games, where the second one will be a spiritual successor to the Burnout series. Something doesn’t add up. Unless…
Now here’s where we start to talk about this game, the new Need for Speed from Ghost Games and EA. You see, it’s as far away as you can get - within the twitch racing genre - from the Criterion games (and Rivals, the last Need for Speed and Ghost Games’ first entry to the series). We have an open-world, we have very fast cars and we have wonderful arcade driving which at very high speed requires twitches in order to actually navigate the routes. But we’re introduced to some real people at the start of the game by way of the first in a string of FMV (Full Motion Video) segments and each of these people is seemingly very streetwise and interested in different aspects of driving: pure speed, the car’s build, stylish driving, driving as part of a crew and something a little naughtier. It’s hellishly cringeworthy and makes you feel nauseous. This is not what you’d be expecting from a new Need for Speed game, not now anyway. It’s a real throwback to ten or more years ago. It’s clearly aimed at a different audience to recent iterations, at least the production is.
Thankfully, the driving mechanics remain as fabulous as ever. The cars - once you get a better one, or upgrade any significantly, move at crazy speeds. The drifting mechanic is perhaps one of the most satisfying this side of the PlayStation 2 era Ridge Racers. Most happily, the FMV slowly starts to entertain, and engage. The production values are very high as you’d hope from an EA title, and the acting surprisingly good. Each of the people you interact with has a clear character and over time you’ll develop favourites, ones you don’t like and more in-between. You’ll actually find yourself enjoying watching them and if you do get irritated by their incessant phone calls when out and about driving, you can ignore them. You can also skip the cutscenes if it really isn’t your thing. Here? We enjoyed every minute after the first few. Oddly.
One big reason why the game is set in a street racing world is because of the various real-world stars who have been secured for the game, putting their names - and faces - into it throughout. We have Ken Block, a very famous rally driver who loves to drift and race in style; Magnus Walker a Porsche fanatic who is all about speed (in the game - in real life there’s love for the build, too); Nakai-san, a build king; the Risky Devils crew and Morahoshi-san who loves flashy fast cars and perhaps has experience of the other side of the law. The group of people you fall in with is each a fan of one or more of these famous names and the aim of the game is to work your way up to driving with and against the famous folk. It will mean a lot to some, and nothing to many, but it does all combine bizarrely to complete an overall engaging and simple narrative.
We’ve mentioned build a few times and that’s one thing which has been brought back to the game this year - customisation. A large part of the game is spent upgrading and tuning your car so it performs exactly the way you want it to and look the way you think it should. You can upgrade every part of a car you can think of from the engine block to air filters and clutches. Some enable performance improvements - more BHP, more torque, a quicker sprint to sixty - whilst others affect the handling. You have control over every aspect and can tweak your setup to give you the perfect racing line machine, or balance sweetly in a continuous drift if you want. You can do this by changing each bit, or one nice overall slider which Ghost Games has put in for those who aren’t total gearheads.
One thing that seems a minor annoyance early on and only gets more and more so throughout is the fact that to play this game you need to be online. Yes, it’s an always online title folks. It’s probably there as some form of DRM but it’s explained away because of the benefits it brings. Being online ensures there are other real drivers travelling throughout Ventura Bay at all times. If you want you can do drift challenges and things with them. Yay. You won’t though, as they’ll often be complete randoms and on the other side of the sizeable map. You’re never near them and you have no need to partner up with them as each and every event, mission, challenge and collectible is single player only. Yes, all the game’s actual content in an always online, multiplayer only (effectively) game is single player. My word, that is obtuse. A good three-quarters of the game’s loading time is finding a network and other players. If the network is down, or your own internet connection is on the blink, well, find something else to play. Why are we still sitting here with this kind of thing after the Xbox One and Sim City always online fiascos?
There is a little more to it. Need for Speed will be a living game. Over the course of its lifetime (a year as a guess, until the next iteration) it will get regular content updates. This will comprise of level cap increases, new events and trophies, prizes and so on. You’d hope that more will come in the way of actual multiplayer content but this hasn’t yet been announced. It’s possible what EA and Ghost want is a Destiny-like MMO for racers but this is nowhere near even version 1.0 of that game. It’s a single player game pure and simple, and one which can be exhaustively completed well before any new content is released.
We had completed all the events in under twenty hours. Refreshingly for modern games the majority of the game is included in that. There’s no second side (like in Rivals where you played as cops and racers and did basically the same thing, twice) nor is there a higher difficulty level. By playing through the game as it’s meant to be, you can get close to 100% and that platinum trophy. We finished at 89% completion overall and 78% trophies collected. With a couple more hour’s play we were at 100% in both cases. It’s nice not to have to grind, or play the same thing again, only harder. For some this will be seen as a remarkable lack of content whilst others will look at this many hours of unique gaming and compare to that many in a much shorter game like Call of Duty. No one view is correct, but for us it’s the best way to do things.
