Welcome to Ventura Bay; a land of street racers, outlaws, and no daylight cycle between dawn and dusk. As a mysterious unknown racer, you work your way through the ranks to earn the best reputation and become king of the streets. Returning to the import and modification scene of car racing not seen since Need for Speed: Underground two generations ago, EA and Ghost Games have attempted to recapture what made the franchise a massive hit. But does this latest instalment/reboot fire on all cylinders, or does it lose traction and slam into the wall?After going toe-to-toe with Spike, the player (who you play as, and whose face is never seen) is invited to meet and join a rag-tag group of underground racers headed by Travis. On the crew is Spike whose specialty is speed, Amy who is the mechanic and builder, Robyn who is all about crew, Manu who loves to drive with style, and Travis himself. Each racer sets out to challenge the player and build up their skills in the hopes that their idols and icons will notice them and their efforts. As the player unlocks more races and upgrades their car, the idols begin to take note, and eventually return to Ventura Bay to challenge the player to see who the better driver is.
The story starts out feeling very dry and uninspired; characters feel like imitations or stereotypes from the Fast and the Furious movies and the plot feels bland, but as the game progresses it begins to flesh itself out and become more open and likeable. For the most part, Need for Speed is a great looking game. Cruising the dark and illuminated streets often capture brief moments of near-photorealism that had me double checking to make sure I wasn’t watching a video instead of playing a game. Weather effects and paintjobs add reflections that feel right and proper, and the level of detail in the environments provide a great sense of realism as your car flies through the streets.
Speaking of realism and cars, each car model is also highly detailed and able to be customized, allowing players to make their vehicle look exactly how they want it. Paintjobs and decals add the extra touch to cars that already have highly detailed panels and parts, making everything look just right as you take on some of the best that Ventura Bay has to offer.The cutscenes within the game are not in-game, but rather FMV clips that progress the narrative and are seen through the player’s eyes. While this might seem like a bit of a cop-out, it makes the game just that little bit more fun by not focusing on the fact that the character models are fake.
One of the biggest gripes I had with the game, and it is more of a personal opinion thing than anything, is the soundtrack. Understandably it is designed to retain that urban flair and underground quality, but the limited selection of banging tracks really leaves a lot to be desired. On the other hand, sound effects and racing noises in game are exactly where they need to be at – with every engine roar, tyre squeal and parts change near-perfect down to a T.The other issue is the fact that there is practically no daytime. Cycling from dusk to dawn and then right back to dusk, the game lacks any daytime cycle, and sometimes makes the game a little bit boring. Sure, keeping the game within night-time adds to the feel of underground and street racing, but it takes away a reality of the game when the weather shifts from dawn straight into dusk again.The NFS series has always had an arcade feel to it, and the latest instalment is no exception. Starting with one of three base-level cars, the player’s job is to win races and perform dangerous or crazy acts while driving. This earns one of two things; money, which is used to upgrade and modify your vehicle as well as purchase more, and Rep points, which upgrade the player’s level and allow access to more events and vehicles. Money is earned by winning races and events and completing tasks within events; placing first gives you the most reward for your efforts, and any less is adjusted accordingly. The money is then used to tune up your ride or purchase new cars in which to tune up. Some items can only be unlocked at a certain Rep level or by completing particular drivers’ missions, so the best parts aren’t always available to purchase outrightTuning your vehicle is a major part of the game, and for beginners may take a while to understand. Each aspect of your vehicle (bodykit, engine and parts, suspension, tyres, etc) can help your car do exactly what you want it to do, whether it be making the ultimate drift machine or a road-hugging grip monster. Everything is able to be fine-tuned to develop a balance and harmony to suit the way you drive, and when you start tinkering with it, the car really feels like yours. To top it off, changing the paint and livery of the car makes it unique. The garage can store up to five cars as well, meaning you can have a different car for a different style of racing.
Throughout the land of Ventura Bay there are many things to do that relate to your crew members; as each one has a specialty that they base their style around. These events allow you to open up other events on the map to earn more money and Rep points. However, while you race and tear up the streets, cops can intercept you and begin a pursuit. Depending on how you like to play, you can either pull over and pay a fine, or engage in a pursuit that gets more dangerous as it goes along. These pursuits also turn into missions down the track, so if you like driving like an outlaw, then this is definitely for you. Environments are also very destructible, which adds to your outlaw score and is generally fun to smash through things as you drive.The biggest downside to any of the events is the still-persistent problem of rubber-banding AI. After so many years, you’d think a company such as EA would have realised that games can be fine-tuned to remove this idea, but even having decked out your car to the max, opponents still are able to slingshot themselves back into contention right when you are at top speed. Rubber-banding shouldn’t be a thing in racing games anymore.
My biggest gripe with the game overall was the fact that a persistent online connection is required to play. Yes, gaming is moving towards a digital age where everything is connected, but without a connection the game is practically useless. The other thing about it is the fact that there are limited spots online when playing, and most of the time everyone is doing their own thing instead of meeting up to race. Effectively it is a shoehorned feature that removes a fraction of players who, even in this day and age, still can’t manage a decent connection (or a connection at all).In returning to one of the best-selling ideas within its franchise, Need for Speed not only recaptures the essence of tuner racing but updates it for a modern age. While the gameplay may not be as realistic as the Forzas or Gran Turismos of late, the arcade-style of racing and the many tuning options still give it more credibility than the previous NFS titles. Let down only by the need for a consistent online connection and AI that still manages to bounce back and rubber-band its way to victory, Need for Speed is a title worth getting if you want to get back to the Underground roots.