Over the years, Need for Speed has evolved from mere circuit racing into the bright, fast-paced world of street racing. However, it has arguably been one of the most up-and-down franchises of the last decade. With the glory days of Underground a distant memory, the series has now been rebooted by publisher EA with the help of one of their affiliate studios, Ghost Games.
The download size of the Need for Speed beta alone – a whopping 19GB – invites much promise: crisp visuals, an expansive setting, gameplay variety, and a touch of story. The good news for Need for Speed fans is that most of these ingredients were in the closed beta I recently got to play, and worked fairly well. However, it also had the same problems similar to versions before it, and its structure felt all too familiar.
I’m still on the fence about a couple of things I experienced in the beta. Firstly, Ghost Games decided to blend in-game graphics with real-time cutscene footage. Whilst this eliminates any backlash over cutscene quality, the integration of a mute main character certainly devalues the story of this reboot. Your little-known street racing rebel is taken under the wing of a local crew when spotted “doing a totally sick 100-foot drift.” That’s also the gist of the game’s lingo: words like “bae” and “bruh” are a frequent occurrence and quite funny – EA is trying way too hard on this front.
Secondly, there’s the open world of Ventura Bay. While it’s quite pretty from mountaintop views on the outskirts of the city, 90 percent of the game is at night – with the other ten percent at dusk. I believe an open-world game of this stature should have a dedicated day/night cycle and, while it’s understandable to stick to the street racing persona of night-time-only events, it would’ve been good to have some content built around the other half of the day.
But on the plus side, Ghost Games has made customising your vehicles a joy. There are stacks of options when it comes to paint, decals, car tuning and performance parts. All are reflective of your ‘Reputation’ level, which increases from completing races, dodging traffic, maintaining a high speed and all-around destruction of the city; basically, anything that would give the local council a headache. Some modifications are only available through completing missions with certain prerequisites, such as taking part in an event with a certain crew member.
The customisation system itself is deep and rewarding, and there’s always a steady stream of Reputation experience and new parts being added to your garage. It was quite disappointing to see that some parts are purely cosmetic, as I saw no indicator that my new spoiler or side-skirts had an effect on overall drag resistance like previous NFS games. Even though the paint and decal side of things feels quite clunky when replacing certain layers in your design, the ease of adjusting a car’s performance makes up for it. This, combined with additional tuning choices for more advanced parts, will decide whether your car is more adept at drifting or circuit racing. If you’re having trouble with steering, your problem lies here.
Unfortunately, there’s no real life to Ventura Bay when you’re roaming its night-time streets and highways. Despite the introduction of small timed quests, allowing drivers to acquire bonus vehicle parts or Reputation from a specific location, I noticed the waypoint system needed tweaking. The latter is due to players not being able to mark a specific point on the map; it only works on racing icons and other points of interest. This is very problematic when trying to link up with friends online as you cannot select a friend’s cursor as your waypoint. Furthermore, there appeared to be no benefit in linking up with friends in Need for Speed besides a small experience boost; not seeing any team-orientated events was both surprising and disappointing.
There are further hindrances when it comes to racing, too. Need for Speed’s Sprint and Circuit races all have ‘rolling starts’ where you’re separated from the other racers, behind the pack, each time. While it’s simple enough to make up the lost ground, it’s a poor choice of level design. These events are where I spent most of my time. The drifting races became rather uninteresting as points are all that matter and players can cruise around milking points from lengthy laps.
But the main goal in this new Need For Speed is to defeat five highly skilled drivers, known as Icons, in Ventura Bay. The Icons represent five different ways of playing (not vehicle classes): Speed, Style, Build, Crew and Outlaw. It’s good EA has kept this formula, even if drag races have been scrapped from the game.
With less than a month before full release, it’s hard to see Ghost Games and EA altering many of the limitations seen in the beta. Yes, the game looks good; yes, the soundtrack is only half-decent; yes, the car customisation is as absorbing as ever, but overall it ultimately fell short of expectations. This iteration of Need for Speed looks to be a title gamers may have played a year ago, five years ago, or even ten years ago. Unfortunately, it’s largely a case of being more of the same, and lacks those special qualities that begs a franchise like this – about constantly climbing your way up a nocturnal street-racing ladder – to take risks.