Need For Speed 2015 Review: Function Follows Form

Need For SpeedProduct Reviews 40 November 10, 2015 by
NFS07

Need For Speed is a racing touchstone for a lot of people. Up there with Mario Kart and Gran Turismo, it is a name that crosses boundaries, recognizable to not only the driving-obsessed, but also those that don’t consider video games “their thing”. It even has the necessary cachet to attract Hollywood, delivering a movie last year starring Jesse Pinkman (a move the GT franchise looks likely to follow).

When news spread that Ghost Games would be releasing a new game this year, shorn of any subtitles or installment numbers (an increasingly common theme these days), hopes were high that the series would return to its earlier roots, focusing on car customization and urban environments. At Gamescom 2015, the Icons were announced, trumpeting the “Five Ways To Play” approach of the game. But in an increasingly-competitive market, with titles like Driveclub (now with bikes!) and Forza Horizon 2 vying for customer dollars, is this new Need For Speed a worthy addition to gamers’ collections, for when they want a fun, more casual driving break from the serious sims? The short answer is, well, maybe.

Full Disclosure: A very kind friend gifted me a copy of the game last week. This review is based off the XBox One edition, and a weekend’s worth of gaming.

NFS09The Fox Body Mustang is one of three cars you can start your game in.

Story Mode

Need For Speed follows the series’ tradition of dropping the player into a story. All cut-scenes are from the first-person perspective, as your nameless (and voiceless) character has the narrative laid out in front of him via a core cast of five friends. The dialog is pretty cringe-worthy, and the clips are full of fist-bumps and Monster product placement, but those are only minor offences as far as I’m concerned. Why? Can you name a particularly fantastic story from any racing game? Didn’t think so.

What the clips do provide is a connection to the world of Ventura Bay, the fictional city that serves as the setting for the game. Seeing these characters makes their phone calls less jarring, as they can (and will) call or text you pretty incessantly throughout the career. The clever compositing of your personal vehicles into the cutscenes, while not completely seamless, is a definite positive, too.

That might not be too long, though. At the time of this writing, my play-through is sitting at 96% completion, with all five paths complete (more on that later), all Vistas and Donuts collected, and enough credits sitting in my account to buy any car in the game (though I already own the most expensive, the F40). That was all accomplished in under 20 hours of play time. The game offers a teleport option, drastically shortening the time between missions if you feel so inclined, but I rarely used it, instead taking the extra time to drive to locations and amass Rep points.

Rep points work in much the same way as Horizon 2’s Popularity Points: as you play, certain actions earn you points, in addition to completing missions. Levelling up slowly unlocks visual and performance modifications, with the cap set at 50. Points are divided up by the five disciplines, as well.

The “Five Ways To Drive” disciplines turn out to be a bit of a misnomer: while there are five different approaches to start the game, the only way to really complete it is by doing all of them. Not only that, but it pays to do certain storylines first: the “Build” approach, for example – with your friendly garage tuner Amy obsessing over RWB founder Nakai-san – unlocks the higher-up performance modifications in the game, as well as visual mods like diffusers.

Another area of the game where it pays to plan ahead is your garage. With only five slots available to you, it’s important to remember that certain cars will need to occupy a slot at least once to progress the story. I learned this the hard way, having to sell off a ’71 GT-R to make room for something else. Story-required cars don’t cost anything, however, and can be re-purchased as often as you’d like. The five-car garage limit might initially sound like just that (a limit), but it does ensure you focus on crafting each car to precisely your preferred specifications. In the Forzas and Gran Turismos of the world, multi-hundred car garages mean cars can sit unused. This definitely won’t happen here.

NFS13This took me entirely more time to create than I care to admit.

Car Customization

This is, undoubtedly, the main draw of the new game. As an area that was focused on heavily pre-release, the final result is a bit of a mixed bag. The good news first: there is an excellent amount of rims to choose from, from a wide variety of manufacturers. You can paint the rims (sometimes with a secondary colour as well, typically for the wheel lip), choose wheel sizes, and set things like the front and rear tracks individually, ensuring the car’s stance is precisely what you’d like. The sliders for paint allow you to easily pick between matte, metallic, and more, which extends to decals as well. There is a decently-sized gallery of existing shapes and logos for design creation, though it is definitely lacking in the font choices.

Now, the bad news: don’t expect the same level of customization across the entire 50-ish car lineup in the game. The Scioyobaru triplets have all sorts of permutations available to them, while the F40 has an LM bodykit and little else (in fact, it can’t even have its wheels changed or painted, bizarrely). You might get excited when you come across the icon for customizing headlights, only to find out a grand total of three cars in the game allow for that. Upgrades that appear to be almost universal in the game are the rear wing options, exhaust tips, and the front canards. Everything else is more often unavailable than available.

The livery editor is also a bittersweet feature. If you’re playing on PS4, coming from games like Driveclub or Gran Turismo, the inherent freedom of the livery editor can be exciting. Playing on the XBox, however, I’ve become very familiar with the editor available in the Forza titles, and in almost every way, that system is better than the one present in NFS. Colour matching is almost impossible in Need For Speed, as no values are visible, nor is a recently-used palette saved. The lack of values also makes rotating shapes a timely trial-and-error affair, even for something as simple as racing stripes. Perhaps most glaringly, there is no option to mirror a design from the left side to the right or vice-versa, nor even copy individual shapes from one area to the next. The developers have stated that this will be coming in a future update, but for now, it means essentially doing a design twice.

