Take a journey to any populated outlet constructed primary for discussing the longstanding automobile racing franchise from Electronic Arts, and the theme will almost always revolve around one central talking point. No longer the front-running snapshot of virtual car culture it once was, Need for Speed as a modern video game series is now a useless millennial female with a few screws loose; awkwardly jumping from trend to trend in search of some semblance of an identity that she can never seem to stick with – occasionally dabbling in designer drugs and shitty music festivals in the name of “finding herself” to add to the chaos. First, Need for Speed became a story-driven cinematic clusterfuck; the next year Electronic Arts commanded it to become a quasi-simulator. Michael Bay supposedly got his hands on it for one edition, as did the Burnout crew for a few years, before the series made an abrupt jump to the first person shooter engine known as Frostbyte on current generation consoles. Yet despite the franchise re-inventing itself with each passing year, one element remained largely the same regardless of all these changes: Need for Speed received shitty reviews and was panned by the core group of fans who’d helped to build the franchise in the first place.
Within weeks of launch, it would receive heavy discounts in the marketplace, and mere months later would see the titles land inside the bargain bin at your local GameStop. Electronic Arts can hire all of the social media shills they want; nothing can offset the reality Need for Speed receiving a public lashing from everyday gamers, as it has been over the past several years.
And it’s quite sad, really, as the early Need for Speed titles were simply phenomenal, paving the way for EA’s little racer to become one of the giants – so long as developers were able to continue forward with the winning forumla. Offering a mix of superb arcade driving physics, smooth gameplay, advanced visuals, and a robust list of features and functionalities, titles like High Stakes, Most Wanted, Hot Pursuit 2, and even the pair of Underground games – whether you enjoy the tuner culture fad or not – all offered pure arcade racing bliss. To put it in pretty basic terms, no matter what kind of car guy you were at the time, and regardless of what you were looking for out of a driving game in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, you most likely bought a decent selection of Need for Speed games anyways, because all of them were good.
But this perfection was not to be maintained, and things have instead taken a turn for the worst. Naturally, with Ghost mishandling the franchise to such an extent; the rushed Rivals giving way to an embarrassing effort in the 2015 reboot and the equally underwhelming story-driven Payback due later this year – despite two other story-driven games being listed as the worst releases in the series – fans are absolutely livid over what has happened to this once prominent line of video games. And a lot of them are calling for Ghost to abandon their current nonsensical direction in favor of returning to the game’s roots, just for one last hurrah before it all comes crashing down. This is, of course, a reasonable request for the fanbase to make, but with the franchise itself bearing so many distinct personalities, determining the absolute “roots” of Need for Speed is a task unto itself. Those who grew up with the Underground games want a return to street racing, while the veteran guys like myself believe it should be more akin to something like DriveClub – a supercar sandbox. And we obviously can’t forget the pinnacle of the series sales-wise – Most Wanted – even though by that time, the franchise had seen a few facelifts since it’s original inception.
Yet in digging deep into the history of Need for Speed, turning the clock back all the way to the initial “Road & Track Presents” release on EA’s failed 3DO console, you’ll be surprised to learn that there is already a racer on the market that captures exactly what the gaming world loved about Need for Speed when it first landed on the market in 1994, and maybe Need for Speed never did possess a true identity.
It’s certainly not the adventure you’re expecting.
Though I assume many of you reading this have turned laps in this game at some point during your childhood, what y’all probably aren’t aware of, is that “Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed” actually received four distinct variations on store shelves over the course of about a year or two.
Originally landing on the aforementioned 3DO platform, a console too expensive and too under-powered to be a viable gaming option for the market, the game was soon re-developed for the PC in 1995, and then again for Sony’s PlayStation and Sega’s Saturn in 1996. And unlike modern racers, which exhibit parity across all major platforms they’re to be released on, early 1990’s gaming technology just didn’t make this anywhere near feasible. So to begin our evaluation of the definitive roots of Need for Speed, we have to consider the very first iteration of the game – launching on the failed 3DO – the absolute first entry of the series.
At the time, the game’s biggest draw was the abundance of licensed content. Nowhere near the monolithic entity they’re known as today, Electronic Arts went out of their way to acquire licenses for a pretty stout array of supercars and high performance vehicles – a roster that until only recently would be quite difficult for all but the most prolific of developers to acquire. Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Porsche were all willing to appear in the same piece of software, with performance cars from Chevrolet, Dodge, Mazda, Toyota, and Acura rounding out the eight-car field. There were admittedly better racing games on the market at this point in gaming history, but none offered to treat you like a 90’s automotive journalist with an impressive disposal of machinery at his feet. Basically, Electronic Arts were engaging in car license dick waving, fifteen years before it would become a legitimate thing in the world of sim racing.