Difficulty needs to be addressed though. On the whole there just isn’t any, aside from a few races. There are 79 events all told. Looking back there were just three that gave us any trouble, and by trouble we mean ‘played it more than twice and fewer than five times’. You start with a very basic vehicle which can take you a good third of the way through the game, by which time you’ll be able to afford a Nissan GTR, or the Ferrari 458, for example. This can easily last you to the end, especially when you upgrade and customise it. You might only need to buy one more car as you decide to have a pure racer set for grip allied with a drift machine. Sure, you might need a couple of specific vehicles for a given story related mission but these are free, and needed just that once. Most of the time when you need to replay it’s because of the AI, or the cheating AI as we like to call it. There is horrific rubber-banding at play. The worst example is perhaps the race named ‘Component Parts’ or the final race which we won’t touch on in detail here. No matter what happens you’ll find yourself close to the AI racers towards the end of each of these two challenges. If you’re in-front you’ll be ok if you don’t crash but otherwise you’ll struggle. The problem is this happens each time, whether you’re two minutes slower than before or not! It’s horrendous and obvious. This will be balanced when the first big game update comes live (some bugs have already been squashed with a week one or two patch) but if you play it right now you need to get ready to game the system as well as win the game. In the drifting challenges the biggest issue is just the AI smacking into you - sometimes purposefully but not always - and pushing you off course for sure, but also resetting your drift points for that particular move (each move you pull needs to be clean to score from it).
Technically the game is mightily impressive and disappointing at once. When you first hit Ventura Bay - a world roughly twice the size of Rivals’ Redview County - you’ll have your jaw-dropped by the photo-like imagery on display. It really is outstanding. This is combined with the wonderful audio you’d expect, really doing justice to the cars you’re driving, their power and more - for instance the wonderful effects you get as you pass through a tunnel are still there - all adding to the atmosphere being generated. It’s tempered though by a couple of things. One, you’re only ever in the world from dawn to dusk. No daylight for anyone this time out. Alongside the benched day-night cycle is the all-weather cycle, with Ventura Bay seemingly always wet but only ever dry or raining in the air. No snow, no wonderful segues from torrential downpours to beautiful sunscapes as we’ve become accustomed to in racers past. The world itself seems less varied and enticing than we expect from the Need for Speed games. It’s all concrete jungle really, as even when you’re in the mountains it’s the roads which grab your focus, rather than snow-capped mountains and twisting desert pathways. Everything’s capped at 30 frames per second too, which doesn’t allay all slow down but does ensure latency isn’t as good as you’d want from games like this. Games where if you react too slowly in anyway you’re likely to smack straight into a few feet of solid concrete.
There are annoyances littered throughout the game as well. Minor ones compared to anything described already, but they are so frequent they do lead to irritation. When you get caught doing something bad by the police, and then choose not to pay the fine (i.e. you drive away) you are pursued; escape that pursuit and after a cooldown period you’re told that you’ve gotten away by a blue wave coming across the screen. An opaque one. Not a problem unless you happen to be in the middle of a race and following a route at high speed. Which you then can’t see for crying out loud. Another example is that as you enter/exit any building (typically your garage or where you actually get to see an FMV cutscene) your car is automatically driven towards and away from said building. The loading is a frustration to start with, but it’s ridiculous to see the car need to stop on entering by crashing into the building. Given this is a game all about high quality driving it’s just ridiculously silly to see this time and time again. All of this is before we even touch on the lack of cops in the game where breaking the law is at least a fifth of the aim; when combined with the fact you will always get away just by driving quickly, well, what’s the point?
This latest Need for Speed is all told a mixed bag. It seemed perhaps that the direction was one in which EA wanted to go and that would explain in part what’s happened these past few years at Criterion and Ghost Games. Perhaps not - and all that is mere happenstance - but we do have a new, or refreshed, theme to the game this time around. Before taking any of it in it was a theme (and execution - FMV!) which lowered expectations substantially. The always online thing is a problem and with no real online or MMO-type content yet it will be seen only as a bad thing. There’s nothing to contradict and given the game’s length many will have moved on before this has changed. Yet despite all of this the game is great fun, engaging, entertaining and doesn’t outstay its welcome. When you finally get your 1000+ BHP beast, chaining drifts down a mountain’s snaking road, you will revel in what’s in front of you and be compelled to keep going for that one more hit.