Back in 2003 EA released Need For Speed Underground on PS2, Xbox, Gamecube and PC, which sold by the boatload thanks to the popularity of The Fast and the Furious movie at the time. A year later and its sequel, unsurprisingly named Need For Speed Underground 2, arrived and improved on its predecessor in every way. Both games introduced an entire gaming generation to the street racing culture and to car customisation that wasn’t insanely anal a la Gran Turismo.
Now here we are in 2015 and after countless developers and games, all with varying degrees of quality and commercial success, the Need For Speed franchise is in dire need of rejuvenation – and in steps Ghost to save EA’s flagging franchise. After Rivals was released alongside the Xbox One and PS4 launches, with reasonable success, EA saw fit to hand Ghost the keys to the Need For Speed vehicle for the foreseeable future. And so, Need For Speed arrives, a new start for the franchise and a spiritual successor to the Underground series, already giving Ghost some huge shoes to fill before they even got started. Even after all those years and games, Underground 2 is still widely recognised as the best in the franchise and the yardstick against which all Need For Speed games are measured.
In the perpetual night of Ventura Bay, we’re introduced to a crew of racers and their mechanic, a tuning genius named Amy, via the age-old medium of Full Motion Video (FMV) scenes with real actors and a dodgy script in which everybody calls each other ‘bro’ and fist-bumps happen at every opportunity. There’s no real story beyond each character’s own need to engage in various illegal driving activities, be they straight racing, drifting, or a mixture of both, but there’s a strange charm to the hammily acted scenes and the characters portrayed therein. The game does have a rather neat little trick of seamlessly integrating in-game visuals into the FMV scenes too, and though it’s always noticeable when your CGI car is around the actors, it does make for an impressive feat when the camera moves away from the actors and you’re straight into your garage. No loading screen or transition sequence.
The garage is somewhere you will spend an awful lot of your time in Need For Speed, buying and customising your various cars. In keeping with the series’ tradition, you’re given the option of a few starting cars to purchase and if you have some money left over, stick a few new parts into it. Or onto it, if you’d rather start with the cosmetic bodywork upgrades. The first problem you are confronted with is that most of the options are locked until you reach a certain level, which would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that almost everything is locked from the start aside from a handful of things. This is frustrating, but it does encourage you to jump right into the racing and level up, in order to eventually create the ride of your dreams. When you do get to customising your vehicle, you have a wide range of options including individual body kit parts, full body kits, tyre types, nitrous, engine upgrades and so much more. If this seems overwhelming, you can rest assured that it’s incredibly simple and every performance upgrade option tells you exactly how it will affect the car’s handling or speed. The game itself tells you to just go for the fastest options, if you aren’t sure.
For those more used to simulation racers or something like Shift 2 or the Grid series, there are options to tweak the handling in order to fit your own specific needs. Some of these are locked until you buy the relevant adjustable part, but once available you can adjust various sliders within your garage to set up each car. Even players without knowledge of downforce and soft suspension, etc. can find the right balance for their cars, as every shift of a slider will move an overall slider towards either drift or grip, so you know exactly how that car will deal with each event. You can jump directly back to the garage from any point in Ventura Bay, in case you need to make any adjustments to your handling if it isn’t feeling right or you’re struggling with a particular event.
If this review is taking a long time to get into the racing itself, it’s just to give you a taste of the length of time you’ll be waiting before getting into your first race in Need For Speed. Not only does it require a second install upon booting up the game (which does nothing for the lengthy load times) but it really does take an age to get to that all important first event. Like The Crew before it, Need For Speed is an online-only experience which means no pause function, so tutorial messages will obscure your view of the road ahead for the first half hour of the game, too. It doesn’t exactly offer the best first impression.
Driving around the open city of Ventura Bay, you’ll get a feel for the arcadey handling of the cars. The handling model is robust enough to deal with sharp turns at high-speed, though the city itself shows up some poor design choices, with obstacles that are almost impossible to see until your bumper is half a second from hitting it and sending you bouncing off a wall or barrier. Whether you choose to drive to an event or teleport directly there is up to you, but they are all broken up into different categories such as point-to-point sprint races and standard drifting, as well as more advanced, specialised events later on such as gymkhana and drift trains. Some events require fulfilling certain conditions in order to pass them and progress a certain character’s missions, but most are simply a case of winning or placing in the top three. Regardless of your success or failure, you will earn cash and reputation (REP) in order to keep things moving. Some later events offer ridiculous difficulty spikes however, with one particular event suddenly throwing hypercars into the mix, giving you no chance whatsoever unless you just happen to have bought a ridiculously powerful car already.
Standard racing is actually where Need For Speed falters the most, keeping it from breaking away from the middle of the pack. Although the handling works well, the AI does not. In a game that apparently could not be done on PS3/Xbox 360, there should be no place for rubber band AI and yet, here it is in one of the worst examples yet seen. Races are never won by skill, as being in front usually only lasts for a few moments before the AI inevitably catches up. This means that if you turn the final corner in first place, there’s a very real chance that one or more of your opponents will possibly pass you on the home straight, which leads to much frustrated cursing. The AI isn’t even clever either, it rarely strays from the bright blue line that denotes the race’s direction, often shunting anyone that dares to occupy a space on that line. Ghost has at least responded to this criticism since launch, promising a patch to address the issue, but it has yet to be fixed by the time of writing this review.
The racing itself feels dull and unexciting too, with the inevitability of the AI’s rubber banding just removing all the unpredictability of real racing. It basically turns each race into a chugging procession, even weaving in and out of traffic (which seemingly gets denser as you progress through the game) feels like a chore. The traffic AI isn’t much better than the racers’, as it likes to stop for no reason and block that exit you were meant to take, ruining your race and forcing a restart. If you hit the car or a forced into a wall, the resulting crash takes far too long and leaves you trailing unfairly – Ghost should have paid attention to Criterion’s Burnout series to see how to deal with crashes intelligently.
Outside of the various events available throughout the course of the admittedly lengthy game, Ventura Bay is a fairly large place to explore. It’s quite pretty in places too, with its rain-soaked streets and colourful signs, but a lot of it is hidden behind the oddly dirty lens through which you’ll watch the action. The cars hold an awful lot of detail, but their damage model is incredibly basic (the bonnet/hood crumples a little and paint may scrape off in places, but that’s about it) and even when the race introduction view is active, that dirty lens and the shaky camera rob you of the chance to really enjoy the visuals. A simple option to turn off the grainy filter would help, but it’s nowhere to be seen. It’s such a shame as the game genuinely looks great at times, but would be even better with cleaner art direction.
Ventura Bay has a number of collectibles on offer in free play, from car parts to donut spots, but it doesn’t have the same rewarding feel as the billboards of Criterion’s Burnout Paradise or hunting radar dishes in Ubisoft Reflections’ The Crew. You can also challenge roaming AI or players to on-the-spot events, which may even result in being chased by the cops. Unfortunately, even those chases lack any kind of tension or excitement as they’re often far too easy to escape because of the terrible AI – ironic, considering you can never escape the AI in races. You’ll likely receive phone calls from in-game characters as you drive around, inviting you to their challenges, bringing to mind the irritation of GTA IV’s annoyingly clingy cast that would never leave you alone.
Need For Speed is definitely a step in the right direction for the series, at least. With genuinely intelligent AI and the removal of rubber banding, as well as a cleaner lens, the next game from Ghost could well restore Need For Speed to its former glory. At the moment however, it is still unable to catch up to a game released two generations ago.
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