Screaming down the straightaway, the erstwhile Goatongue adjusted his grip on the wheel of his BMW. Though only minutes have passed, the battle for first was hard fought. He was so close to pulling ahead. His current rival was only meters ahead, expertly blocking every attempted pass. Still, riding in the slipstream, Goatongue saw his chance: a mephistophelean curve awaited. His plan was in place. Goatongue will allow the punk take the inside of the turn. Taking advantage of the meticulous work in tuning his chariot, he will drift a little wide, losing less momentum than his adversary. When straightened out, ample use of his nitro reserves will eek out the extra gain needed. At one hundred and fifty miles per hour, this plan was in action as soon as it was formed. The drift was good. A perfect balance of force of momentum, the rubber of his tires held dutifully to the road. It was going to work. Unfortunately, Goatongue did not account for meeting another six car race coming from the other direction. With a crunch of metal, his BMW was t-boned by the lead car of this other contest. Barrel rolling through the air, the hapless hero allowed himself one thought: “I hope I stopped the right one in that race.”
Not counting the “Complete Edition” re-release of the franchise’s previous entry, it’s been a couple of years since the last title in the Need for Speed franchise. The fact that EA and Ghost Games has seen fit to drop all subtitles and treat this like a complete franchise reboot certainly shows that business is well and truly meant. It’s in reputable hands: Ghost Games is staffed with folks who have a history of contributing to titles like the classic Project Gotham Racing, Forza Horizon, and the underrated Need for Speed: The Run. This pedigree does show when the game is working right. Sadly, the final product ends up being a mixed bag.
When first taking to the streets, the first noticeable attribute of this title is the graphics. Built on EA and Dice’s Frostbite engine, the city and its streets are a sight to behold. The pavement ranges from crumbling to fresh, the way the lights reflect off of the cars and rain puddles are astounding, and the detailing on the vehicles themselves are absolutely perfect. One hesitates to use the word “photorealistic,” but that is the most accurate term to employ; this may be the most convincingly realistic looking software title on the market. This is helped by some well thought out choices. With the exception of the full motion video cutscenes, no actual people are milling about the streets of this world. The decision to keep the racing strictly at night allowed Ghost to focus the lighting effects on a narrower subset of appearances. Also, there are few non-racers populating the streets.
While the decision to keep other traffic to a minimum in favor of preserving horsepower is understandable, the lack of traffic in this supposedly bustling city is extremely noticeable. The comedian Emo Phillips has remarked on occasion: “I love going to Peoria. It’s great. My favorite activity is going downtown on a Saturday night and pretending that I am the last man on Earth.” That is what it feels like here. This lack of population removes the thrill of weaving in and out of traffic, and the ability to take down an unwary opponent with a well timed nudge into an oncoming vehicle. One of the major moments that the series has been hanging its hat on in recent years, evading the police, is also much less likely to happen here. There just aren’t many black and whites about in this town.
While the AI population is less than expected, this would, in theory, be made up for by the fact that this title must be played online. When booting up the game, players must log into the server. With the fact that this title was available for preview for EA Access members, it made testing this portion much easier. During play, there always seemed to be about three other players populating the same instance. They can be warped to at any time using the map function. The idea is that there should always be other folks logged in and down for a race. In actuality, this led to many a race request to be ignored.
This gives truth to a fact that publishers and developers need to realize: when folks are digging through a single player mode, they simply don’t want to be bothered by a half-talented games reviewer trying to get a test race in. They want to play the campaign. If they desire multiplayer, then they would hop into multiplayer. While having this always-on environment can lead to humorous moments like the one Goatongue experienced, this is the exception, not the norm. The always online component brought forth some confusing issues. During test, there was one story race to be run against an AI teammate, Amy. When starting this race, another player began a different story based race nearby against the same opponent. The result was two players each trying to run a race against an identical rival that went into different directions. We both chose the wrong Amy.
Speaking of the story, the best, most descriptive adjective that can be used is “meh.” The player starts off running with a crew of the most unlikable jerks this side of reality television. There’s Spike, whose scripted personality is seems to be “lame dude that everyone else pretends to barely tolerate but really loves.” That’s how it comes across in the dialogue. In reality, the lame part was all that worked. Amy, the gear head, is supposed to be the strong tomboy. She’s just annoying. Manu is meant to be the zen inspired ring leader of this group. A better descriptor would be “stoned on enough illicit garbage to drop approximately three and a half Woody Harrelsons.” And Robyn, the worst of the bunch. Every moment of screen time she inhabits was an exercise in misery. The great news is that if the Hellraiser remake ever moves forward, Pinhead has a great acting coach available on how to make the audience squirm. Previous Need for Speed games used live action actors to tell a hilariously over-the-top, bombasticly nonsensical story with fantastically bad acting. With the reboot, taking the plot line back to a small, humble team of racers is a great idea. Please don’t make us hate them. It should also be noted that these scenes are unskippable. Since the game’s always online nature prevents pausing, the nicest thing that could be said about these sequences is that they provide a safe time to use the restroom.
The biggest pratfall Need for Speed endures is the frame rate. Multiple times a minute, it drops to five or below frames. On straightaways or just puttering around, this has no real effect on the driving. During a difficult high speed turn, however, the dropped frames and also mean just enough loss of input. This can take an deftly executed maneuver and turn into yet another angry car-on-barrier lovemaking session. During testing, it could not be determined definitively if this was due to the game itself or the internet connection being Comcastic. If it is the former, there is a chance that the issue gets resolved with a patch. If it is the latter, then there is another reason that requiring an internet connection for the single player portion of a title should be considered foolhardy at best. It should be noted that using the same connection, we were able to log into Neverwinter and wander the starter hub town lag free. We were also able to play a quick Master Chief Collection match with no issue. This does not rule out the cause being the internet connection, but it does put a crimp in that theory.
One facet where Need for Speed excels is in its options. There are multiple parts for the different vehicles to unlock and install, lending an a light loot cycle to the proceedings. The tuning of each vehicle with which to fiddle also adds some depth. While not to the level of a Gran Turismo, there are enough options here to allow some great min/maxing strategies for different vehicles. While the stable of vehicles is smaller compared to other titles of its ilk, there is enough variety to pick out a few favorites and tune them for different types of events. Finally, there are numerous ways to cosmetically personalize each vehicle. The plethora of available decals can be added in layers, giving the ability to make some unique creations.
The frustrating thing about all the flaws is that the game is magnificent when it works. Racing through the streets, throwing a Porsche around tight turns and blowing by opponents is unbelievably fun. With the exception of the “group drift runs,” each race type is a winner. A personal favorite are the races where position placement is just as important as driving like my hair is on fire to rack up the points. Pulling off stunts and driving stylishly adds points to the board. Where the player is in the group when the stunt is performed multiplies the value. While it has been done before, the way it is executed here is fantastic. One must also factor in the AI. Though trying to work with them shows that there are serious intellectual deficiencies, it can be brutal and unrelenting when it is the opponent.
Though it is a product of having an extra year’s development time, Need for Speed feels more like the ground work for what will become a top-notch racing franchise. This is extremely odd to say about a series that saw its first release the same year the first PlayStation released. There are so many glaring flaws right up front; the framerate bottoms out, the story characters forced upon the players are atrocious and the always online requirement simply eats up bandwidth while adding nothing to the experience. When it hits that perfect line, however, this manages to be a satisfying and beautiful experience.