None can know the minds of EA. We were sent review code for Need For Speed [official site] yesterday, plenty ahead of its release... and told that the review embargo for this online-enhanced game would be 8am the next day. The game's not out until the 17th. A very strange situation indeed, to be given less than 24 hours to review a large, involved driving game, over a week before the servers would be populated. Keeps us on our toes, I suppose. But obviously we've not rushed anything. Below are some extensive impressions of this year's reboot of the franchise based on my first 12 hours with the game. We'll update this into a full review for you once the game is out, and we can actually play all its aspects.
"Dude!" "Bruh!" "Spring stiffness!" Actual dialogue from the twenty-fifth game in the Need For Speed franchise, and the first without a subtitle since 1994. Built by EA's sprawling Ghost Games (in Sweden, the UK and Romania), and with the help of a large chunk of Burnout people Criterion, this relaunch of the series came out on consoles back in November, and finally finishes dragging itself over to our patch next week. However, it appears completely finished already, and I've been driving, racing, fist-bumping and staring in old-man horror at the nonsense the poor actors are being forced to say, up to level 31.
And you know what? It's pretty good. It's ludicrously easy, the speed at which you can upgrade a car and then a second car to be unbeatable is daft, and the acres and acres of FMV sequences will make you want to cleanse yourself by watching Howard's End until the memories fade away, but I'm having a splendid time with it all. Although I need to state now that everything you're about to read needs to be parsed via the knowledge that presently this four-month-old game is only available for pre-order via EA's Origin, at the gobsmacking price of £50.
The game is split into two components. The dominant part is the racing, obviously. Races take absolutely no original forms, with time trials, points-gathering, straight up races to a finish line, etc. A supremely major component of the game is drift, and so naturally, as with all racing games, this is the one element that isn't laboriously explained to you. You're left to figure out how to balance control of the car in order to master effective extended skidding on your own.
However, once figured out, and once you've set your car up to support how you want it to handle, drifting becomes second-nature and tight corners become the game's highlights. Figuring out how you want your car to handle is the rest of the game - the non-racing component. It involves tinkering away in the garage to improve any of your rides, adding in bought components from a terrifying list of badly explained car parts ("Spring stiffness can be used to tune the squat and dive behaviour of the vehicle"), and then fiddle with how various bits and bobs behave. This is super-simplified into defining mostly whether the parts help you be a floaty-drifty car, or a grippy-racy car, and can be even further reduced to adjusting just one slider left or right to move the others accordingly.
I surprised myself by getting a bit more into the detail of how I set up my purchased Mazda MX5, tweaking settings until it felt just right. Since the game is so heavily focused on drift (to give you an idea, the game reckons I've driven 326 miles total, of which 192 were drifted), it seems like madness that you'd build a car for anything else. Even the raciest of races still have hairpin bends, and being able to glide around them can make all the difference.
There's some laughable attempt at a story here, where you're some chap (despite being unseen throughout, for reasons of flirty-girl-eyes you're required to be a guy) who evades the cops and gets noticed by racer-boy Spike. He invites you to meet his buddies, and they all start giving you tasks, races, and challenges to complete around a somewhat disappointingly average-sized map. (It's not tiny by any means, but it felt smaller to me than even Burnout Paradise, and certainly less varied.) In order to receive these tasks, you're required to visit said buddies in their various vast hang-outs, all filmed with actual real-life human beings, and you a walking camera that occasionally sees his own hands.
The actors are all decent, but wow, they have so much shite to say. "Wild handle, bruh!" Spike greets me, and things descend from there. And we're asked to care about who fancies who, and then something about one guy getting scared of the cops, and how Amy the mechanic chick is like totally into cars but also seems to be worried about something dude. There are rival race teams, cameos from actual real-life street racing bruhs (you can imagine how good their acting is), and lots and lots of chatter about how great cars are. It's all written by people who I can only assume have as much knowledge about cars as I do. "Amy, bruh, the, uh, wheels on this beast are like just the right roundness."
There's also the obligatory presence of the police, but wow, it feels like an afterthought. During races, or while plopping around the streets between activities, cops will come after you if you're speeding/crashing/speeding and crashing into them, and you must flee! Which generally involves driving for a bit until they fall off the minimap, and then waiting for the brief cooldown timer to tick away. It's so elementary and uninvolved as to feel like something the developers actively resented having to implement in the game. And more often than not, it just proves a pain in the arse while racing, more than anything because of how the chase is communicated to you: epilepsy-inducing flashes on screen. Worst is when you've escaped them, and a blue-and-white flashing light streaks across your vision in the most extraordinarily off-putting way.
You're going to want a controller, because this port - while technically utterly perfect on my PC - couldn't even be bothered to add a mouse cursor to the menus. Astonishing laziness, and damned rude. There are keyboard equivalents for all the controller buttons, but playing a racing game on the non-analogue cursor keys is obviously a huge detriment. It's bloody annoying to navigate its Criterion-Special dreadful menus without a mouse, but for the most part you need only hit the up-d-pad to bring up the map, and can safely ignore the rest.