NFS05There are multiple “Donut Spots” peppered across the map. Here, an NSX commits tire murder.

Physics and Controls

We might as well get this out of the way now: there is no manual transmission in this game, nor is there any official wheel support. The latter is almost acceptable for an arcade racer (though both Driveclub and Horizon 2 offer it), but the former is a frustrating limitations in a game purporting to be for enthusiasts. It also can severely hamper your experience: in the early stages of the game, with lower-powered vehicles, the transmission will stay in a higher gear heading up an incline, slowly bleeding off speed instead of shifting down. The only option for the player at that point is to completely let off the throttle and wait for the transmission to kick down. Wholly disappointing.

For tuning, there are a host of sliders for specific aspects, like tire pressure and spring rates. There’s also an over-arching slider that moves between Drift and Grip. While you can definitely play around with the individual settings, you’re likely best suited to just nudging the primary slider over towards the Drift setting. “Grip”, in this game anyway, seems to mean understeer and little else, making you slower through hairpins. It’s also worth noting that things like wheel stance, or stretched versus normal tires, falls into “visual customization”; these things don’t have an effect on the car’s handling.

Drifting is incredibly easy to initiate, with no real need for countersteering. Undoubtedly satisfying to those less familiar with basic vehicle dynamics – not to mention, a boon for some of the Drift Train events with Risky Devil – this definitely will not be teaching people about car control. Throwing an 800bhp F40 around a corner requires no more than a tap of the handbrake, and thanks to the  hidden steering aids, it’s nearly impossible to spin the thing out. Despite the power my F40 is spitting at the tarmac, it spins its tires on launches about as much as the 200bhp Miata it shares garage space with.

This brings up another aspect of the game: cars generally react very similarly, with no major noticeable differences between models. The simulation portion of my brain finds this maddening, but the entertainment side sees the logic: Ghost Games have made the game online-only, so it makes sense that cars are similar to one another, to mesh better in various events. Indeed, in a realistic sim game, it’d be impossible to drift that Ferrari around some mountain hairpins with a squad of cars, but here everything gels. The full-tune specs of the cars bears this out: while all vastly different starting points, all of the cars end up with broadly similar performance stats when maxed out, hovering within a few MPH of each other.

NFS03Industrial playgrounds are a suitable backdrop for an F40 LM.

Graphics

This is another area the new Need For Speed excels at. It looks glorious. Undoubtedly helped by the limited time of day (the game awkwardly transitions from dusk/dawn to full-on night, and back again), Ghost Games have crafted a convincing urban atmosphere. Rain drops collect on both cars and camera, refracting neon light from the city surroundings. Cars are well-detailed, and show convincing damage. There is no interior view, but you can clearly see the dials glowing from behind the wheel. If you’ve caught the attention of the local constabulary, the flashing blues and reds are overwhelming on an otherwise dark screen, upping the intensity. Tire smoke also builds convincingly.

While the weather effects aren’t quite Driveclub-topping in their beauty, the lighting, filters, and camera angles combine to make NFS look very life-like. It’s a shame there’s no dedicated Photomode to take advantage of this (another drawback of the always-online approach).

NFS10You’ll come across “free” parts in the backs of trucks. Best to not ask questions.

AI

A quick recount: the car customization is good (and moves to great for certain models); the physics aren’t exactly Mariana Trench deep, but are entertaining; and the graphics are a definite strong point. It’s a shame then, that the AI in this game is awful. Those lamenting the bot behaviour in GT6 (which, make no mistake, is hardly fantastic) would do well to experience a few races in Need For Speed. By comparison, the Gran Turismo AI isn’t just competent, they’re a pack of vehicular Einsteins. The NFS AI operates without any spatial awareness, haphazardly bumping into any cars along their predetermined path. During one of the Drift Train events, four other cars piled into mine in a hairpin, in a hilarious mess that saw a car riding along on the roof of another.

Let’s talk about the rubber-banding too. Not only will competitors magically find a few extra hundred horses in their corral if you pass them too early, but it works the other way around as well. In a few instances, unfortunate traffic situations put me far behind the pack right from the start of a race. In the small map, I could see the arrows of the competitors lagging, moving along the course only to reset a couple metres back, time and time again. Coming up on them, I saw that the map wasn’t lying: they were indeed resetting in time, waiting for me to catch up. While it’s certainly considerate of these time-travellers to use their powers for good, it certainly makes any ensuing victories feel a mite hollow.

NFS12One of these things is not like the others…

Conclusion

Need For Speed 2015 is, more so than any other game I’ve played lately, an experience of peaks and valleys. The positive aspects are great – over the weekend, I played with some friends, and we had an absolute blast playing together – but for each one, there’s an equivalent negative. The lack of manual transmission or wheel support, the short career, the choices that limit the otherwise-powerful design editor, the inconsistent hidden driving aids, and the terrible AI are all big drawbacks.

Encouragingly, the developers have already responded to the community about most of these short-comings, with the promise of free DLC and content updates meaning this could become quite the polished game, much like how Driveclub at the tail end of 2015 is a vastly different beast than launch day Driveclub was.

In the end, as of now, it can’t quite compete with either Driveclub or Horizon 2, but manages a solid podium spot in the world of arcade racers. It’s the popcorn-required, slickly-produced, big-budget blockbuster film to the simulation genre’s slow-burn, character-driven Oscar bait. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, dive in. A little fun never hurt anybody.

For more information on the game, check into our dedicated Need For Speed community section.

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