Entering its 23rd year of existence, the Need For Speed franchise has promised, and on many occasions delivered, a scintillating and breakneck sense of speed accompanied by fast and frenetic racing. In turn, this has managed to scratch a compulsive itch for arcade racing game fans the world over, to become the premier racing game series with consistent iterations attempting to offer players a thrilling Hollywood calibre spectacle, while faithfully harking back to what made NFS the success it has become. Lately though – and let’s be blunt here – the series is better off being smothered to death with a duvet cover.
Here are five big reasons why Need For Speed needs to at least take a sabbatical, and at most needs to crash through a windscreen and impale itself on a tree branch.
5. Hollywood Influences
Somebody please tell EA and the developers under their wing to halt the Hollywood presentations in several of their games.
In the past decade the clinging and cloying of the Need For Speed franchise’s attempts at cuddling up to Hollywood has seen a myriad of ill-fitting grabs at replicating the spectacle and the drama of a blockbuster – ending up as roadkill B-movie dross that only serves to embarrass a once great series.
Need For Speed: Undercover is one example of a downward trajectory for the acclaimed NFS series. The garishly abhorrent ‘voice acting’ of the title, fronted by a sexually seductive fatale who talks at you in pre-rendered cutscenes, tries to immerse you in its webbed criminal underworld. But instead they do a greater job of coming off as multi-second spurts of flatulent, where you’re vaguely given some context – but none of your actions in the game are reflected upon in the cinematics – making you a tool who can’t speak let alone object to this dreadfully designed husk of a game. Not content at stopping there, the cringe-inducingly cliched representations of Hispanics are so distasteful to hear, you may instead opt to contact your local audiologist to remove traces of left over turgid dialogue.
Need For Speed: Undercover is like sitting in an Audi TT with nothing but carbon monoxide gas and some flirtatious pinups. It’s best to break the windows and squeeze yourself out of the frame while you can. Aptly speaking, NFS Undercover boasts very few qualities, but the cutscenes are enough to leave you desperate for oxygen.
Elsewhere, the 2015 Need For Speed admittedly does a better job at rolling out cinematic junk food, but once again the cutscenes feel detached from the racing experience you undertake. In this Need For Speed you play as a camera, where you essentially make friends with a group of McDonalds employees, who love their rides and mucking about. Despite its absurdity it’s almost so bad it’s good – not saying it’s The Room of videogame cutscenes – but there’s some positive relief to be had if you don’t mind the B-movie tat. This isn’t to say the Hollywood influence is good on this occasion, but you could find yourself endeared more than you should be about the presentation this time out.
And that brings us to the worst example of Need For Speed’s love affair with Hollywood. Need For Speed Payback is a racing game that loves cutscenes so much that a hijack sequence takes place entirely as a piece of action you watch instead of play. GTA: San Andreas on the PS2 had a pleasing hijack sequence that you could play unfettered and in its entirety; in Payback you look on as you are bombarded with cinematics as the game constantly swipes control from your hands to show you action like you’d watch in one of the Fast & Furious films. This example alone illustrates how low Need for Speed has sunk and that it needs some specialist help.
4. Following Trends Instead of Setting Them
This speaks for itself really, Need For Speed has a long history of taking ideas from external properties and applying them to itself instead of coming up with fresh forward-thinking ideas.
Let’s go to exhibit A: Burnout. How often has Need For Speed tried to ape the success of Burnout? Too many times – heck even once is too much. Again, Need For Speed: Payback is a glistening and glazed culprit, so shiny and ornate in its cribbing the game might as well shed the NFS identity and call itself URGP- Ultimate Racing Game Parody. Or ‘parity’ as far as EA are concerned because they seem completely unconcerned or oblivious that Need For Speed needs to be a videogame you can play instead of a film you can watch. Instead they are perfectly content on replacing Burnout with Need For Speed because in Payback you can crash into police cars in a similar way you could in Burnout, but a whole lot less fun and spontaneous.
The better NFS games suffer from borrowed/stolen ideas too. In the case of Need For Speed: Rivals the bright bulbs of ingenuity come from another series staple – 2010’s Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. Now you could forgive Rivals because it transitions the excellent gameplay from Hot Pursuit onto current-gen hardware, but fundamentally it’s the same game. Your Rivals are cops or racers depending on which side of the law you want to party with, you’re treated to a suite of high-tech gadgets to take your adversaries out at whim, and you can shunt into your rivals and bask in the glory of a neat wreckage served up by your aggressive driving tactics. The resulting hefty fine that even NFS Rivals can’t escape from comes from too many parallels being drawn from its predecessors. Honestly it’s hard to choke NFS: Rivals like a chicken because it’s a decent enough entry in the series when the slaughterhouse-bound detritus of its predecessors and successors do greater damage to the credibility of the franchise, but impartiality is critical here and Rivals’ knuckles make contact with barbed wire whilst reaching for cookies in the proverbial jar.
