Locked in an eternal identity crisis for the better part of a decade, the upcoming Need for Speed title by Electronic Arts and Ghost Games will probably be the last entry in the franchise. Delayed for over a year in an effort to revitalize the aging video game series that debuted in 1994 on the ill-fated 3DO, Electronic Arts has made it clear that if the next-generation reboot of the Underground games fails to revitalize the series, Need for Speed is done.
And that scenario is likely to happen. A few short days after the access codes were emailed out for users to participate in the game’s closed beta, Need for Speed’s official subreddit was set ablaze by angry gamers wondering “what the fuck is this shit?” Poor car handling, scripted artificial intelligence, distracting visual effects, a lack of functionality for competitive online play, and an embarrassing story mode highlighted a mammoth list of complaints that indicate the 2015 installment of Need for Speed will do anything but save the franchise as intended. Most of the people who were allowed into the closed beta program are now totally uninterested in seeing what the full game has to offer. That’s not good for the future of Need for Speed.
So while the rest of the normies are pretending the huge array of negative comments already surrounding the upcoming title are just “crazy entitled haters who expect too much”, we here at PRC.net are going to hold a virtual funeral and look back at the five best Need for Speed games ever. The final few years of the franchise may have been a disorganized mess that destroyed the brand’s credibility, but the 20 year ride there gave us some great fuckin’ games.
Let’s remember those.
As it stands in 2015, Need for Speed II is more than just a game; it’s a time capsule. Released during an era where nobody knew what to expect from video games, Need for Speed II was a snapshot of a period in history where children and teenagers obsessed over shitty music and supercars. While the original title from 1994 aimed to be a somewhat realistic street racing sim thanks to the Road & Track Magazine partnership, NFS II threw all that shit out the window in favor of an art project that captured what it was like to be a car nut in the 1990’s. From the slick menus blasting Jeff Van Dyck and Saki Kaskas instrumentals, to the live-action bonus videos of each car tearing it up on European roads, NFS II was all of your old supercar posters brought to life.
The vehicle roster rounded up every insane creation from the past couple of years prior to the game’s release, and threw them onto the grid together. The worlds most sought-after production cars like the McLaren F1, Jaguar XJ220 and Ferrari F50 were joined by insane rides such as the Ford GT90 and Lotus Elise GT1 concept cars. To compliment the high horsepower lineup, track design and vehicle physics were adjusted accordingly. Each car was generally nimble and responsive, with the tracks being fairly liberal interpretations of the location it was based on. The game’s Proving Grounds layout was an oval banked steeper than NASCAR’s Daytona or Talladega, while Pacific Spirit saw racers blast through an LSD-infused rendering of the greater Vancouver area filled with shortcuts and hidden jumps. The AI was quick, the presentation was slick, the controls were tight, the tracks were creative, and the car roster was intended to be nothing but heavy hitters.
But the game was pushed over the top by Vancouver musician Jeff Van Dyck, his wife Angela, and a phenomenal supporting cast that included Saki Kaskas and Romolo Di Prisco. The game’s soundtrack was an assault on the senses; the group of musicians hired by Electronic Arts laying down absurdly catchy tracks covering a huge spectrum of genres, each seemingly better than the last. Angela Van Dyck’s haunting vocals on Headless Horse and Saki’s technical guitar precision on Siwash Rock are atmospheric gems headlining what might be the greatest driving music album ever. The songs were also arranged in a way to capitalize on an audio looping experiment EA had been trying out; depending on your track position and how many laps were left in the race, the song would either pick up or see a reduction in intensity. In short, holding onto the lead on the Outback circuit allowed you to headbang for longer.
Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Need for Speed II. As with all games released on the Sony Playstation, the framerate dips and dives whenever there’s a bit too much action on the screen, and sometimes the digital gamepad controls can be less than ideal in technical sections. On the PC end of things, due to the game’s status as an ancient relic, most modern PC’s simply can’t open the executable anymore without several tweaks found on various websites. To complicate things even further, the special edition of the game which shipped with several new cars, as well as a bonus track located in Mexico, was only compatible with the short-lived 3DFX technology that a handful of games used in the late 1990’s. Those who’ve retained their copy of NFS II SE are now forced to experiment with finicky glide wrappers just to get the game up and running.
Those who do are rewarded with a trip back to 1997.
If there is any one paragraph I could publish on PRC.net that would lead to people finding out where I live and bombarding my house with vegetarian pizzas, it’s including Need for Speed: Pro Street on a list of best Need for Speed games. People hated this fucking game with a passion. Released in 2007, at the height of Need for Speed’s identity crisis, and well after Forza had established itself as the king of car games on the Xbox 360, Pro Street was EA’s attempt at copying Forza. And most people already owned and really liked Forza, giving racing game fans virtually no reason to try out EA’s offering that year.
