After a year off, Need for Speed has the series coasting back over familiar turf, resurrecting the spirit of 2003 and 2004’s successful Underground games. It is, at least, a more clearly distinct game than the last few NFS instalments were from one another. It looks incredible, sounds fantastic, and while the handling is still standard arcade fare developer Ghost Games has added a welcome dose of nuance by letting us tune our cars for either grip or drift. However, the single-player component is over too soon, the multiplayer underdelivers, the cut-scene dialogue often had me wincing, and the game is stung by the side-effects of being online-only.
We Own the Night
It is immediately extremely pretty, though. There are dark and gritty instances where it feels a little like the whole thing has been shot on Michael Mann’s iPhone, but racing at speed through the soaked streets here (particularly in bumper cam) is really something else. The cars glisten with beaded water droplets and the streets gleam, a shiny tapestry of mirror-like asphalt reflecting artificial light from all angles. Need for Speed 2015 also sounds nearly as good as it looks; the throaty burble of performance-tuned engines is well-realised and the crackle of exhaust overrun and the ker-chunk of slamming gears is similarly respectable. However, the sudden, jarring transitions from the dead of night, to pre-dawn, and then back to night again are horribly ill-conceived. These transitions seem to be baked into parts of the environment so they can actually happen multiple times over the course of a single race.
The eclectic roster of cars is only a fraction of what’s on offer in, say, Forza Horizon 2, but it has a little something for most gearheads. Garage spots are limited to five but the focus here isn’t collecting; it’s perfecting. I completed most of Need for Speed in a single car, constantly cramming upgrades into it to keep it ahead of the competition.
Performance customisation is the basic kind (bolt in everything you’re eligible to purchase and your car will go faster) but there’s a little more to visual customisation. You can sweep around your car, swap external panels, add flair to fenders, install canards, adjust stance, and more. There’s also a freeform livery editor, which definitely beats having to make do with simple, pre-set designs and wraps. You can’t modify everything, though; after I completed the story mode I splurged on a classic Ferrari F40 but was disappointed to discover I could barely do anything to it. I couldn’t even change the rims. It seems at odds with the game’s philosophy.
It’s still good to have customisation of any sort back in Need for Speed, and with it comes several basic tuning options you can use to alter your car’s driving characteristics. The main slider adjusts all settings, nudging your car towards a drift setup or a grip setup, but you can dive deeper and massage certain steering, tyre pressure, and braking power settings individually to fine tune your ride. I much preferred the drift setup for all race types because I found it far easier to get around corners by poising my Focus in a slide via a bootful of throttle and liberal use of opposite lock, rather than navigate the bends with a grip tune. The latter feels too twitchy at low speeds and too prone to understeer at higher ones, and I found myself getting frustrated trying to find the balance. Odd is the fact that, while Need for Speed has brought back tuning in a big way, the option for a manual transmission hasn’t made an appearance.
First-person Fist Bumping
Need for Speed’s light narrative plays out in a series of short, live-action cut-scenes, brimming with slang I don’t understand, excessive energy drink consumption, overuse of the word “hashtag”, and a slightly comical amount of first-person fist-bumping.
There are five main characters who, when they aren’t speaking to each other like living, breathing internet memes, each represent a different one of Need for Speed’s five themed racing threads. All of these threads lead to an encounter with a real-life automotive icon; an idea which I genuinely like.
The best thread is ‘Outlaw’, which is really just a mix of all the game’s race types with the cops on your tail. The cop action is scaled back from Hot Pursuit and Rivals but I certainly appreciate how the police AI seems a lot more fair and bound by the in-game physics than it ever did in Ubisoft’s The Crew. Considering it was the standout mode in the old Underground games, the lack of any drag racing in Need for Speed seems like a misguided omission.
It’s not an especially long story, though. There are 79 main events, but I blasted through them in just two days. The often shameless rubber band AI screwed me out of a few wins here and there but, for the most part, there were only a handful of races I needed to repeat. This modest length might be less of a problem if the multiplayer was more robust, but it isn’t.
Watch official launch trailer
Like The Crew, Need for Speed requires a constant internet connection to play – even if you want to play solo. Unlike The Crew, you can’t just simply opt into multiplayer and rely on the game to take care of matchmaking and enlist you into a series of events. This really didn’t need to be an always online game, and because it is, you can’t even pause the game, which I found extraordinarily annoying. Plus, without decent PvP, the only thing left after the brief campaign is hunting down Need for Speed’s frankly boring collectables. Exactly why are we collecting photographs of plain, dimly-lit parking lots and anonymous warehouses?
Need for Speed looks the part, sounds the part, and is surprisingly reverent to real-world car culture. I like the direction Ghost has taken here, and I think it’s the right one, but beneath its flashy exterior it’s not quite firing on all cylinders.