But it’s in how they drove, at least on the 3DO, that really turned heads. The original rendition of Need for Speed was neither developed nor sold as a frantic arcade racer, but rather an authentic driving experience. Unlike the hyper-fast reincarnations of the franchise today, a series which routinely sends million-dollar supercars cars smashing into roadside barriers and police squad cars with reckless abandon, the original Need for Speed was instead quite the opposite -as much of a driving simulator as the 3DO would allow. With the help of Road & Track staff members, EA ensured vehicles exhibited traits heavily in line their real world performance figures, and required precise control inputs to keep the car pointed in the proper direction.
There was also no rocking in-game soundtrack, no computer opponents save for a one-off challenge against a fictional douchebag, and users were encouraged to drive in cockpit view, which although primitive by today’s standards given we can see it’s just a cutout image and can probably create something similar in Photoshop within twenty minutes, this was cutting-edge in 1994.
It lacked a lot of basic features you’d find in a racing simulator, and had somewhat of a clunky user interface, especially when put up against something like Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing released on the MS DOS platform earlier that year, but that was never what Electronic Arts were trying to achieve; for all intents and purposes, Need for Speed was a driving simulator. The goal was to give users the keys to a bunch of high performance cars, and turn them loose on public roads with accurate car physics to convey a sense of realism about the whole thing.
Only after the game started selling well, did Electronic Arts shift the focus of Need for Speed to accommodate as many potential customers as possible. An entire range of AI opponents were added, the team worked tirelessly to improve performance, a brand new user interface was implemented to not be confusing as shit, and most importantly, the physics had been drastically changed overnight. On the PC, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn, Need for Speed was now a full-blown arcade racer; the licensed content and Road & Track tie-in mostly meaningless.
However, it’s not something people really cared about, or noticed until much later when they could afford to test out all three titles. The thing is, Need for Speed also drew in heaps of gamers because the software was just so technologically advanced for it’s time, a change in the underlying driving physics was of little concern to consumers. Compared to other popular racers, and I’ll throw a picture in here to display what I’m talking about, Need for Speed on the 3DO was this drastic shift in the paradigm of what was considered an acceptable art style to pursue. In an era where every single automotive game on the market boasted very basic, colorful, almost cartoonish graphics, Electronic Arts opted for what we now know as photorealism – or at least, what was possible given the technology available. It’s not a bright, attractive game by any means, but rather a piece of software that aims to replicate what you’d see out the front windshield while piloting a Ferrari on the freeways of Vancouver.
This too, was abandoned for the PC, Sega Saturn, and Sony PlayStation. The textures were re-done to provide a much brighter atmosphere in-line with the competition.
Need for Speed technically started as a hardcore driving simulator for the 3DO, but the following years for the franchise were just as chaotic and transitional as they are today. Electronic Arts had been unable to provide a uniform gameplay experience across all four platforms the title had been released on, radically changing the fundamentals of the game between builds until the individual pieces of software merely shared assets with one another. By 1997, when the highly anticipated sequel had come around, the days of ripping around the Pacific Coast in a Dodge Viper were long gone; now replaced with Volcanic landscapes, an even more outrageous handling model, and concept cars that were practically off-limits to even millionaires themselves. Another year off the calendar, and this theme had been abandoned too, in favor of a gameplay dynamic that saw law enforcement actively battle the player throughout the race. Within two more seasons, Electronic Arts had partnered with Porsche and released a virtual encyclopedia of the German sports car brand with their blessing – much to the chagrin of those who didn’t particularly care for Porsche..
Looking back on these early games, the reality is that Need for Speed never did have a core identity that the team stuck to throughout their early years spent growing the brand into a world-wide phenomenon. Electronic Arts began tinkering with every last moving part prior to the sequel arriving on store shelves.
What the team did have, however, were an abundance of good ideas, and the right people around them in the studio to make them happen in a manner that would translate to an enjoyable video game. Need for Speed II is a love-letter to awkward 1990’s concept cars, whereas High Stakes blended Gran Turismo-style progression with an action-packed arcade racer environment – something a lot of gamers wanted after Gran Turismo’s campaign mode bored them to tears. Hot Pursuit II worked because Black Box struck gold with the physics engine and track design, the Underground games exploded in popularity because Electronic Arts were the first to offer a streamlined customization component, and Most Wanted rocked the gaming landscape because on top of compiling everything that worked in the series up to that point, the police artificial intelligence were ferocious.