But Pro Street wasn’t bad. In fact, what EA tried to build was extremely well thought-out. The content list was surprisingly varied; 78 cars could be customized out the ass and raced on a huge offering of tracks and event disciplines, including some that hadn’t seen a whole lot of action outside of hardcore racing simulators. Willow Springs, Sears Point, Texas World Speedway, and Portland International Raceway all got their time in the spotlight, and years later some tracks featured in Pro Street, like the Tokyo Docks, have been ripped and converted for use in every hardcore racing sim under the sun. Along with the traditional circuit racing, the game also offered basic drag and drift event implementation, along with Speed Challenges that saw users building highly unstable time trial cars and racing them flat out through the Nevada Desert.
When the game was firing on all cylinders, it was awesome. At one point I sat down for a weekend with my buddy and built a proper 2004 Pontiac GTO Pro Mod that could do 6.10’s without any exploits, and then spent the rest of the week wrecking kids in quarter mile drag race lobbies who couldn’t keep up in their 8-second Toyota Supra they built from some guide on YouTube. It was a lot of fun.
The physics sucked. I mean, let’s just confront that issue as soon as possible. Despite Pro Street being EA’s answer to Forza, despite their attempts to throw sponsors on every billboard and make it seem as if the entire game is under a fictional international sanctioning body, this was not a racing sim like Forza. Cars picked up 40 MPH in the draft, 1969 Camaro’s could be equipped with certain parts that made them run quicker than any legal doorslammer on the planet, and an artificial rev limiter capped every car in the game at 251 MPH, which became problematic on the aforementioned Nevada Highway or Autobahn locations. You could chip the car through the whole lap if you got the line right.
And there were some things EA really fucked up. Some cars, like the Bugatti Veyron or McLaren F1, could only be bought through microtransactions. Stage 4 parts, the best parts available in the game, were yanked from the game in a title update as they were considered overpowered, and this really screwed up online play, as people who already had them installed on their cars would decimate the competition.
Yet underneath some of EA’s questionable decisions, was a really good game. The customization features, such as being able to sculpt the exact wing size or air ducts on the front bumper, actually affected the car’s aerodynamic balance. The livery editor, while not refined like in Forza, still allowed for some very elaborate designs. The game seamlessly tied together your offline progression with online multiplayer events, and allowed you to earn money by selling blueprints of your race-winning cars. Even the game’s lone DLC package was packed full of content, including sixteen cars and two entirely new locations – a damn good deal for the $8 it went for on Xbox live.
Had the game not been released as an unfinished mess on the PC, and had users been able to crack it open and adjust the tire model to create something much more believable, we’d still be playing it today. The wide open customization features, great list of content, and plethora of different racing disciplines, coupled with a career mode that made heavy use of financial management, laid the foundation for something that never materialized. With a good group of friends, all the tools were there to build cars within a certain performance specification and run your own private leagues, but most people didn’t see it that way. Pro Street was marked down to a budget price as it failed to catch on with its intended audience.
You can’t have one without the other. Often seen as an unofficial tie-in with the Fast & Furious movies, the two Underground games are a snapshot of ricer culture as it stood in the early 2000’s. Until 2003, Need for Speed had been primarily about racing exotic cars while outrunning the cops, even mocking the tuner subculture in the intro movie to 1999’s Need for Speed High Stakes, but EA couldn’t ignore the massive popularity of the films starring Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. Underground, and Underground 2 the following year, were nothing more than an attempt to cash-in on every retarded teenager obsessing over Nissan Skylines and Mazda RX-7’s for a few months in 2003.
Except, given the talent residing within the offices of Electronic Arts, even a simple cash-in on an automotive fad that was quickly burning out had the potential to become one of the most iconic games ever, and that’s exactly what happened. Despite the total 180 of the Need for Speed franchise that seemingly happened overnight with no prior warning, the two Underground games blew people away and are still regarded as some of the greatest racing games ever.
At the time, nobody cared that the sudden change in subject matter went against everything the series previously stood for. Over a decade later, they still don’t.
The remix of The Doors’ classic Riders on the Storm featuring West Coast rap legend Snoop Dogg, one that was universally panned by critics, accidentally became the soundtrack to an entire generation of gamers in the early 2000’s. The recent move by Electronic Arts to include modern musicians on the soundtrack introduced a whole shitload of people to little-known bands like Rise Against, Queens of the Stone Age, Lostprophets, Paul Van Dyk, The Crystal Method, and Static-X. Obviously, those names aren’t so little anymore, and EA may or may not have had a hand in that.
