Midnight. You’re minding your business on a mountain road, cruising south towards the sleeping city of Ventura Bay when some hooligan in a modified Honda Civic blows past you at twice the posted limit. The race is on. You chase the interloper, following the sound of his small engine bouncing off its redline. As you catch your newfound enemy at the entrance to the city, three more maniacs appear seemingly out of nowhere to join the impromptu race. This is the experience that “Need For Speed” wants to sell you.
The rebooted “Need For Speed” eschews the highfalutin world of the last series game, “Rivals,” and the ridiculously over-dramatized setting of “The Run” to return to underground street racing. There’s freedom in the cars you pick, how you drive them, and how you modify them to express yourself, much like the most popular entries in the franchise: “Need For Speed: Underground.” If you were hoping to see a successor to those games, the simply-titled “Need For Speed” is just what you’re looking for.
It certainly looks the part. Car textures are gorgeous, and encourage you to pore over your rides for hours in the garage. The game is set entirely at night for an “underground street racer” feel, and topped with a film grain effect reminiscent of modern Gymkhana and drift videos. It’s very much a cross-section of the modern car scene.
That doesn’t mean it’s alienating or elitist, however; while prior knowledge of car culture and driving will absolutely ramp up your enjoyment level, “Need For Speed makes” sure that entry into the club doesn’t require references from the Hall of Car Gods. The cars’ default setups don’t really require you to know much about driving to have fun, and the AI really doesn’t want you to fall behind. There are multiple aids on by default to help you along, though the game really opens up when you disable these things. A word of advice: build a drift car, learn the physics, slide everywhere.
The cars’ handling characteristics operate on a pretty simple spectrum, from the loose drift option to a much tighter “grip” end. Subtle changes won’t be as evident on the street as they would be in a racing simulator, but once you swing the settings a few notches one way or the other, you’ll immediately notice a personality change. Tuning and adjustments, despite their streamlined nature, are still the best the series has seen since “Underground 2.” Sure there’s no dyno tuning this time around, though that would be nice to see in a future update, but you can change spring settings, camber settings, ride height, differential settings and more.
Visual customization is deep as well, even if the menus for it are a bit clunky. The breadth of parts varies depending on which car you’ve got in the shop (which makes sense, you’ll find plenty of things for the Nissan 180SX but less for a Volvo 242). No matter what there’s at least a nice array of bumpers, side skirts, and aftermarket wheels (even though the latter selection feels a bit light compared to other open-world racers).
Speaking of the world, Ventura Bay is a joy to cruise through, mostly because it’s so quiet. Sure, this may seem like a bad thing to some, but the dearth of commuter cars and general apathy and sparseness of the VBPD means you can enjoy driving like an idiot in relative peace. Police pursuits are easy, and they rarely feel outside your control.
There is a story here, and although it’s no masterpiece it’s leagues above the terrible narratives the Need For Speed franchise is known for. Most of the characters are fun to watch, though a few are cringe worthy (e.g. Amy, the mechanic who’s somehow never dirty). Dialogue is a bit corny and the acting can be terrible at times, but the main crew holds it together for what becomes a fun ride.
But, of course, there are one or two problems. Most notably, the aforementioned city of Ventura Bay -- or rather, how the consoles produce it.
Sadly, there are performance issues. The game is normally rock-solid when you’re on your own, but it has a hard time holding a steady framerate if there’s a few cars on screen. The console versions are already locked at 30FPS because of hardware limitations, which is disappointing though not altogether surprising, but that would be okay if the game could hold a consistent 24-30FPS. Instead, when the going gets mildly tough, you’ll see some frame skipping as the game struggles to sometimes hold 15-18 FPS. Honestly, it can get pretty distracting.
Nevermind that Ventura Bay itself isn’t all that expansive. It’s not particularly small, but compared to the worlds of rivals like Forza Horizon 2 and even The Crew , Ventura Bay could use a few more miles of tarmac.
What it also needs more of is cars. Right now, the available lineup hovers around 50 (though officially the number is 51, the Toyota 86, Scion FR-S, and Subaru BRZ are really all the same car if we’re being honest here) but it’s missing a lot of things expected from a street racing game. There’s only one Mitsubishi Evo and no modern Nissan Z car. There’s no modern Volkswagen GTI or Civic Type R. EA has promised that subsequent DLC will fill out the roster and that packs will be free , which is nice but doesn’t change the lineup the game launches with. A larger garage to house these extra cars would be nice as well, because the five car garage you’re given will be filled up pretty quickly.
Then there’s the DRM, or digital rights management. In basic English, this means that Need For Speed is always online. So when servers go down, be it for maintenance or other reasons, you’re not going to be able to play.
There are a few other small complaints as well, like the lack of an instant retry feature for races, but the only other potential deal breaker is the lack of a manual transmission option. As an avowed enthusiast of real-world manuals , I want to say this is a huge flaw in the game but it’s really not that terrible. Sure, if given the option I’d row my own gears in-game, but the automatics do a decent job and put you in the best gear 98 percent of the time. Still, this may be taken care of in an update as well, so no need to panic just yet, manual diehards.
The rebooted “Need For Speed” is a solid effort, though it needs a few more cars. It’s not perfect, but above all, it’s a lot of fun if you’re even remotely into cars.
"Need For Speed" was reviewed with a PlayStation 4 copy of the game, provided by Electronic Arts. The game released on November 3, 2015.