I live in Durban, a city where 2001’s Fast and the Furious was so well received that people here keep their DVD on the shelf next to their chosen holy books, and because I went to school with people who couldn’t help but spread the gospel of of Vin Diesel’s super charger at every opportunity, I too was swept up in the hype. Naturally, this meant that when Need for Speed: Underground was released in 2003, I was ecstatic at being able to play what was essentially an unofficial video game tie-in to the movie. Although I haven’t played Underground in years and haven’t seen a Fast and the Furious movie since the abysmal Tokyo Drift, I joined the fans in rejoicing last year when it was announced that EA and Ghost Games were working together to reboot the Need for Speed series with the intention of drawing heavily from the Underground series for inspiration.
[pullquote_right]It comes across like Will Smith’s rap music in the sense that it tries to be “gangsta” but is clean enough for the 10-year-old son of a preacher[/pullquote_right]Need for Speed takes place in the fictional city of Ventura Bay and upon arrival you are introduced to your crew in the first of many live-action cut scenes. Because this is a Need for Speed game,these FMVs are cheesier than the week-old socks of an exceptionally sweaty farmer and you are assaulted by the frequent use of terms like dope, tight, cray-cray, and jelly. It comes across like Will Smith’s rap music in the sense that it tries to be “gangsta” but is clean enough for the 10-year-old son of a preacher, and left me cringing every time I was forced to sit through another one. There is some semblance of a story as you progress through the game but it’s pretty uninspired, ultimately following the standard formula of earning reputation and becoming recognised as the best street racer in Ventura Bay.
Despite the fact that the story is almost non-existent, your crew will phone you more often than a clingy ex, sometimes providing you with new races and events, but for the most part they have nothing of importance to say and will interrupt your race with, “Yo homie, that was tight!” or. “Sick run, bro! Hit me up soon.” This is tolerable in small doses but starts to get very annoying when you log in after taking a break and are inundated by phone calls commenting on your last race or inviting you to another one. Often a crew member would call to berate me for not dropping everything to join their race, even though I was currently competing in said race.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you start the game is how fantastic it looks. The metallic paint on the cars seems to shimmer and gleam as it reflects the lights from the beautifully designed environment, and it almost looks more real than reality when your car is included in the live-action FMVs. The level of detail is astounding and everything, right down to the water dripping off your bumper, seems to have been meticulously crafted to bring us the best visual experience possible. What I found a bit jarring, however, is that for the most part the game takes place at night, but driving through certain areas will cause the game to shift to early morning, meaning that many circuit races take you through night, then early morning, and back to night in a single race.
Beep, Boop, Beep
[pullquote_left] The only people who will find this soundtrack appealing are fans of EDM and other music that sounds like a calculator orgy. [/pullquote_left]One of my favourite aspects of Underground was the soundtrack. It contained songs from a wide array of genres and had everything from hip-hop to metal. Need for Speed’s playlist consists of a bit of rock and hip-hop, but for the most part the only people who will find this soundtrack appealing are fans of EDM and other music that sounds like a calculator orgy. The fast pace fits the mood quite well, and when you’re intensely focused on winning you tend not to hear it anyway, but because I find this genre to be quite irritating, I eventually turned to the PlayStation’s media player for something a bit less electronic.
One of the things that I was really looking forward to in Need for Speed was the return of vehicle cutomisation and in this regard Ghost Games didn’t fail to deliver. We are able to customise almost every visual aspect of the car, from spoilers and carbon fibre bonnets to side skirts and vinyls, and there are enough options to make your car look quite unique. I was disappointed, however, that the neon under-glows from the Underground series were not featured here and I’m fairly certain that many fans requested them, which makes me worry that they might include them later…for a nominal fee. Despite the fact that Ghost Games have announced that they don’t intend to support microtransactions, their statement from last week, in which they basically stated anything could happen in the future, has me quite concerned.