2008 was a perennial year for the racing game genre. The shackles of linearity were lifting and we were exposed to spaghetti open world racers, where you had to pause the game and open the map to check you were racing down a coherent route en route to the finish line. Burnout Paradise and Midnight Club: Los Angeles took to this new style with panache and fervour with likeable critical results. And guess whose lungs were packed with toxic exhaust fumes afterwards? Yes Need For Speed: Undercover – a tragic case of exuberance over substance. The entire point of an open world structure is to explore and revel in the events and challenges you find on the map, but in Undercover you can scenically peruse the menu and trigger fast travel to the total futility of the open structure. You could argue against all of Undercover’s shortcomings because there are some admittedly thrilling action scenarios, but you cannot abandon the open-world structure for menu access. There’s just no logic behind such befuddling design choices like this one.
Honourable mention goes to 2011’s Need For Speed: The Run for its action-heavy stints, but surprisingly despite the lukewarm reception it received, it’s not a bad Need For Speed title at all and has a few bold ideas… regardless of whether they worked or not.
3. The Best Games Go Back Over a Decade
Need For Speed: Most Wanted, Need For Speed: Underground and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 are the very best games the series has produced over the years. All three of them are retro-flavoured Xbox classics now, and nothing has come close to filling the void since. Street racing became delectable in videogame form because of Need For Speed’s moreish arcade handling and superlative racing gameplay, but the dust has settled and now rust is forming on its steadily eroded carcass, accompanied by cobwebs and a trowel of grime.
You would think that current hardware would maximise the thrills of Need For Speed unlike any before, but using the three NFS games that have spawned this generation as case studies, the result is cluttered and confused. Rivals is (as stated above) a good game but nothing groundbreaking, the 2015 Need For Speed is polarising and unexciting, and Payback is a Michael Bay-like trainwreck. What on earth went so wrong?
Expectations could be a contributing factor because with progressively powerful hardware comes the natural demand for refined and ultimately better videogames. You could say Need For Speed is stuck in the past, but were this the case then the excellent pedigree would bleed copiously through them, and they’d possibly be accepted and lauded for retaining the series’ own DNA. Alas scrutiny would still stalk and hound them mercilessly like a nefarious chocolate fudge sundae from your nightmares if you were diabetic.
2. Monetisation Avarice
Perhaps what’s fresh now is no longer fresh to the demanding eyes of the contemporary audience. EA have seen fit to give us action-oriented racing game experiences and Hollywood-style cutscenes, but there becomes little room for experimentation and innovation if the main concerns are monetary and squeezing every penny out of us via way of a loot box.
The avarice of mainstream publishers are today’s largest bugbear in the videogame industry, and this bug has bitten Need For Speed: Payback – an ironic name because we seem to be paying back EA for buying their newest racing game. None of this alienation existed two generations ago though. In fact we had genuine choice in the racing game genre as a whole back in those halcyon days; now only the biggest moneymakers barge in like a clatter of belligerent rhinos, and use their player base to fuel their sinew-winded pectorals – such is the ill of modernity.
It’s sad to witness Need For Speed as a moneymaking shrill for a big-name publisher because the quality has declined along with the franchise’s dignity, hopefully with some respite and a sip of Monster Energy, Need For Speed can reclaim its spot on the podium of great racing games.
1. Time off is Only a Good Thing
When you spend two weeks straight working your keister, you may feel desperate for some time off and away from work. What this achieves does wonders for your mental wellbeing, your personal life and therapeutically heals the strain from constant overworking. Now apply this logic from the everyday world of work and think of the potential for a massive comeback for the Need For Speed franchise.
When the demands of developing a yearly instalment of a videogame franchise becomes top priority, the focus on making a fantastic product automatically becomes secondary. If taking a year off means we get Need For Speed entries that aren’t designed by committee and actually showboat with new features and a careful attention paid to what other developers are doing, then hey presto, we got ourselves a challenger and potential champion.
Y’see Need For Speed seems to tuck itself away like it was hiding under sheets of newspaper come its November launch date. Yes it is a big game to come out in that very month, but what with Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and a herd of other triple A releases releasing around that time, Need For Speed needs to own the room and carpe diem – except to take the moment into future instalments instead of running into a clothesline wearing all the clothes backwards and inside-out.
We still love you Need For Speed but if we want to fully embrace you, we want positive change and fun experiences that won’t prompt our nostalgic reminiscences to take full force. Take a break, have a Kit-Kat if you want, or a smoke, or go to a massage parlour for waxing – anything to take the stress away from the grind of another underwhelming release.
Now is the time to show us faithful fans what the series is truly capable of.