You've probably missed the fact that this year’s Need For Speed is meant to be a board-wiping reboot for a series that, until 2014, saw a release every year for 13 years. So what’s changed? Well, it still has cars, customisation and music, so not that much, but at least this time you'll be hanging out with a gang of Hollywood-pretty friends in some decent quality live action cut scenes.
Unlike previous green screen efforts this is a far higher bar and natural (ish) take, even if the instant reaction to the chirpy, “Hey bro” cast is to hate them, hate them, hate them. They’re so clean, and smiley and perfect you just want to hit them for a long time with something that has plenty of corners.
Here's an example:
But they grow on you. Trust me. Their entire existence revolves around being excited to see you, or wanting to hang out with you and it’s oddly infectious. It’s also a nice counterpoint to the dark city racing. Had enough of tearing through the streets? Then head to a mission marker and the action cuts to a pool hall, diner or a party full of people that live only to gaze sparkly eyed at you, and talk of your achievements.
There is actually a story of sorts to all this. The game focuses on 5 disciplines: speed, drifting, customisation, crew and outlaw. Each of these has a real world driving icon at its heart and a super-friend obsessed with them. As you drive around and compete, they call up on the phone with missions specific to each branch - a drift race, some new bits to bolt on your car, an event that might get you noticed and so on. This plot ends up being one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. Staring in your own version of what appears to be a Need For Speed TV movie made by Nickelodeon or Disney. It's as endearing as it is daft.
The rest of the game is meat and potatoes racing - competing to unlocking better gear, cars and even more events. The content is remarkably restrained and focused, and better for it. There’s XP for almost everything you do, with drifts, speed, wins and even accidentally smashing stuff, all feeding into the different disciplines. You can target specific activities and races if you prefer them, but just generally driving about will slowly advance you forward. There’s almost an RPG structure to the way you unlock new gear and level up your car. Some things are locked behind missions, others might require a bit of discipline-specific grinding if you want to get at them quicker.
The gear you unlock favours small changes rather than sudden leaps ahead, so there’s a pleasing sense of growing into the challenge rather than buying a sudden advantage. In my time playing I chose to stick with one car and gradually build it out rather than opt for a faster one later on. I was rewarded with a fairly unassuming Ford that slowly turned into a bit of monster. It still looked like something your grandma would drive, but I could hit 170mph easily, and effortlessly take corners sideways on command.
There’s accessibility and depth to the tuning and customisation required to achieve this. It depends on what you want. There are sliders all over the place that can adjust everything - handling, for example, lets you fine tune every aspect of tire pressure, wheel position, angle and so on, front and back, until you get things just how you like it. Or you could just grab the big top one with ‘drift’ at one end and ‘grip’ at the other and move that.
I'm not one for micromanaging every tiny bit of an engine, so being to make broad sweeping changes is a much more welcome option that still feels empowering. I set up handling to suit me perfectly: triggering drifts with the barest feathering of the brake, and keep control the rest of the time. There’s a rewarding feel to the growth of your car this gradual change introduces.
Actual performance on the road feels turned more to fun than simulation. Slight hints of rubber-banding and not entirely Earth-issue gravity suggest it’s all been clearly crafted for entertainment, but then what were you expecting from a Need For Speed? The important thing is that I was entertained. Races have just enough push and shove to make things enjoyable and there's a rewarding curve as you progress.
For me though, while the driving and tuning is a solid activity, the live action stuff brings it alive. Occasionally meeting up in coffee shops to watch the world orbit around my FPS camera, and to have my ego massaged by pretty people is as entertaining as it is weird. The subdued feature set compared to previous instalments feels like a wise move, bringing the series back down to a level starting point, but it's the movie moments that really make it.