The original Need for Speed took to the road in 1994, around the time when developers embraced the idea of full motion video (FMV) computer games. Who would have thought that 20 years later, developers would be experimenting with FMV sequences once again?
Need for Speed isn't the only title in recent months to toy with FMV; Guitar Hero Live is played out entirely through FMV, for example. But while Guitar Hero's approach puts you front and centre, there's something unsettling about the way that Need for Speed's story plays out.
You are a nameless, faceless racer who happens upon a group of racers, each desperate to impress their idol. Your character is present during cutscenes, but is unwilling to engage, almost as if he knows that he is the only one capable of impressing these heroes.
In a bid to drive the narrative along, your fellow racers will ring you up, frequently. They'll ring you up to get you to come racing, but if you don't act quickly they'll ring up again as a reminder, sounding a little more agitated. You get the feeling that even Niko's cousin in Grand Theft Auto IV would find them clingy.
When you cruise around, you see why they're so eager to get you from one point to the next. There simply isn't as much to do in 2015's Need for Speed as you'd like. While the game requires an internet connection, it's lost the Speedwall challenges dotted around that tracked average speeds between two points, top speeds past speed cameras, jump distances, and so on. Competition amongst friends is consigned to races alone.
It's a shame because the world can be quite spectacular. There are some routes that take you through the hills that offer a beautifully scenic view, which is particularly impressive at dusk or dawn.
There are a handful of distractions; there are free car parts to find and collect, vistas to take in, and spots to perform doughnuts in. Then there are also standalone races to earn more credits so you can upgrade your cars to make the game's trickier races more manageable.
One of the criticisms leveled at Need for Speed before the update was that its rubberbanding AI was too extreme. And believe me, it was far too noticeable. Since the update, the AI is less likely to make dramatic comebacks out of nowhere, particularly at lower difficulties, but it's still possible that you'll claim a win after a wreck or two.
It has to be asked why we haven't moved on from AI that determines how fast it is going to go based on what's happening in a race; it's not rewarding to win when you had no right to and it's immensely frustrating to lose because of such a mechanic. When you're better off sitting behind the AI and letting them dictate the pace until the closing stages, something is amiss.
The actual racing can be fun though. Once you tweak the handling to suit your style, the game feels good. I managed to get that fine balance of oversteer and grip that lets the car's rear kick out through corners, but not so much that I just ended up spinning around in circles. For the most part, it felt as good as some classic Need for Speed titles.
Need for Speed offers a decent mix of race types with point-to-point races, circuits, drift races, drift-train challenges (in which you must stick with your fellow racers and perform syncronised drifts to score points), and time trials. There's certainly plenty of variety, particularly if you mix up the story path that you follow.
As mentioned, the game is always-online with fellow players populating the world. But like The Crew before it, you're unlikely to link up with racers unless you organise it in advance. At times, it seems like the world is just too big to rely on such a mechanic. If you do happen upon a fellow racer, you can propose a challenge, but there isn't much at stake win-or-lose.
You'll mostly realise you're connected with other players is when you see cars stranded at the side of the road, which is the equivalent of pausing the game, or you get a message to tell you that someone has joined or left the game session.
Racing is just one part of this year's Need for Speed; customisation is another core element to be found here. How much you can do to the overall design of your car depends heavily on which one you're trying to customise. Some cars just don't let you do that much to the bodywork, so it's worth checking online guides for reassurance that you can tweak all the parts you want to customise before investing your hard-earned money in a new car.
Where Need for Speed offers plenty of personalisation options is the Wrap Editor. It offers a wealth of shape templates, logos, pre-designed patterns, and more that you can use to create a work of art. The update has added the ability to mirror your design on the other half, which is essential. And then you can take to the street to show your work off. You may want to take advantage of the dusk and dawn hours where it's is most visible. While the nighttime setting suits the idea of street racing, it doesn't lend itself to showing off what you've done to your ride.
Need for Speed draws upon some of the best of the series, offering a narrative that pushes the action along and a decent amount of customisation, but the experience is tarnished by less than stellar race craft, a big open world that doesn't offer quite enough, and the need to always be online. Need for Speed needs some tuning, but Ghost Games intends to release free DLC and updates over time. Future updates and releases certanly have a solid enough foundation to build upon.
3.5 / 5 - Mark O'Beirne