Twenty-one years ago, the first Need for Speed game hit retail and started to engrain itself in pop culture. Now, after numerous iterations, all bearing different subtitles and driving styles, the venerable racing series is back with a rebooted effort. Though, while the effort was made to create a game that would appeal to all arcade racing fanatics, the end result is a merely decent experience that is marred by one dimensional storytelling, technical problems and occasionally frustrating gameplay.
Following in the footsteps of 2013’s solid and immersive Need for Speed: Rivals, Ghost Games’ Need for Speed 2015 is a game that tries something different. Instead of telling its story through cutscenes featuring computer generated characters, it uses FMVs with real life actors. It does the job, and isn’t too jarring with its mix of real environments and CG vehicles, but things are all rather one dimensional. The characters, themselves, are all nice people, but all they really care about is racing and they lack any sort of depth. Then again, if you go into an arcade racing game like this expecting an Oscar worthy narrative, your expectations are far too high.
The majority of the cast comprises a friendly, under the radar crew, which runs a garage in the game’s fictional setting of Ventura Bay. There, they work on builds and try to suss out nightly action, in the hopes that their efforts will be noticed by the best of the best, such as legendary builder Nakai-san and Gymkhana thrill-seeker Ken Block. As an unnamed male protagonist whose first-person perspective provides a window into this world, the player’s goal is to bring these gearheads into the limelight.
This plot is what it is, and though it won’t win any awards or be remembered for more than its use of FMVs, it does the job it sets out to by giving you reason to race. Its cast of unknowns also helps to sell this world, although they tend to go overboard rather often and love to make phone calls.
If it was just the full motion cutscenes and the odd phone call, this would all be okay, but Need for Speed loves to annoy those who play it with a near constant barrage of cellphone calls. In fact, it’s rare to go more than half a race without hearing from someone. These calls do a great job of taking you out of your element during races, and if you ignore them the caller will either call back or leave a message that you’ll have to check. Hell, the phone’s vibrating is annoying in and of itself.
Speaking of races, I’d be remiss if I didn’t explain how things are set-up. You see, Need for Speed is all about embracing different play styles, be it the speedster, the crew member, the flamboyant drifter, the renegade outlaw or the oil soaked builder. As such, its campaign runs the gamut of these types, tasking you with entering into a myriad of drift contests, winning a plethora of point to point races, scoring big in Gymkhana events and reaching the top of the leaderboard in touge events.
You’ll also be tasked with pissing off the cops — who have a rather sparse presence — and leading them around the city for several minutes, while crashing through a certain amount of roadblocks. This isn’t much fun, because there’s no radio chatter and you often need to slow down to keep the cops close during missions that ask you to engage in a chase for five minutes or more.
Disappointingly, the aforementioned event list is rather repetitive, and it doesn’t skimp on frustration. The entire game also seems to take place over one rain soaked night, although dawn does appear for a few seconds after a jarring mid-race transition, and the constantly wet roads become old hat after a while. The brunt of the frustration doesn’t come from repetition, though, and is actually the result of a combination of rubberbanding AI, annoying phone calls during races and end game events that require more perfection than the mechanics really support. It got to the point where my Lambo was practically too fast for the game, and it felt as if I was barely in control of a speeding rocket.
Although Ventura Bay is relatively open, its near constant rain, wet roads and lights can become a blur and make pathways difficult to see, and although traffic is surprisingly limited, it can pop out of nowhere and cause unexpected crashes. However, speed isn’t new to racing games and this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered such conditions. Need for Speed doesn’t help itself, though, because what is supposed to be a 30 frames-per-second framerate often drops at high speeds. Usually, what results is a momentary hiccup, but it can be enough to throw you off your game, and speed seems to be the culprit.
Need for Speed is also an online-only game, so you’ll need to be connected to EA’s servers in order to play it. This means that you can expect the game to want you to play amongst others, sharing the city, its mountainous range and its outskirts as you do this. I’ve never been a fan of online only games, and was happy to see that I could play by myself in a private lobby if I wanted to, much like I did through the majority of Rivals. It’s not something that’s advertised, but if you go into the options menu it’s there. It’s a good thing, too, because I’ve heard stories of EA Access players joining others’ lobbies and crashing into them just before they cross the finish line during hectic races.
Getting back to the play styles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t hit on the game’s one (yes, one) garage and its customization options, all of which were heavily advertised in pre-release promo materials. There’s quite a bit on offer, too, but a lot of it is locked behind Need for Speed‘s level system, which gives you cumulative experience points for things like drifts, victories and the like. I’ve also never seen a setting for the use of a manual transmission, and that may strike a sour chord with a lot of folks.
As you drive around, you can acquire different “free parts,” which are considered collectibles and can be found on the backs of parked trucks spread throughout unspectacular Ventura Bay. There are also donut spots to find, vistas to take pictures of, and miscellaneous drivers to challenge if that type of thing interests you, but none of it really feels cohesive or worthy of one’s limited time. The parts, themselves, are nice to find, but they seem to be things that can be purchased as upgrades from the garage itself. I could be wrong, though.
Parts you choose help to determine which kind of handling set-up you’ll use, with in-depth tuning allowing for two different extremes, those being drift and grip. If you go all the way to the grip side, the cars tend to feel tank-like, but if you go all the way to the other end it can be like driving on ice, so it’s important to find that happy medium. I much prefer drifting over grip driving, so that’s what I went with, but I did have moments where it didn’t feel as if I was in control of my chassis.
At times, when everything came together perfectly during an epic drift or a blisteringly fast race, Need for Speed had me feeling like an absolute badass, but those occasions were far too limited. As such, I’m left feeling that this is merely a half-decent racing game that suffers from an identity crisis alongside some technical problems and AI that will cheat in order to avoid second or third place. I was hoping for better, and honestly had a lot of excitement built up for this iteration, so I’m definitely disappointed that it’s not a home run. It looks good, when it’s not struggling to keep up with the on-screen action, and has quite a few things going for it, but the sum of all of those parts just doesn’t add up to anything noteworthy.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Ghost Games' Need for Speed reboot came with lofty promises, but fails to achieve greatness in any category, be it racing, building or customization. The core gameplay experience is half-decent, but it's marred by frustrating AI, technical imperfections, handling hiccups and constantly wet roads.