All screenshots courtesy of EA
I own a car, and have been known to drive it at speeds some might consider on the wrong side of quick enough. I don't go mad at the wheel; I don't get dangerous. But I'm occasionally eager enough on the accelerator to have my wife suggesting I ease off, maybe slipping above the speed limit while westward bound on the M4. It happens to us all – I mean, who doesn't want to get to Wales in a hurry?
You can't drive all the way to Wales in the new, rebooted Need for Speed, another Ghost Games production for publisher EA, following the Swedish studio's celebrated work on 2013's Need for Speed Rivals. The game locks you into a relatively expansive open-world city by the name of Ventura Bay, an American west coast sprawl of industrial complexes, snaking mountain lanes, downtown high-rises and waterside condos. It's an analogue of Los Angeles, loosely. I've never been to said real-world city, but I have played a shit load of Grand Theft Auto V, and if you forced me to declare one of these two virtual versions of the City of Angels as more impressive than the other, it'd be Rockstar's Los Santos I stuck my thumb up for.
Which isn't to say that Need for Speed isn't a very attractive game, because at times its Frostbite 3-generated visuals are astounding. Most of those times occur within the first hour of play, when Ghost's almost photo-real rain-slicked streets, always crowned by night time skies – you'll be waiting an eternity for the sun to come up over the east side of Weid Canyon – still feel fresh to your fizzing retinas. From a distance, this doesn't look like a video game at all, a compelling facet of its presentation further enhanced by the inclusion of full-motion-video cutscenes.
The impression doesn't last, as very occasional instances of asset pop-up break the illusion, and the various shades of grey that make up road, central reservations and sidewalks rather blur into each other, making high-speed turns tricky as it's not always obvious where smooth tarmac ends and vertical concrete obstacle begins. Be prepared for impacts once you tweak your vehicle of choice into reaching some properly high speeds. (It's okay, though – damage is only ever superficial, and can be popped back into shape instantly upon going back to your hub garage. And I'll have more on that workshop space in a couple of paragraphs.)
Getting to those top speeds isn't something you'll achieve within your first few hours of play, though – expect to be pushing only slightly beyond my limit-breaching motorway runs. At the very outset, you're presented with a choice between three entirely rudimentary cars. Unremarkable wheels, sure, but upon them you can build, and how. But first you need to get out onto the roads and compete, at least a little, with your initially skittering vehicle – you soon enough realise that with modification comes handling options, making steering more or less sensitive and the overall performance of your car leaning either towards grip-happy down-force or stylish drift potential. Again: expect to crash. You will. It's no big deal. Amy will sort that ding right out for you.
Who's Amy? Hang on, I'll get to her, and the rest of the rag-tag crew of Actual Proper Actors who pirouette and pout and fist-bump endlessly and call each other "bae" in front of the camera that is your Not So Actual Face, aka your in-game cutscene perspective, like the Mega-CD never died but spawned a legion of lookalike FMV titles, the offspring infernal of Ground Zero Texas and its ilk. (Sorry, got side tracked.) In the garage, you can upgrade your first car to make it go faster, turn sharper, drift longer, sit higher, rim wider and so on and so forth – you use currency won by completing story objectives and any number of anytime extras that are scattered around the map, from drift contests where flair takes precedent over who's fastest, and straightforward sprints from one line to another.
Alternatively, you can take your escalating cash pile and splash it all over a new, sportier, sexier mode of transport – there are what feel like hundreds of cars available (checks the number; it's actually only 51), and any one of them can be yours if you've the readies and you've put work enough in to reach a level that unlocks certain models and mods alike. Thankfully, levelling up is a breeze – play for three hours and you should easily be at level 20, rolling around in a powerful machine that'll see you through until much later challenges, at which point you can chuck all the money you've got at a tricked-out Murciélago.
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I stuck with my (eventually fairly monstrous beneath the paint job) bright pink Honda Civic for as long as I could, license plate "AWFUL", garish transfers all over, as I'd become rather attached to my self-made horror. Which is a good thing, as there's so little personality to Need for Speed for the most part, and you never truly feel as if you're competing within a living, breathing urban centre. Unlike Ubisoft's ambitious but flawed open-world driving game The Crew, which gave you "all" of America to explore, there are no pedestrians pounding the pavements of Need for Speed's built-up areas. I accept it's night time, but come on: people go out after dark these days.
Other cars, both AI controlled and driven by other players – the game requires an internet connection at all times, meaning there's always an "L1mpB1zk1tM8" or "ApocaLOLps3" just around the corner to crash into (they'll be stationary in the middle of the road, since always online means there's no proper pause function) – do pepper the Ventura Bay streets, but in my experience never in numbers to deliver convincing density. Trains rocket by on overhead lines, but no commuters are ever seen walking the rest of the way home. Petrol station forecourts sit silent and still; 24-hour stores are mere shells of stocked-shelves potential; apartment blocks have all the right lights on, but nobody's home.