Graphically, both games were phenomenal and suffered little to no performance issues unless you were dumb enough to purchase or beg mommy & daddy for a Nintendo console. From a gameplay standpoint, both games were outstanding and controlled exceptionally well; the cars danced around over bumps yet could be kept firmly in control with a gamepad, which never felt like a disadvantage. The customization features were unmatched, a feat made even more impressive due to the fact that Electronic Arts had to invent the wheel, as no other game previously had such an ambitious car customization element that allowed players to truly personalize each car in their garage. And when fans had no idea how EA could possibly top Underground, the sequel included a huge fucking free roam map, more cars, more songs to sing along with, and even more customization elements – including setup building and your own private test track.
Neither game stands out from the other, and that’s why it’s impossible to include just one on the list. While the original Underground title lacks the customization options seen in the sequel, the track design is infinitely better due to the game not relying on an open world setting. While Underground 2 has more cars and a much longer career mode, track design is poor due to the game’s map sometimes not allowing for the most flowing or natural track layouts. When you fire up one for a few nostalgic laps, you’ll inevitably want to give the other one a go as well.
It’s a shame EA has failed to capture the magic of these two games with their upcoming Underground reboot, as only those who were around to experience Underground and Underground 2 as brand new games with a $60 will understand what these titles meant to an entire generation of gamers.
Sony’s Playstation 2 went three years without a Need for Speed title, and Electronic Arts certainly announced their presence in the fall of 2002 with the final installment of Need for Speed before the endless identity crisis took over. Shipping with over 45 exotic sports cars, two lengthy career modes that encouraged you to play through the game however you liked, and a selection of courses that were extremely long and demanding, Hot Pursuit 2 was the quintessential desert island racing game. If you’d been living on food stamps and could only have one driving game for your new console, this was the one.
That is, if you were smart enough to own a Playstation 2. While Hot Pursuit 2 indeed released on all other relevant platforms at the time, development was split between two completely different studios. EA Black Box, formerly the guys who worked on EA’s NASCAR titles, were in charge of the PS2 version of the game. EA Seattle were given the reigns of the PC, Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube versions.
Despite shared assets and a collective vision of putting out the ultimate rendition of Need for Speed, only EA Black Box succeeded. The PS2 version looked sharp, had a fantastic driving model where vehicles could be controlled with pinpoint accuracy, extremely intelligent police AI, and the game’s unique way of unlocking content continuously rewarded you for playing through the game and driving like a beast on-track.
The other versions were utter dogshit. EA Seattle’s version suffered from muddy controls, a reduction in the number of tracks and locations, poor police AI that lacked advanced tactics introduced in the PS2 version, poor graphics that did not implement post processing effects seen in the PS2 game, and rewarded you with so little NFS Points after each race that unlocking new cars turned into RPG-like grinding sessions.
Regardless of what version we’re talking about, the game offered two distinct campaign modes, one focused on traditional racing, and another centering around dogfighting with the police. Each career featured a tree-like progression of events, allowing you to be racing the quickest cars the game had to offer within your first few hours of play, although the sheer size of each track meant some races took upwards of fifteen minutes to complete. There was a lot to see and a shitload to do, but your enjoyment of the title relied 100% upon the console you owned. On the PS2 version, the sublime driving physics and advanced police AI made the lengthy races enjoyable. Without a Dualshock in your hands, it was hard to believe EA had a hand in the project.
While not as influential as the games before nor after it, Hot Pursuit 2’s soundtrack did as much as possible to line the soundtrack with killer driving music. Canadian rock legends Rush and their new single One Little Victory highlighted a fifteen song lineup split evenly down the middle between electronic instrumentals and early 2000’s metal, though the inclusion of Bush and Pulse Ultra do little to offset clunkers from the likes of Uncle Cracker.
As much as I’d like to praise the PS2 version for what it does right – mainly everything, the reality is that the other three versions of the game exist, and were extremely underwhelming. Of the several hundred thousand people who have owned a copy of Hot Pursuit 2 for any system, only a fraction of them have played what Electronic Arts intended the game to be.
What’s interesting about High Stakes is that Electronic Arts pushed out two very different versions of the game, and both of them accomplished what they were trying to achieve en route to becoming the greatest Need for Speed game in the history of the series.
On the PC, High Stakes was an HD Remake/Greatest Hits Package of Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, which came out the year before. Usually, developers don’t release something like this in such a close proximity to the original game’s release, especially in 1999 where gaming visuals were still a few years away from taking off, but EA didn’t seem to care. Along with a slight visual overhaul and the most cars ever seen in a Need for Speed game up to that point, a dozen or so brand new tracks complimented the entire track roster from the previous game, which had been carried over and given a slight graphical update.
