Need for Speed
Need for Speed was once an annual franchise, and each installment catered to slightly different audiences. Some focused on cops versus racers, while others leaned toward sim racing or accentuated their storytelling. This year's entry – a self-proclaimed reboot – ostensibly resets the franchise so it can redefine itself. The problem is, this game does not represent what the franchise is all about. It has aspects we've come to know and love from the series such as cops, cars, a city, and even a story, but none of them stand out as a focal point or is elevated to a level of excellence.
The open-world format is nothing new for this series, and Ventura Bay isn't an alluring place to race through. Plenty of real estate covers the usual downtown, country, and industrial locales, but none of it stands out from a visual or layout sense from the many cities we've raced through before. Certainly, the hills are where you find lots of good switchbacks for drift racing, but when you cover a lot of the same ground through multiple events, even a good run wears out its welcome. Thus, a relatively big map feels smaller than it should.
NFS offers plenty of events and its share of high-speed thrills, but the geography of the city itself is relatively tame. Titles like Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed Most Wanted (both by developer Criterion) teemed with jumps and billboards to crash though, daring you to wonder what you could do with a fast car. Ventura Bay, on the other hand, does not provoke your imagination. It has some shortcuts, a few unexciting collectibles to find, and even some small jumps, but I was neither excited by nor significantly rewarded for exploring the city – a negative for an open world.
The game automatically populates Ventura Bay with other online players (including A.I. drivers), whom you can challenge to sprint, drift, or overrun races. You can also get together with them in crews to tackle events for extra rep, but NFS doesn't have a cohesive world that you want to explore with friends. There are no speed cams to blow past with friends, jumps to see whom can fly through the air the farthest, or even multiplayer games like capture the flag or tag. Even when your friend is racing events, they appear to be racing all alone in your version of the world.
NFS requires an online connection to play, even if you choose to play privately without any outside players populating your world. This can be important since the game is unplayable if your network connection drops or the servers are on the fritz. In my play time I had two instances where my progress wasn't properly saved after I was dropped from the game. One time it didn't properly save an event I already completed, and the other it skipped forward past a cutscene I was about to enter.
Fun is further sucked out of the world by the fact that the cops in Ventura Bay are inconsequential. They patrol the streets, but they aren't hard to shake once a chase begins – especially as you upgrade the HP on your cars – and they don't bring a lot of might to bear. I like when they join an event in progress, but they're not integrated to the point of making a difference when you're racing. You can just ignore them as you go about your business. Sometimes they can be just as oblivious, not bothering to chase you after an event ends.
Even though the cops will rarely get you, the races themselves are plagued by acute catch-up A.I. opponents whose absolute lack of subtlety mar the experience. I expect that to a point in an arcade racer, but it's discouraging to know the race only matters in the last five checkpoints. Moreover, some pack drift races are hard to race since you only score points when drifting around other cars. This can be hard to do when the catch-up A.I. is rubber-banding cars ahead and behind you, making it hard to maintain your drift speed and groove. It's a shame, because in classic Need for Speed style, the game has a good sense of speed and has some exciting moments when you don't know if you're going to live or die, but either way you're doing it at full speed.
The story is as inconsequential as you'd expect, but I'll give developer Ghost Games this: At least the team totally went for it with the live-action cutscenes, actors, and dialogue. I found them cringe-worthy, but the actors embraced their characters' clichés with fervor. Worse, however, is how the story and the characters interrupt you in the middle of races, constantly calling you on the phone to repeat often meaningless messages even though a menu archive stores all the info.
One area where I feel like the game achieved its intention was in the customization options. Although you can't share vinyl creations, you can deck out your cars in numerous ways, from the gaudy to the understated. On the performance side, I often switched around my setup when I needed more drift performance versus grip via a simple master slider. I also like how some more granular control setups (like brakes, for instance) are only accessible once you buy a particular part.
When you reboot a franchise, it's done with the tacit understanding that it needs to move to a better space. Need for Speed checks off the boxes for the series, but unfortunately it's not a revaluation that necessarily improves on what's already come before.
This series reboot features numerous familiar features from past titles, but what's the actual allure of Ventura Bay?