In this edition of Need For Speed there is a definite focus on a more story-driven campaign. The game kicks off with a short cut-scene of two street racers putting their pedal to the metal, drifting around corners at insane speeds before the police begin pursuit. After losing them and parking in an alley it turns out the player is driving one of the two cars. A young guy named Spike runs up to the window, introduces himself, and invites you down to the club to meet his crew.
The five members of the crew are all avid street racers, and they're all out to impress real-life street racing icons who just happen to be in Ventura Bay at the moment. I admit my working knowledge of street racing icons is very limited, but for those of you in the know Need For Speed features Magnus Walker, Ken Block, Nakai-san, Shinichi Morohoshi and the Risky Devil crew.
After the introductory cut-scene you're treated as one of the crew and you'll participate in a wide variety of events to earn cash and reputation. Reputation unlocks new items in the garage for you to customise your car, which of course requires cash to purchase. Most events are either all about speed (e.g. races and time trials) or style (e.g. drift contests and Gymkhana). Initially there are only a few events open to you, but as you progress you'll receive phone calls from your crew inviting you to more of them.
One thing Ghost Games has gotten nearly perfect is the progression system. At the start of the game most events can be won with your stock standard car. However as soon as the money starts to roll in and you unlock a few new items in the Garage via your Reputation level, the competition steps up and you need to make improvements to your car via the garage.
Need For Speed makes customising your car just about as simple as it can be. In almost all cases a more expensive car part is better than a cheaper one, but in case you're not sure there is a breakdown of important stats on the right of screen when browsing items. If the stats show you're going to improve your 0-60mph time, your max speed and/or the horsepower, you can buy that item with confidence.
I say the progression system is “nearly” perfect because it works all the way up to the end of the game, when the difficulty spikes noticeably, while money and Reputation become that much harder to earn once the story ends. The difficulty spike is felt most keenly in the speed events, where time limits become very strict at the same time as car handling becomes very twitchy. It makes sense that if you're driving your car at upwards of 200mph it's going to be hard to steer, but the combination of seemingly unavoidable crashes and tough time limits do become a major hurdle to progression late in the game.
There are some other issues with the game, highlighted by the "always online" requirement. Because of it, you can't pause the action, your connection can be adversely affected by other users (causing significant slowdown or stutter), or EA's servers themselves, you're subject to "griefers" and you can literally run into a group of racers heading the opposite direction mid-race. Unfortunately, there are currently nowhere near enough positives to justify its inclusion but it's impossible to even play solo without being connected.
Other issues include the high number of speed races that finish straight after sharp turns (cars designed for speed do not handle these turns well!), the absence of a cockpit view and manual transmission, as well as the fact the police have been relegated to the background. In all my time with the game I haven't been busted by the police once, and it seems they give up pursuit any time you hit a highway. It's a shame because the police are a potential X-factor that have always livened up proceedings in previous Need For Speed titles.
Visually, Need For Speed excels – Ventura Bay is as close to photo-realistic as we've seen in a racing game to date. Not only that, but outside of a few incidents of slowdown and stutter the game runs smoothly throughout. Cars look fantastic as you would expect, and they take damage as you trash your way around Ventura Bay. Damage is purely cosmetic – it doesn't affect performance – but it's good to see it included in the game.
The music is suitably high-tempo, and while I didn't recognize many of the bands outside of Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, most of it fits in well. The sound effects are well done, but it's hard to go wrong with engine noises, screeching brakes and crashes.
Need For Speed is a fun but flawed game. On the fun side of things there's the excellent progression system, simple and effective customization, and enjoyable live action cut-scenes that make you care more about the protagonists. On the flawed side we have the "always online" requirement and its many shortcomings, as well as the short campaign and lack of a legitimate police presence. For me, fun won out. Just.
Review By: Mike Allison