I have been a racing game fan for my entire gaming career. I love the genre. As much as I love driving fast in real-life (though obviously within local legal limits – XBE Lawyer), racing games allow me to do it even faster and in better cars. While entries in the Forza franchise are my go-to games in the genre, I used to be a big fan of the Need for Speed series. It was on Xbox that I was first introduced to Need for Speed.
My first game in the series was Need for Speed: Underground. Since then, I have played every entry in the franchise (except for Shift 2: Unleashed). I have had a lot of fun with the series, and that makes it so disappointing that Need for Speed has floundered on Xbox One. So, what has gone wrong with the three games released this generation and what can the franchise do to regain its dignity?
Need for Speed Rivals (2013)
The first Need for Speed game of this generation was actually a launch title. The hook of Rivals was that there were two different careers. You got to play as both a racer and as the police. Being a cross-generational game (it launched for both Xbox 360 and Xbox One), the graphics were somewhat restricted. The actual gameplay was solid, though.
The biggest problem with Rivals, though, was that it was far too similar to the previous two Need for Speed titles. In fact, Rivals really did come across as a reskinned version of Most Wanted. I’m not suggesting that each Need for Speed title needs to be completely different, but you can’t just expect gamers to shell out $60 for the same game with different names (although that does seem to work for EA’s sports games).
Need for Speed (2015)
After a couple of years off, trying to find a new direction for the series, Ghost Games came back with the simply titled Need for Speed. This entry tried to connect to real-world car culture by including real-life car culture “icons,” Shinichi Morohoshi, Ken Block, Akira Nakai, Magnus Walker, and Richard “Fish” Fisher (of the Risky Devil Street Team). While it may have seemed like a good idea, the fact is that most fans had only really heard of Ken Block.
This wasn’t the only problem with the game, though. For some reason, EA decided that the game was going to always be online. Apart from meaning that you could never pause the game, it also meant that on several occasions your race could be spoiled by other gamers. It felt like the wrong choice for the franchise and was definitely implemented poorly. Games like Forza Horizon and The Crew do a much better job of an always-online game by effectively making certain activities offline or private. The game also only featured racing from dawn to dusk, meaning you were always driving at night. The rubber-banding AI was far more prevalent than in earlier games. And there was no option to have manual gears or an in-car view. This was a shame as the graphics for the game were genuinely impressive.
Need for Speed Payback (2017)
Need for Speed Payback arrived at a time when Electronic Arts were drunk on the possibilities of loot boxes and microtransactions. It launched exactly one week before Star Wars Battlefront II. A game that caused such controversy with its pay-to-win mechanics and gambling loot boxes, that it garnered mainstream media interest. I was genuinely excited for Need for Speed Payback. It looked to be righting the wrongs of Need for Speed and taking influences from the massively successful ‘Fast and the Furious’ movies. The action looked over the top and exhilarating with a typical revenge narrative. This seemed to be exactly what the series needed. Cue EA to mess things up by jamming loot boxes into the mix and ruining the entire game.
Car customisation is one of the most important parts of the Need for Speed franchise, and that’s where EA saw fit to jam its despicable loot boxes. Instead of just being able to go into a shop and pick up the K&N air filter or Eibach suspension that you want, you were forced into a limited number of randomised upgrades. You could also gain an advantage, both in-game and online, by paying real-world money to buy these loot boxes and gain access to more upgrades. It was a despicable move by Electronic Arts and cast such a shadow over the game that fans stayed away.
So, what can the franchise do to regain its position on the racing game grid? Well, for a start Electronic Arts needs to stop “EA-ing” these games. Stay away from gimmicks like loot boxes and always online. A Need for Speed game needs to have thrilling car chases, over the top action, and deep car customisation. The environments should be mainly urban but with some countryside or desert locations to add variety. It should be predominantly a single-player experience with optional multiplayer elements.
The team at Ghost Games has the ability and technical know-how to create a great Need for Speed game. That’s only if they are allowed to create something that they are excited about. I would understand if they want to step away from the franchise after three (mostly) failed attempts. If they do then, please let Criterion take another shot at a Need for Speed game.
You can’t help but admit that the Need for Speed franchise has been tarnished in recent years. The lacklustre entries to the franchise and poor movie adaptation have left it in a bit of a state. It still has enough name recognition and potential, though, to reclaim its spot in the AAA racing game arena. If Electronic Arts can keep a hands-off approach and just give fans what they want, rather than what the EA executives want, then there is plenty of life left in this franchise. I really hope that Need for Speed finds its way to redemption. As much as I love the Forza franchise, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the series.