I have a nasty feeling this is going to be one of those reviews where I spend a lot of time complaining, and then finish up with “but I quite like it anyway.”
And I do. I really, really do. Need for Speed is a flawed game in a lot of ways (mostly through numerous niggling issues rather than gaping holes) but if you can forgive or mitigate those problems – and if some of its specific design decisions don’t piss you off too much – it’s one that’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
Plot and setting are hardly the game’s strong point, but for what it’s worth, you’re a nameless, faceless driver looking to get a reputation in the fictional city of Ventura Bay. At the very beginning, you hook up with a small crew of like-minded enthusiasts, all of whom take part in shamelessly hammy live-action cutscenes while moonlighting as mission-givers (and all of whom, I later learned, are British actors, which is actually kind of impressive as I didn’t pick up on their fake accents).
Spike, referred to in my Version Impressions piece as a twat in a cap, is a boy racer. Robyn loves to hang out with the (real life) Risky Devils crew. Manu is all about control and drifting. Amy is a mechanic who idolises Akira Nakai. Travis is the weirdly Zen leader of the bunch. And then there’s the mysterious (except not really) “Outlaw” who keeps texting you missions to fuck with the cops.
There’s no drama. There’s no evil race-king villain who stole your dog and ran over your girlfriend. You’re not trying to take over the city by driving fast. There are one or two instances where characters get annoyed with you or each other, but things are patched up almost immediately; everyone just wants to drive, have fun, and get noticed by the various Real-Life Big Names that appear. And honestly? I really like that, not least because it lends a casual, fun air to everything, and because it’s totally impossible to take the wonderfully cheesy cutscenes seriously anyway.
The upshot of all of this is that you’ll regularly be texted or called up and offered missions along five linear mission paths, with each route relating to one of the characters. Ignore a character’s missions for awhile and they’ll probably phone you up again to berate you, which is excellent, especially when it happens while you’re trying to take a corner at 150MPH. (I mean that seriously, by the way, although I do wish there was an option to respond with “FUCK OFF I’M TRYING TO STEER A ROCKET.”)
Doing just about anything – drifting, driving fast, going from 0-60 incredibly quickly, smashing through stuff, getting chased by the cops – earns you Reputation, and the higher your Reputation, the more expensive and impressive parts you can purchase with the credits earned from races.
I say “races”, but racing is really only one of the disciplines in Need for Speed. You can broadly divide most of the game’s events into the categories of “go really fast” or “go really stylishly”, with a few overlapping between the two. There are sprint races (go from A to B), circuit races, and time trials. There are drift trains, drift challenges, touges, and gymkhanas. And then there are events that force you to do things in a certain vehicle or with a certain tuning, like keeping a chase with the cops going for five minutes and then escaping them… in a car that has under 200 horsepower.
This is good! The various different types of challenge offer quite a lot of variety, and until you start finishing character “paths”, you’ll always have at least five progression missions open to you at any given time.
This is also bad, because some of the challenges border heavily on being as much about luck as they are about skill. Let’s do an example, shall we?
Fairly late on in the game, I got invited to hang out with the Risky Devils and do a Drift Train event with them. A Drift Train is a type of challenge where you get points for drifting, but only if you’re near to the other cars; it’s as much about staying with the pack as it is actually drifting. The more cars you’re near, the higher your bonus multiplier.
So, I’m in my carefully-tuned drifting vehicle. We’re in a line. We’re a pack. We’re going to look amazing drifting, one after another, in close proximity, around these winding mountain bends. They’re the Risky Devils; they’re going to be shit-hot at this. I’d better not screw up.
One car completely bins it on the first corner, causing one of the vehicles behind them to also crash. A car in the middle avoids the crash and trundles off on its own. The two cars at the front of the pack, unhindered by the carnage, accelerate at light-speed into the distance.
All of a sudden, the massive multiplier I’d get for staying with the cars is pretty heavily reduced, because the cars aren’t near each other. So do I stop and wait for the cars at the back and hope that they stick together and don’t crash again? Do I overtake them and try to catch up with the middle car, even though that’ll only give me a minor multiplier? Do I race as fast as I can to catch up with the leaders, missing out on points for every single corner along the way? Or do I just restart the race and hope that next time, the AI won’t shit itself?
Need for Speed seems to know this can happen as most of its events are reasonably generous with their demanded scores or times, but nonetheless, having events that rely on an incredibly inconsistent AI is unbelievably frustrating. Other drift events might have someone smash you into the wall as you’re finishing up a perfect drift, cancelling out the plethora of points you’d have earned.