With this in mind, I had a look at the different customisation options and even though we are given a lot of freedom to upgrade almost every aspect of the car, including individual engine componants, there are only a handful of options for each category which could mean that there will be an option for more components at a later stage. Even the list of available cars, although diverse and ranges from low-end tuners like the Honda Civic to high end super-cars like Ferraris, is fairly small in comparison to many other racing games and only offers a choice of 52 cars. Perhaps I’m being paranoid because I’ve seen how EA operates but it feels as if things have been held back in order to include them down the line.
There is no shortage of things to keep you busy in Ventura Bay as the map is littered with races of varying difficulties. The race difficulty seems to be largely reliant on the level of car that your opponents drive; with easy pitting you against low-end cars like the Civic or GTI, medium sees you competing with mid-range cars like the Nissan Skyline, and hard which has you up against the super-cars. You aren’t gated from any race though and should you choose, you can compete in the hard races with a low-end car, although in order to actually stand a chance you will obviously need to ensure that you have purchased all of the high-level upgrades to get the best performance from your ride.
I hope you like drifting
There are 9 different types of events but ultimately they can be broken up into 5 drifting events and 4 racing events, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be disappointed to know that the drag racing from Underground has not made an appearance here. I’ve never been particularly skilled at drifting and was quite grateful that it made up quite a small portion of the Underground games.As you might gather, more than half of the available race-types are focused on “getting sideways”, as the kids call it. Learning how to tune your car’s handling is imperative if you hope to rack up enough points to win these events, and for the most part I managed to get it right. It took some getting used to but after enough trial-and-error, I eventually figured out a good balance between drift and grip, and it’s incredibly satisfying to slide around a hairpin bend at 140 KM/H, but unfortunately there is no way to save your settings. This meant that in the early on, when I only had one car, I was too afraid to change the settings for circuit or sprint races, which made sticking to the racing lines exceptionally difficult. Fortunately the cars are affordable enough that you can easily buy another and dedicate its tuning to a particular race type, although you can only have 5 cars at any given time because the game seems to be more about perfecting cars rather than collecting them.
In addition to the 9 main racing event-types are what are called Outlaw missions which task you with baiting and evading police. As you compete in more of these events, your wanted level increases meaning that cops are more likely to chase you, call for backup, and set up road blocks, which can get rather annoying when you’re competing in the more difficult races where you are driving at an average of 270 KM/H and the slightest bump causes you to total your car. In addition, the AI racers adopt a “win at all costs” driving strategy and will run you off the road at any opportunity, making it even more difficult to keep track of the cops. While your wanted level is low, however, you very rarely encounter police patrols and actually have to seek them out in order to complete the Outlaw missions, which means you have the option of leaving these missions for later and making the bulk of the game about going as fast as possible without having to worry about police cars trying to trip you up.
The always-online aspect of Need for Speed caused a lot of controversy leading up to the game’s release but EA stated that in order to deliver the full experience this policy was necessary. One would assume then that the game would have a large focus on the multiplayer element, but one would be very wrong. Although you come across many people online, they are mostly doing their own thing and never show up in races unless you specifically challenge them. You also have the option to put together a crew and compete in races together for additional reputation and money but for the most part, the game could easily have offered an offline experience because all of the races see you competing against AI. There are daily challenges and galleries of other players’ winning snapshots, and playing with others can be fun if you can get them to join your crew, but there’s nothing here that really justifies the need to be always-online, and for the less social gamer, it’s more of a chore than a welcome feature.
Need for Speed is solid as far as actual racing goes, and there are hours upon hours of events to hold your interest. The nuances of tuning and customisation are incredibly satisfying and building a car from scratch provides a sense of accomplishment that has been sorely missed for quite some time. With that said, the decision to include the always-online component and lack of variety in event-types hold the game back, and although it’s clearly been influenced by Need for Speed: Underground, it fails to capture the charm that made the original so great.