We thought we'd take the "in-your-face" approach to reviewing Ghost Games' apparent "reboot" of the Need for Speed franchise, which we were disappointed to learn has very little to do with 1994's Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed. We will not apologise for it because nothing can hold us back. We're edgy. We're cool. We're sipping on a four pack of Monster™ Energy, watching a video of Ken Block™ and the Hoonigan™ guys on YouTube™, using Skype™ to chat with our crew, all the while staring creepily right into your eyes and offering up a fist bump. You cool, dawg? Cool. KK. Please like us. We told you we were edgy and hip and cool. That should be enough. Give us those sweet mad dope props!
If you thought that was the most painfully desperate attempt at being part of the zeitgeist since your father tried to do that impression of The Fonz at your family's last barbecue, then you can pretty much rule out enjoying Need for Speed. Much like good old dad slicking his hair back, thrusting his thumbs skyward and shouting "Sit on it, Potsie! Eeeeyyyyyy!" in an accent that seems to be from New York, Cardiff and Johannesburg all at the same time, Need for Speed is a game that doesn't really seem to know what it wants to be. Even worse, it doesn't have much of an idea about how it's going to get there. The dull and forgettable open world of Ventura Bay exists in the same manner as Tom's Midnight Garden, having a day/night cycle that uncomfortably skips the daylight hours for no reason at all other than because racing at night allows more neon to be shown off. As you're driving, night turns to later that night, which jumps straight into dusk on the following day (in the space of a few seconds) and then back to night again. The relatively large city is populated with a handful of AI drone vehicles (such as Hot Wheels™ branded vans), characters from the campaign, about four police patrol cars, and five or six other real-world players who are only there due to the fact that the developer has decided that you MUST be online to play, even if you just want to play through the single-player game.
That online requirement is entirely baffling, given that all it does is get in the way. You don't ever race against other real players in the single-player campaign, so pretty much the only points that being online raises are negative. If the server goes down for maintenance, you're kicked out of your single player race and the game entirely. If one of the other real players in your version of the world is driving towards you on the wrong side of the road while you're in a neck and neck race with an AI opponent, they'll unintentionally wreck your car and lose you the race. Similarly, if the shoe is on the other foot, you can be travelling to your next campaign stop and entirely ruin someone else's game as their race awkwardly collides with your route. Of course, you can take part in online events and rock around the place with your buddies, but – much the same as pretty much every review said should have been the case in the developer's last crack at things, Need for Speed: Rivals – online play should be optional. Always. But why listen to feedback?
Once you get used to the fact that there will always be a 13-year-old kid called BlazeItBlazeIt420 or a 48-year-old accountant called xXxX-Terminator316-xXxX in your game who stops dead and parks right in front of the garage exit for fun, you'll learn to deal with it until you realise that because the game is always online, you can't pause it. At all. Phone ringing in the real world? Oh well, they'll either have to call back or you'll have to replay that 10-minute event again after your call, but only after you've driven all the way back to the start, of course.
You can restart a race, but only if you hit the restart option before the race ends. There's no option to quickly replay an event after you've passed the finish line, which makes the game's ludicrous rubber-band AI all the more painful. In one event, we managed to deftly avoid a police car, watching as our main opponent wasn't so lucky. Ten seconds later, we were so far ahead with three quarters of a mile to go that no other drivers were even showing on our map. Of course, we lost as the competition's upgraded 1997 Toyota Supra SZ-R managed to somehow blaze past our fully tuned 2015 McLaren 570S (which was doing over 200mp/h at the time) just before the line. This happens frequently and even in team events, the AI seems to want to cause you to fail. In a Drift Train, you have to perform drifts with your team mates, while staying as close to each other as you can. Get too far away, and your drifts don't award you any points. It should be a fun challenge, but your crew will either try to do the whole thing at 30 mp/h, meaning that drifting is unreasonably tough, or will just drive directly into you on every other corner. They'll do anything to stop you from succeeding, in order to add some semblance of a challenge to proceedings.
Not that your crew being massively annoying during an event is any surprise, given the way that the campaign is presented. Missions are doled out in a first-person video style with your cohorts all fist-bumping, hugging, doing weird handshakes and staring right through you as if you don't exist. A very good cast of actors has been reduced to looking like corporate shills. There's Manu - the cool one – who's utterly obsessed with Ken Block to the point that he's probably got a picture of him in a frame on his upcycled bedside cabinet and who somehow stays "zen" while being hopped up on a million cans of Monster™ Energy. Then you have Robyn, the stunningly attractive blonde who somehow retains her good looks despite being up all night racing cars and being "such a slob" that she only eats week-old pizza and drinks Monster™ Energy. Spike – the twitchy kid – looks like he has an intravenous drip of Monster™ Energy jammed into his arm at all times and is endlessly annoying. Travis – the old hand – looks like he'd be more at home with a bottle of whisky, two divorces, and a bad attitude, but only drinks Monster™ Energy whilst occassionally trying to look menacing. Then there's Amy – the spunky mechanic – who is the most convincing of the bunch and only seems to drink Monster™ Energy at parties or when there's more than one person around. Professional driver Ken Block shows up in his Monster™ Energy-branded clothing of course, and deserves praise for doing a very decent acting job while guzzling cans of Monster™ Energy.
