Way back in 2003, EA reinvigorated the Need for Speed series and turned it into one of its biggest yearly franchises with the release of Need for Speed Underground. Focusing on tuner culture, it was one of the first racing games that let you fully customize your car. And boy did that game ever have style, from the blur effect that would kick in whenever you hit the nitrous, to the constant thumping of Lil John & The East Side Boyz’ “Get Low” in the menus. Need for Speed Underground came out my freshman year of college, and it was easily one of the games I played the most over the next four years.
After spending a few years experimenting with various online features, and then taking 2014 off, EA is now back with a complete reboot of the Need for Speed franchise that really wants to be Underground for a new generation. It’s not. The new Need for Speed may be fun for a weekend, like visiting your old college, but if you stick around longer than that, people are going to wonder why you haven’t moved on with your life, and it’s just kind of sad seeing someone trying to re-live their old glory days like that.
The racing in the Need for Speed games has stayed remarkably consistent over the past decade or so. Cars go fast and handle smoothly. This edition of Need for Speed has some of the weaker AI in the series, however. It’s very difficult to lose. You can lag behind for awhile and get into a wreck with oncoming traffic in the middle of a race, and the other cars will slow down just enough for you to overtake them and win. If you’re ahead, they follow somewhat closely behind and will get ahead if you really screw up, but they don’t make much of an effort to pass you or stay in first place. I’m all for games that aren’t terribly frustrating, but some challenge is nice. Need for Speed just doesn’t have that in the majority of its events.
Need for Speed has what an English professor might generously refer to as a “story.” Basically, this means you hang out with four characters who are so into cars that they even seem one-dimensional in a racing game. And with flat bill hats or terrible pointy hairstyles, they try way to hard to dress like what 13-year-olds think is cool. Probably. I really wish that Need for Speed would drop the FMV and “stories” from these games. They always come across as incredibly annoying at best and condescending at worst. And they’re frankly unnecessary. I want to race. I really don’t care about my driver’s motivations, especially if those motivations come down to looking cool for some douchebag I’d avoid like the plague in real life.
Anyway, these awful people give you a variety of missions, such as checkpoint racing or drifting to make more money and eventually challenge the best racers in Ventura Bay. The variety of races available is nice, though pretty standard in racing games at this point. Police chases in the middle of races or while driving around the map are a nice touch that really only the Need for Speed franchise does, but just like the racing itself, it’s far too easy to escape the cops.
Another issue is that money is fairly pointless in this game. Yes, it can make your car look a lot cooler, but there’s rarely much point in changing vehicles or chasing after the most expensive upgrades because most new parts are locked behind higher levels rather than more money, and regardless of how fast your car is, other drivers will race at the same pace. It can be a lot of fun modifying vehicles in games like this (like it was in the old Underground games), but there has to be some reward for doing so, and there’s no real paint customization like in the Forza series either. It’s just another example how far behind the times Need for Speed feels.
Like most games in the franchise, the 2015 reboot of Need for Speed also has a large open-world, but once you’ve driven around it for a couple of hours, it becomes something of a chore to keep driving to new races, and there’s sadly no fast travel option in sight. This is one of the most boring open-worlds created for a video game in recent memory. Aside from the occasional spot to take a snapshot or free car part to pick up, there’s just not a whole lot to do. No jumps. No billboards to crash through. Just a very a pretty but boring city (kind of like Indianapolis), where you occasionally race past other drivers who are no doubt equally as apathetic about the game.
That’s because as many other gamers have frustratingly pointed out since the game’s release, you have to be online to do anything in Need for Speed. This wasn’t really an issue for me since I’m always hooked up to the internet, but it seems like an unnecessary requirement as the game does very little to connect you with other players or compare you to friends. Even 2013’s Need for Speed Rivals had more online functionality, and that game wasn’t online only.
At times, Need for Speed looks absolutely gorgeous. The cars are so close to photo-realistic, that your fully modified car can be seamlessly added to the end of some cutscenes, which is something I’ve never seen a game pull off before. And in the middle of races, it’s hard to argue that this is one of the better looking games on Xbox One.
But this graphical detail also seems to come at the expense of having more realistic world. Ventura Bay is supposed to be a living, breathing California city, but traffic is as sparse as on open-world game on the original Xbox. If you told me that this was just an HD remake of a Need for Speed game from that era, I’d believe it. And as great as the game can look, there’s a serious lack of effects that come with crashes, or even getting a speed boost from nitrous.
The cars sound fine, as they always do in Need for Speed games, although it does seem like EA has done very little extra work in this department over the years. The vehicles sound very much like they’re video game vehicles while other series like Forza and Project CARS have been aiming for more realistic sound design in recent years, and capturing the unique sounds that each engine makes.
Then there’s the music. Ugh. It’s not good. Lots of generic dubstep. I had only heard of a handful of these bands before the game was released, and I think there’s a pretty good reason for that. I actually like a lot of electronic music, but what’s in here sounds more like dying beeps of a malfunctioning NES than anything resembling great racing music. How EA picked such a lacking soundtrack is baffling considering that the music has been a high point of most past Need for Speed games.
The story mode is lengthy, easily clocking in at more than a dozen hours. You can replay missions after that, take on daily challenges, or race online. EA has done a good job of updating the game, adding features like drag racing that weren’t present at launch, but already very few people seem interested in online racing, so there’ s not much reason to keep playing after you finish the story, if it even holds your attention all the way through.
Reviewed by Chris Freiberg