The only times that Need for Speed conveys an impression that human beings live within its world come in the cutscenes, which feature five main characters and a number of real-world experts in various motorsport fields. Sometimes you're in a diner, sometimes a garage, sometimes a space somewhat sacred to the ostensible father figure of this quintet of colourful, albeit one-dimensional characters. Robyn will challenge you to drift-offs in the nearby hills. The inexperienced Spike has simply got to go fast. Manu preaches a brand of oil-specked spirituality, a connection between man and machine that Travis, the leader of the crew, has significantly less interest in.
And then there's Amy, the gang's mechanic, played by Game of Thrones and Fresh Meat actress Faye Marsay. She hails from Middlesbrough but adopts an accent here that no amount of randomly stabbing a pin into a large-scale map of all 50 states will ever locate the home of. It's an acutely off-putting sound, a thousand times more painful to the senses than the mindless EDM that forced me to turn the in-game music off entirely after a whole ten minutes of play.
Need for Speed's core cast is joined by people who may well be known to bigger petrol heads than me: Ken Block is here, likewise Magnus Walker, and if you're familiar with those guys then well done, as I'd never heard of any of them before playing this game. (But then, I also had to Google what a gymkhana was, in a motoring context.) Each of these real-life professionals will make contact with the player, with new missions, once the not-so-famous fivesome have built a big enough reputation in Ventura Bay, mostly courtesy of your achievements. I can't say that any character is especially likeable, more there simply to facilitate progression than become personally attached to, and Need for Speed never does an Until Dawn and reverses first impressions, transforming those once loathed into well-liked hero figures. Not that any of the plot (yes, there's a plot) or the filmed sections really matter, as the vast majority of your time here is going to be spent positioned either up front and low or behind the spoiler of your favourite car.
'Need for Speed', official launch trailer
There are a lot of events squeezed into Need for Speed, although they primarily stick to the varieties listed earlier: go fast, get twisty, or head home. Some are locked behind level gates, others accessible from the beginning. The better your car, the more you're going to win, obviously; but knowing when to compete with a drift-centric set-up and when to maximise your top speed is key to succeeding in higher-level contests. Sticking to a nicely balanced car will get you only so far, so be prepared to either stock a couple of options at the garage or constantly head back there to play around with primary settings sliders and your array of performance-altering gadgets, from nitro boosts to hard or soft handbrakes. Tip: have two cars on the go. There are collectibles to scoop up, too – trucks that have bonus gear in them, photo opportunities to skid along to, burnout spots to spin donuts at. It doesn't reach Ubisoft levels of sweeping the clutter from the map as you go along, but Ghost have provided enough tat to tick off that nobody in their right mind will ever 100 percent this game. What's this? A photo of a petrochemical plant? Nah, you're alright.
There are police cars to watch out for, too, before I press ahead to my conclusion without mentioning that. Fly past one at illegal speed and it will chase you – it's not like they have anything better to do, with the city's coffee counters unmanned and street assaults at a never-better low of precisely zero per night. The pursuits can get pretty annoying. Constant screen-obscuring notifications and irritating phone calls from Spike and company make escaping the law's attention a chore more often than not. Indeed, why the hell are the pop-up notices so unbelievably massive? Would it have hurt Ghost so bad to stick them in a corner, rather than right across your field of vision?
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Okay, let's wrap this up. As a foundation from which to grow the Need for Speed franchise anew, which is EA's plan, this glossy reboot does a decent enough job of providing fundamental thrills for driving game fans. It's got its share of obvious flaws, the most jarring of all being some incredible rubber banding in race situations, where rivals that left your rear view mirrors long ago are suddenly right on top of you when you misjudge one corner. (Though, this can benefit the player too, as even if you stack your car dramatically with just a few race checkpoints remaining, you've still a good chance of a high finish.) Having to pull over to check the map grows tiresome very quickly, but hopefully both this and the magical AI teleportation can be dealt with in later updates. While the FMV has been criticised in some reviews, I'm a fan of games reclaiming it, and the acting here is straight out of the Digital Pictures handbook – and that's a plus for me (that accent aside).
Don't come to Need for Speed expecting a standard racing game, as it's more in The Crew mould – a choose-your-own-adventure open-world affair with customisable hot wheels in place of courageous hirsute warriors, presenting a sizeable buffet of challenges without quite perfecting any recipe along the way. But it's as engaging as a title of its ilk can hope to be, from the perspective of someone whose favourite recent racer is Mario Kart 8, and while it's unlikely to be anyone's top-ranking Need for Speed in 2015, what it becomes a year and more from now will ultimately determine whether or not Ghost's hard work has revitalised a veteran series that was probably overdue a hard reset.
Need for Speed is out now for PlayStation 4 (version tested) and Xbox One, with a PC version released in 2016.
This review made possible by Nvidia Shield - check out the Nvidia Shield library here.
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