The game also included a lengthy career mode complete with rudimentary car upgrades and visual/mechanical damage that needed to be repaired after each session, and at some points you could challenge the AI to a one-on-one showdown in an effort to win their car, playing up on the title of the game. Electronic Arts also supported the game well past the release with free DLC in the form of several new cars by BMW, Lister, and Jaguar. It was a really nice package, and games like High Stakes are part of the reason Electronic Arts managed to become as big as they currently are.
For those who skipped out on Hot Pursuit, or wanted to keep playing Hot Pursuit for another year, it was Hot Pursuit, but better, and there was no reason not to buy it. Unfortunately, the existence of High Stakes meant Hot Pursuit went from being this incredible, critically acclaimed title, to practically useless in less than a year.
There was no legacy content. The car list was halved from the PC version, and only the brand new tracks made it into the selection, the count artificially padded by mirrored and reversed versions. The physics weren’t silly like the PC version, but were slightly more rooted in reality, and drove like someone had tried to make Project Gotham Racing a few years before the technology became available. And as we mentioned above with Need for Speed II, the framerate issues seen several years earlier didn’t exactly improve, either.
But the AI was good, in fact, even superior to the PC version, and that was a starting point. Coupled with driving physics that appealed to the more hardcore crowd, relying on careful use of the brake button and a smooth driving lines as opposed to the chaotic, flat-out style of the PC version, the racing itself benefited. There may have been more shit to do in the PC version, but the quirks of the Playstation version produced better racing from a technical standpoint.
The career mode, while shorter than what was available in the PC version, put a much greater emphasis on financial management. Championship entry fees were significantly higher, the payout sometimes required multiple seasons competing for the same trophy, damage cost more to repair by default, and buying a new car or upgrading your current car hurt your wallet by a much more significant amount. Combined with an AI that was quick enough to steal more than a few wins away from you, progressing through High Stakes wasn’t all that easy. I played through the game to completion a few months ago on a PSX emulator, and there were definitely a few times I wondered how the fuck a game from 1999 was putting up a fight against me – and winning.
What’s interesting is that the High Stakes portion of the game, seen almost as a boss battle on the PC throughout the game’s extensive career mode, was nowhere to be found. Instead, the mode was designed to be the primary social aspect around High Stakes on consoles during a time where physical memory cards were a thing. Ideally, Electronic Arts set up a system where you’d book it home after school or work to progress through the game’s career mode, buy yourself a bunch of cars, upgrade them, and later that night race your buddy at his house via split-screen for pink slips on your car collection. Obviously, it was a system that relied on the game’s popularity to flourish, but it’s something that could work in newer games like Forza Horizon 2 if a developer had the balls to implement a similar system.
But whether you’re playing it on the PC, or Sony’s shitty console with numerous framerate and overall quality issues, High Stakes was the undisputed best Need for Speed game of the series entire history.
Based on the positive aspects of the five games listed above, here are the ingredients needed to make a great Need for Speed game.
- Tight driving controls. The car has to drive well with a Gamepad, and be somewhat grounded in reality. Ideally, you want something that’s a step more forgiving than the Project Gotham Racing series. None of this train-track drifting bullshit that came out of nowhere.
- Great Soundtrack. Whether it’s created by a bunch of little-known dudes from Vancouver, or a mix of punk rock bands you’ve never heard of, you need to build a lineup of songs that will inevitably become the soundtrack to a generation of gamers. You can’t just lump random shit from popular bands together and call it a day. You have to operate as if the first song playing in the main menu has the potential to represent what the game means to the people playing it.
- Creative, challenging tracks. Random paths through an open city don’t work because it messes up the overall flow of the race, and creates for awkward, forced passing zones. Fictional circuits out in the countryside give you a bunch of artistic liberty that allow you to shape the kind of racing you want to take place.
- A car roster built around a specific theme. For NFS II, it was concept cars. For the Underground games, it was the tuner subculture. For High Stakes and Pro Street, it was the flagship cars of each major brand. For Hot Pursuit II, it was exotics. You can’t lump a bunch of random cars together and call it a day.
- The customization element, if you chose to include it, must be extremely detailed. If you set the bar high and then take shit out, the hardcore fans will notice the reduction. This is what happened in both Carbon and Most Wanted, and you’re damn right people noticed. That’s the exact reason why people shit on EA for several years in a row when customization was totally absent from the series.
Unfortunately, as we reported on yesterday, Need for Speed 2015 features none of the ingredients above because EA has displayed time and time again they have no idea what the fuck they’re doing, and most of the people participating in the closed beta have already written off the franchise. Say goodbye to the series a lot of you have grown up with, at least we have the five games above to dig out when we’re bored.