All of the actors deserve praise, to be fair. We may be wailing on the characters somewhat, but we have to stress that the scripting and ideas are what makes the video segments so poor, not the actors themselves. They do the best they can with what they've been asked to do and that is very much to their credit.
Did we mention that there's lots of Monster™ Energy involved? We imagine that most of the development budget went on Monster™ Energy, in fact.
It sure as heck didn't go on the handling model, which despite being able to be tweaked a million ways until Sunday, never really feels right. Tune your car for drifting and you'll find that it's always just a little bit too slippery for use in any sort of event involving both drifting and pace. Tune it ever so slightly too much the other way to a grippier setup and you'll find that drifting is all but off the cards unless you hammer the handbrake relentlessly. (It's alright EA, that isn't a shout out for a different energy drink brand…relax.) This wouldn't be too much of an issue as you could just have two cars with two setups and switch between them, but the game only lets you change cars or perform tuning at one particular garage (which you can fast travel to) without giving you the option to then fast travel to your next event. If you're at the starting line of a drift event in your grip car at the top of the map, you'll have a ten mile drive through Genericville ahead of you to get from the garage and back to the starting line if you want to change cars. Fun. Still, at least you'll have time to be able to chuckle at how the developer has decided to include Touge racing and yet somehow completely ignored any of the accepted descriptions of what that actually is, instead turning it into a dull competition where you get more points for pulling off drifts while you're leading than you do if you're in last place.
Those between-race jaunts through the game world are supposed to be where the fun of cruising comes in. You drive around looking for cool things (of which there are very few), antagonise the police, and get involved in pursuits. Only, the police are woefully underpowered and as dumb as a box of really dumb rocks. Some events require you to get into chases, rack up a set amount of fines, then escape. We found that the police are so unbelievably incompetent that in every single case, we had to actually turn around during a chase and go back to reengage them or the game would decide that we had escaped before we reached our goal. Drive at anything above 60 mp/h and you'll lose them in seconds as they roll along at the speed limit, shouting "Hey! Come back!" over and over and driving into walls, cars, bridge supports, buildings, and anything else that they should be able to avoid with their eyes closed. Their hardware never improves, either. Get to the maximum "four alarm" chase and the police will throw in an occasional roadblock that you can drive through, or a more permanent type of block where you'll have time to stop dead and make a three-point turn, before driving away at the speed limit without being caught. Across our entire time with the game – some 15 hours - the cops deployed spike strips ONCE, which we avoided easily, going on to escape by simply accelerating down a straight road. As we say, we weren't just avoiding chases either, since the game forces you to engage the police on multiple occasions to progress the story.
The cops aren't the only thing that fail to make sense. Communication with your crew in the campaign is done via your phone (obviously) so you'll constantly find that they're texting and calling you, even when you're taking part in events. During a race with Manu where everyone is driving at top speed, your phone will ring and it'll be a group chat with Robyn and Manu, with Robyn asking you why you're leaving her hanging for the drift event that's taking place on the other side of town and Manu talking about how he's just chilling at the garage when in actual fact, he's driving the car that is right in front of you. Amy will call you and arrange to meet up at The Longhorn pub (pool table, sawdust, every flavour of Monster™ Energy on draft, general depression) saying that Spike is already there and wants to talk. But Spike has asked you to meet up at the diner and when you get to the eatery, he's sat with Manu, Robyn, Travis, and…Amy, who's well into her third can of Monster™ Energy and looks like she's been there a while. Was she lying? Well, Red Bull gives you wings, but Monster™ Energy apparently lets you be in six places at once. We're not sure if that's true, but if it is, it should be on the advertising.
The ability to have these different crew members involved who all focus on different elements – style, speed, modifications, cop chases, etc. – is good since it gives you the choice to advance each of the stories at your own pace, but the way in which they interact makes very, very little sense. A gradually increasing rivalry with Spike loses its punch when he's a bit ticked off at you, then making you a Monster™ Energy-branded friendship bracelet because he's your absolute bestest bud in the whole wide world, then wanting to punch you in the face, all because you did the missions in the order that you wanted to and in the order that the game allowed you to.
Undoubtedly, some will get around the stacks of issues that Need for Speed exhibits and will find that they have a decent time of things. There are times when it comes close to a Most Wanted or a Hot Pursuit, but it never really locks in the addictive streak and general adrenaline rush that those games did. When you're tearing up the freeway, narrowly avoiding obstacles and emptying the nitrous tank, that brief period of time is exciting and enjoyable, but then the overly-thick driving line on the GPS makes you miss your exit and lose the race, or an opponent that wasn't there a second ago suddenly puts you into the wall, or a real life driver out for a casual spin manages to wreck your car, or Spike calls to ask you what your favourite flavour of Monster™ Energy is or if you want to come round and play with his new Hot Wheels™ cars, or you remember that video segment where Robyn says "Don't worry, he's just jelly…" without a single shred of shame or remorse for being an adult who talks that way.
Still, it all looks pretty nice.
That's the takeaway from Need for Speed. It all looks pretty nice and tries very, very desperately to be cool, but the actual game behind the graphics isn't close to being polished enough for a recommendation. The always-online requirement which is apparently only there because you have to be online to be able to share snapshots (seriously, that's the claim) is an absolute abomination but you'll be able to live with it, at least until EA kill the servers in a year or two and you won't be able to play the game anymore. Need for Speed isn't unplayable by any means, but there's a laundry list of things that can – and often do – stop that playing time from being very enjoyable.