The “Need for Speed” (NFS) franchise has been a driving force in the racing-game genre for going on 21 years. The series found its largest success in breaking into the “tuner” crowd in the early 2000s with the release of the extremely popular “Need for Speed: Underground.” Instead of realistic racing with stock high-dollar sports cars, “Underground” focused on the contemporary trend of modifying readily-available Japanese cars. Now, 12 years later, a new “Need for Speed” title reboots the series again, returning to its “tuner” roots.
In the same way as “Underground” was, the new NFS is very much a product of its time. The same crowd formed from the early 2000s who grew up playing Underground now occupy countless car show spots around the globe with their extremely modified cars, often real-life counterparts to the cars they built in the virtual world. The new NFS capitalizes on the big personalities and trends in the stance, drift, and tuner community right now, along with the newest trend of popular cars ripe for modification.
The storyline follows an up-and-coming street racer who falls in with a group of enthusiasts and racers hell-bent on impressing a shortlist of the tuner scene’s biggest celebrities. This includes appearances from Porsche-builder and self-styled Urban Outlaw Magnus Walker, Yakuza gangster and neon-Lamborghini-driver Morohoshi-San, insane widebody Porsche designer and mastermind of the Rauh-Welt tuning house Nakai-San, tuner house Risky Devil, and the king of Hooniganism himself, Ken Block. Each celebrity is tied to a particular style of driving, in which the player is able to amass points that allow you to level up your “Rep” level, unlocking parts and races along the way.
The environment is a dark and wet urban cityscape, stylistically modeled after Los Angeles. The sun never truly escapes the horizon, and the clouds never stop misting the streets with a fresh sheen of rainwater. Because of the omnipresent darkness, the high-speed races are sometimes hard to navigate, and sharp turns are difficult to predict with such low visability.
Races are accessed by driving to hotspots around the map, and seem to be infinitely repeatable, allowing the player to grind cash and rep points. The sense of speed is dramatic, with beautiful neon accents that turn into a blur as you crash your way through the wet landscape. Don’t want to race? No problem, just cruise the map as much as you want, showcasing your newest car design to passersby.
Be careful how fast you drive, however, as cops run rampant through the city. Blow by an officer going too fast, and they will pursue you and deliver a fine of up to $500. Fail to pull over, and you will be arrested the second you are cornered, resulting in a hefty fine and a loss of rep points. If you are quick enough, however, you can outrun the police and avoid the costly ticket. (Don’t try that in real life.)
Dynamically, the new “NFS” is not the sharpest game. Handling is ripped straight out of an arcade racer, with cartoonish cornering speeds and an extremely high threshold for damage. Only when you incur catastrophic damage does your car become temporarily totaled, but you’ll be back on the road within 10 seconds.
“NFS” also incorporates immensely frustrating “rubberband” AI opponents. It doesn’t really matter how skilled you are at racing, because if your car is near the same power and speed as the rest of the race grid, the final standings seems to be based purely on luck. Even when I would incapacitate other drivers by shoving them into concrete barriers and totaling their cars, I would be passed by the same vehicles not 500 feet from the finish line.
Move away from the mechanical issues of the game, and focus instead on the visual aspects, and the game starts to make sense. Each car is customizable to an obsessive degree, with a fairly in-depth vinyl creation system that allows for the player to make each and every car their own. Each car can be tuned toward a certain bias, depending on gameplay. Want the rear tires to step out more readily for drift events? No problem, just slap on drift tires, soften the rear springs, and move the brake bias. Want to corner flat and grip hard? Install race-compound tires and mess with the suspension to get the setup perfect.