The good news about the Need for Speed reboot is that the actual act of racing in it feels blisteringly fast and well designed in a way it hasn’t in ages. If the game’s only ambition was to be a straightforward, graphically stunning racer, it’d be ever-so-slightly threadbare, but still a welcome course correction after the last few rudderless entries in the series. In a weird twist of fate, what holds the game back is that every attempt to do something new or endear itself to a young, street savvy audience causes it to stumble. It’s a strange state of affairs taking a game to task for having new ideas and trying something new, but the wrong ideas can strangle a good game to death.
The situation thankfully isn’t that dire. Compared to many of the series’s prior entries, which always kept one foot obstinately planted in realistic driving-sim territory, the reboot joyously embraces accessible arcade-style racing. Right from the get go, cars will zoom, zip, and drift without the player needing to struggle with the minutiae of real-life car handling. Where Need for Speed stays true to its roots is in the customization. Every aspect of your car’s performance can be tweaked. Any latent gearheads who liked the technical side of previous titles in the franchise can make the game suit their own purposes from your home base, a garage in the center of the city.
That’s a privilege afforded to everyone. Though the game offers five slots in your garage for cars, there’s really no requirement in-game to switch up your vehicle. In fact, the way the customization is laid out, raising your first vehicle from a basic speedster to a lean, mean, road-incinerating beast is possibly the game’s greatest joy. Your car, by necessity, is encouraged to become your car. Players can craft a machine that feels comfortable to how they prefer to drive as opposed to just looking for bigger and better stats as the difficulty of your tasks ramps up. This is especially true when Need for Speed’s events lean heavier on being able to drift effectively, and the particulars of how each player wants their car to react drifting into a turn can be as unique as a fingerprint. If the garage doesn’t currently have the tools or parts to finish an event successfully, there’s always an event waiting to be done that allows you to win those parts another way.
Those events range anywhere from straight-up point-to-point races to flashy style runs with a group of cars, drifting and making high-speed maneuvers for points. How you race and play is represented by five stats: Speed, Style, Crew (how well you match the actions of other cars in your group), Outlaw (how well you can evade the cops), and Build (showing off your machine’s high specs). Rewards are doled out accordingly to which of those stats you favor during events, and which of those types of missions you take. It’s an elegant system that allows players to play the game whichever way makes it the most fun for them, but that’s about where Need for Speed’s elegance ends.
The stats aren’t just represented by playstyles, but also by four broadly played, energy-drink-guzzling, street-racing cool kids, shown interacting with you—a mute protagonist—in full-motion video cutscenes interspersed throughout the game. The implementation isn’t necessarily the problem (impressively, the game is somehow able to incorporate your very customized vehicle into live-action footage, and the effect is seamless), but with the exception of Amy, the garage’s sardonic, spacey mechanic, none of them feel like actual human beings you want to hang out with for extended periods, and yet they will blow up your in-game phone every few minutes to frantically tell you about new events in accordance with their specialties.
That’s the least annoying part of Need for Speed’s overarching framework. The aesthetic of the game is immaculate, stark yet beautiful, suggesting what a Fast and the Furious might look like as helmed by Michael Mann. But the actual enjoyment of that aesthetic is waylaid by an overreliance on giant, fake, racer slang/netspeak-laden Twitter posts about your actions in-game, and constant overlays of tutorial guidance at the worst possible moments during a race. There’s also a needless, always-online component, which not only makes the game impossible to truly pause while your car is out on the streets, but brings random players into the game’s open world. It’s not a bad idea, albeit one that’s been tried, and failed miserably in Ubisoft’s The Crew.
That said, the game’s L.A. is so sparsely populated, players are more likely to crash head-on into each other during a single-player event than meet up long enough to organize an actual race. This becomes more of a problem as the scripted events start running out, and all that remains are just Need for Speed’s random, useless collectibles. It adds up to a game that feels desperate to make every player feel like a vital part of a subculture, but ends up being the most artificial part of an otherwise photorealistic experience.