The reason Need for Speed titles embarked on a very sharp decline in quality starting with the release of Carbon in 2006, was because the team simply ran out of good, solid ideas to base a game around. From the start, Need for Speed’s identity never had to be concrete, because there were always a fresh flow of genuinely smart creative decisions to ensure next year’s game would top the current year’s release. Once that well dried up, the executives at Electronic Arts presumably took over, insisting that the game had to be released at any cost, regardless of what half-baked bullshit was on the table. It’s easy to blame Ghost for three dismal titles, and yes, I’m writing off Payback before I’ve even played it, fuck you too, but in hindsight, games like Undercover, The Run, Most Wanted 2012, and Pro Street existed, and were just as awkward and clunky as Rivals, 2015, and the inevitable Payback – though I’m a personal fan of Pro Street. Like the Ghost entries, they too are devoid of life; clearly thrown together with no cohesive direction or creative spark – instead fueled by a “paint by numbers mentality” in the hopes that some people will buy it.
To improve Need for Speed, it doesn’t actually need to go back to it’s roots, because there aren’t any tangible roots to go back to; you simply need smart, creative people on the development team who can come to brainstorming sessions with ideas that will make kids want to rush home and play the game after school.
Speed cards will not make people rush home to play Need for Speed: Payback.
That’s how to fix Need for Speed, but I’ve also alluded to another game carrying on the exact mentality of the original 3DO release, twenty years later. And the piece of software I’m talking about, is none other than Assetto Corsa. Yes, I’m 100% suggesting that Assetto Corsa is the spiritual successor to the original Need for Speed.
Though it took some time for the car roster to diversify to the extent it is now, the huge selling point of Assetto Corsa in the eyes of the average consumer would be the meticulously detailed supercars and other miscellaneous street legal machinery on the game’s roster. Just like Need for Speed, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche all make an appearance, though the big three are now complimented by an assortment of McLaren, Pagani, BMW, Audi, Lotus, Mazda, and Toyota entries. Taking a page out of EA’s playbook, these aren’t simply cars to purchase, collect, or unlock via in-game credits, boasting rudimentary physics that sort of convey the car’s behavior, the absolute selling point is the attention to detail Kunos have supposedly exhibited when creating these cars – down to the algorithms that dictate the aero surfaces of cars such as the Pagani Huayra. It’s an evolution of what EA were trying to accomplish with their Road & Track partnership for the 3DO, on an exponentially more detailed level. It’s not just about having the cars in the game, it’s about conveying the feeling of driving them to the user.
Next, we look at the on-track simulation value. Like the original Need for Speed, which was billed as a “driving simulator” first and foremost, Kunos Simulazioni’s own fans have dubbed Assetto Corsa to be a “driving simulator” as well to try and downplay the omission of certain elements. Many who call the game their simulator of choice boasting about merely turning laps on an empty track to experience the thrill of pushing the car to the limit; others have mockingly referred to it as a Chris Harris hot lap simulator for this same reason.
This may sound like an abrasive knock at the title, but the modding community’s traits serve to reinforce this statement. The most popular add-on tracks for Assetto Corsa are not purpose-built racing facilities as one would expect for a PC racing simulator, but instead free-roaming public highways, with the number one third party map based around the Lake Louise resort area, three hours west of Calgary Alberta.
While not visually stunning by any means – in fact it’s quite ugly in sub-optimal conditions – Assetto Corsa also progresses things on the technological front in a similar fashion to what Road & Track Presents did back in 1994. Assetto Corsa released at a time in the sim racing landscape when the status quo said race cars should be difficult to drive and force feedback should be confusing, with Kunos winning over scores of PC sim racers by providing a much more believable rubber compound, coupled with force feedback that was absolutely unreal for where the rest of the genre was at. Like Need for Speed, other games may have offered a much better complete package, but the progress made in certain technical areas was enough to compel many sim racers into giving it a shot, if only to experience the physical driving aspect of Assetto Corsa. So while it wasn’t visual fidelity drawing people towards Assetto Corsa, it was still within the general realm of technical advancements compared to other major players in the genre.
Both games also required a complete user interface re-design for the popular home console release a few years later.
So in conclusion, Need for Speed’s technical “first identity” is that of an authentic driving simulator, but Electronic Arts scrapped that concept for when the game re-developed and sold on other platforms before wildly jumping around from theme to theme in the 1990’s, proving that the identity crisis plaguing Need for Speed has existed for as long as the series itself. The key difference between the games of old, and the utter garbage of now, is that the ideas – as well as the people in charge of executing those ideas – had enough of a cohesive creative vision to ensure that whatever path the franchise took, it would be well worth the $60 admission.
Now? Not so much.
However, for those who want the definitive, traditional Need for Speed experience as depicted in Road & Track, the game that matches the precise list of requirements you’re looking for is called Assetto Corsa.