This is where the online open-world thing comes in, and can help or hinder. When you connect to Need for Speed (and as the game appears to be online-only, I really do mean “connect”) you’re put onto an instanced server with a bunch of other players. They’ll be driving around and doing missions, and you can challenge them when you pass them, or ram into them, or whatever. It’s a nice bit of extra flavour when you blitz past a junction and notice five cars screaming around the corner and realise that another player is doing a race.
When you start an event, you can also invite the rest of the server to join you. This actually works pretty well for the most part: I had a few netcode blips with teleporting cars and the like, but that doesn’t really matter too much in a lot of the modes, and I’ve only ever had one server error which lasted for about 10 seconds. It also seems like the “host” is whoever started the event; if you’re trying to do a tricky mission and you invite a few others along for the ride, I’m 90% sure that the AI drivers are all “local” to your computer.
(You can opt to play solo, on your own instanced server with nothing but AI drivers roaming around, but you still have to connect to the game’s servers before doing this. So yeah, online only.)
Of course, this also means that – outside of group invites – only one player can be doing a particular event at a time. And while it might help with things like the aforementioned drift trains, most players were content to just do their thing rather than join in with events or accept challenges. So, for me, all this really did was add a little extra character and occasionally stop me from starting events.
The open-world progression stuff also leads to a few other holes. There’s no pause function, for instance. Restarting a mission is far from instantaneous, and if the police are on your tail, you cannot restart until you’ve lost them. Screw up badly on the first corner of a race where you start out being chased by the police? No, you can’t restart. You need to escape first. And it’s even more irritating because they’re almost never a serious threat.
The garage walks a similar line of being a neat idea with mildly irritating execution. I love having a stable of personally tuned cars. I love that I have this one for drifting, and this one for ludicrous speeds and acceleration, and this one that sits in the middle. I love that I can make them look like a clown vomited on them, and that I can go really in-depth and adjust front tyre pressure and so on. I do not understand cars in the slightest and I spent a long time fiddling with this stuff, making my fleet of vehicles respond exactly how I wanted them to.
On the other hand, spending 10 seconds teleporting back to the garage to tweak a single variable, another 10-20 seconds to leave the garage to test it out, and then repeating a few times, gets very wearying, as opposed to at least having the option to tweak out in the open world. So too does having to teleport back to the garage to change vehicle or tuning every time, in fact. At least the vehicle damage (excluding spike-strip shredding) appears to be purely cosmetic, so you don’t need to teleport back after every event.
As far as I can tell, there’s also no custom playlist, which makes me very sad. I eventually just set up a playlist outside of the game and muted the game’s music, but that’s not really ideal, particularly when phone calls or cutscenes happen.
Also, it’s a really dark game. I’d have loved to see my cars in lighting other than “midnight” and “vaguely approaching dawn.” Also also, with a few exceptions, Ventura Bay is a complete ghost town, with even the highways having only a couple of cars on them at a time. I don’t mind this as I quite like having a nice stretch of road to blast through at 230MPH, but you might.
Still, Need for Speed did at least seem to be mostly bug free. Barring one occasion when I somehow got stuck inside a police car, the only major issue was when I started getting my hands on the unbelievably nippy cars, and the area streaming… um, failed to keep up. I was turning corners and finding a black expanse of nothingness, and then suddenly the lights and road and buildings would pop in. At one point it apparently totally failed to load the area, as I accelerated into a grey void and my car plummeted through into infinity.
… and yet I still really, really like Need for Speed. Seriously: most of the complaints I’ve made here are, genuinely, pretty minor. It’s just that they add up to an experience that aggravates as much as it pleases.
Need for Speed does fantastically well at providing a varied and entertaining arcade racer which doesn’t take itself even remotely seriously. It creates a phenomenal sense of speed, and when starting to approach the sound barrier, your car really does feel like some terrifying monster that you’re barely keeping under control. I love this stuff. I love the drifting and the driving. I love the cheesy characters and the FMV and the tuning and the cameos. The arguably more important stuff is great. I just get really, really annoyed by lots of little things.
Truthfully, I suspect I like this game a lot more than you would; I think most people will have a much bigger problem with its numerous flaws than I do. But then, I can’t really give it a score based on what the popular opinion might be, so drive this with caution.
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he’s willing to admit. He’s written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion – in all its various incarnations – for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He’s also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man’s only professional games journalist.