As I've played, there have occasionally been a couple of other people appearing on the map. But none to race with, despite the option to call up all and sundry before starting an event. You can flag down AI drivers as you zoom about and challenge them on the fly, and the same will go for other humans. But none of that is really possible to test or experience ahead of release, and seemingly a rather important component to keep the game going once all the story challenges have been completed.
As you move through those challenges, the game does become slightly tougher. It's only now around level 30 that I'm facing challenges I don't win first time though. And let's stress that I'm hardly Mr Cars. There are even tougher races in the form of Eddie's Challenge - an app you download to your fucking in-game phone, that provides details of a knock-out tournament (except you get as many goes as you want each round, because you're magic). It took me rather a lot of goes to win the first, primarily because the game seems to "cheat", mysteriously having AI cars appear that violently swerve in front of you causing a crash from which you could never recover. So it was a joy that I got to hear the interview with Eddie at the start of this race so very, very many times. Pure joy.
Crashing is possibly the most disappointing thing about the game, really. It's completely deranged about what it deems to cause a proper collision, sometimes letting you bounce off the street furniture like you're made of rubber, other times deciding that scraping a roadside barrier is cause to blow up the planet. But the crashes are shown violently out of focus, and with an orange filter, that ensures you can see literally nothing of what's happening.
It's just a blurry mess behind which entertaining crashes are presumably happening (you can see other cars landing on their roofs, etc, when whizzing past them), and as such is nothing but a tedious pause in the action before you're miraculously placed back on the road unharmed, just a bit further behind the others. Again, I shake my fist at Criterion, who have done this same dreary trick in every game since Burnout Paradise, which is bewildering when you remember they made the glorious Burnout 3: Takedown.
Need for Speed looks stunning, and the big risk they took by trusting in their own photo-realism to not make the FMV look wildly out of place really is pulled off. In fact, there's some very clever trickery that lets your car, as you've designed and decalled it, appear in the videos. This is especially great because my Mazda has the word "WEE" written in giant letters on the bonnet, and my previous car had a big pink heart built from not-heart-shaped decal options on its rear-window. And running on "High" (I confess I've yet to try it on "Ultra") it doesn't drop frames or stagger in any significant way as I'm zooming about. (AMD Radeon R9 200, 24GB RAM, i5-2500K @ 3.3GHz, Win 10 64bit, before you ask.)
It's very samey, I must confess, despite my enjoying picking my way through the map's challenges. There's one mode that's utterly dreadful - Drift Train - where you must rack up drifting points (easy-peasy) but can only score when driving very close to AI drivers (a whopping pain in the arse of epic magnitudes), but the rest are all fairly plain and uncomplicated.
The map is really quite impressively dull, however, not helped by the fact that the game is set entirely at night time, while it's raining. It's a game set purely in dark drizzle, which makes sense if you're an illegal street racer who likes skidding, but really does ensure the game's world is dull and unrewarding to explore. This lack of time-changing also leads to the weird impression that the game's story is taking place entirely in one night, despite the characters seeming to make reference to things that happened days ago, or having gone through emotional turmoil in the five seconds since you last saw them. It's a very strange conceit.
It's odd that this is the game they chose to strip of a strapline, as if to suggest it was the complete reinvention of the license, because it's so utterly ordinary in all it delivers. And, in many ways, that's its great success. Rather than being over-ambitious like the wildly disappointing The Crew, it confines itself to a relatively small map, and a restricted range of races. Within that limited scope, it's a success.
Just how many fist-bumps you're willing to sit through may determine your longevity with its achingly desperate attempts to be millennial and street (the loading tips are a confusion of Twitter and WhatsApp or whatever it is the kidz are into these days), but perfecting your drift by practise and tweaking is an extremely rewarding - if ridiculously arcadey - fun time. Far too easy, but busy and entertaining, for all its embarrassing presentation I'm having a blast playing it. I imagine the downside here is that EA really weren't looking for an audience that says "having a blast".
The other downside is the absolutely outrageous price - EA are trying to charge £50 to pre-order the vanilla version, and £55 for the "Digital Deluxe" - for a game that's already four months old, and can be picked up at around £30 pre-owned on console. And really, everything I've said about it needs to be viewed through that prism: too easy, limited scope, an overwhelming lack of originality. Suddenly that steep price makes it look a whole lot less appealing.
There's no Steam store page for the game as yet, with it only available on Origin at the moment. It's bewildering to imagine how they expect to sell enough copies at this mad price of a console-led game with a predominantly console audience, four months after release, via an online store barely anyone wants to use.
We'll update this review with details of the online gubbins once the game is out, which is on March 17th.