The Definitive Roots of Need for Speed

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.

Yet when we look at the larger argument and theme of this entry, our original 3DO Need for Speed fails to provide a compelling argument in favor of identifying the definitive roots of this franchise.

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.

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Need for Speed Fans Flood Facebook With Negative Comments After “Payback” Gameplay Surfaces

If you’re going to take an entire year off to try and re-establish the Need for Speed franchise as a valid alternative to other racing games on the market, this probably isn’t the way to do it.

When Need for Speed: Payback was first unveiled to the general public in a highly cinematic trailer, I instantly took to slamming the game for a variety of reasons, criticizing EA’s willingness to pursue a story-driven direction that already had failed them twice prior, as the mixture of narrative elements and a lighthearted, semi-scripted driving mechanic was explicitly not what their core audience had asked for. However, while some jumped on me for not giving the game a proper chance – it was just a trailer, after all, and there was a glimmer of hope that the actual gameplay experience might be better considering the extended development time – moving footage of the software in action surfaced during Electronic Arts’ own EAPlay event, and it only confirmed my suspicions. Devoid of character, life, or a satisfying driving experience, Need for Speed: Payback is the result of non-gamers sitting in a boardroom, crunching numbers and analyzing data ad nauseam to try and piece together a package that ticks all the boxes of what market analysis says customers should want, but in reality has the substance and longevity of a kiddie pool.

There’s a story, but it’s so embarrassingly cliche and stereotypical, away from Need for Speed it would pass as little more fan fiction from a borderline-obsessed Fast & The Furious fan on DeviantArt, registering under a fake birthday to bypass the age restrictions. The driving elements, again calling upon the Ghost engine that has been used since 2013’s Rivals, looks to once more draw upon what was established with Criterion’s Burnout series of yesteryear – meaning that driving is a solution to a problem that occurs on-screen, not something to be enjoyed and mastered over several hours of play. Payback isn’t a recipe for X amount of sales or an average rating of 8.0 on Metacritic because Y amount of Need for Speed fans also happen to like the official Fast and the Furious page on Facebook; it’s a sad, clumsy project that should never have been given the green light.

And the remaining Need for Speed supporters are making their voices loud and clear – that they too are sick of this bullshit that the team at Ghost have been needlessly perpetuating since the launch of the current console generation. The official Need for Speed Facebook page has been loaded with negative comments trashing Ghost for what will now be three totally misguided efforts since taking over the franchise, with EA awkwardly trying to convince buyers that this year will be different because some YouTube personality they flew around the world to promotional events said so.

Actually, make that two YouTube personalities; one of which whom can’t even remember his lines, and most likely couldn’t tell you the difference between aero push and an apex. This is of course exactly what I want from the longest-standing racing game franchise attempting to make a compact; a guy who looks like he’s never driven more than 10 km/h over the speed limit telling me to get excited for a game where the driving experience isn’t satisfying and the story – which none of us wanted in the first place – is so intrusive, it constantly takes control away from the player.

Good job EA, this is why people hate you.

Now, are Need for Speed supporters acting entitled by aggressively lashing out at Electronic Arts and Ghost Games for taking the legendary series in such a bizarre, nonsensical direction?

I don’t believe so.

As a video game developer, or the creator of any piece of entertainment, your fans are what carry you. If you’re in a rock band, your fans are the ones buying the albums and going to shows. If you’re a director, your fans are the ones hitting up your new movie on opening night and consuming all the merchandise. If you’re an author, your fans are the ones lining up in front of Wal-Mart at midnight. Maintaining a good relationship with these people is priority number one because it guarantees success & stability, and right now, Electronic Arts and Ghost Games have failed to do that.

And they failed because the team have decided regurgitating two concepts the fans previously have not responded well to – bullshit physics and intrusive narrative elements – rather than actually sitting down and listening to what the fans have been asking for. Across multiple Need for Speed communities, the demands for a game are pretty simple – a nice selection of vehicles, a variety of scenic locations, acceptable customization elements, a driving model that behaves somewhat like a car with four rubber tires, and an intelligent police presence. By ignoring the community and spawning an abomination such as Payback, it’s basically EA coming out and loudly proclaiming that they don’t give a fuck what the fans think – which of course tarnishes their relationship with the fans even moreso.

Now this would be kind of understandable if Ghost had set out to create a sort of Lulu on Wheels – an avant garde art piece – but that’s not what happened in the slightest; Ghost took a year off primarily because sales of Need for Speed 2015 were so low due to paltry fan support, and they wanted to ensure the next game would tick all of the boxes hardcore fans had been asking it to, therefore resulting in a sales resurgence.

Yet Payback proves they have simply wasted everyone’s time. Undercover, The Run, Rivals, and the 2015 reboot were all received horribly, so why on earth would Ghost and EA believe it was a wise idea to combine all of them into one gigantic mountain of shit, while acting under the guise of “doing what the fans want?” This isn’t what the fans wanted; it’s what the fans returned to GameStop a week after launch in 2008, 2011, 2013, and 2015 respectively.

What’s even more perplexing is how Ghost were unable to sit down for an afternoon and actually examine the source material that Need for Speed fans have been masturbating over for the better part of the decade; desperately wanting sequels to. It’s honestly not a difficult task to hook up an Xbox 360 with a copy of Most Wanted – the highest selling Need for Speed game of all time – or download a PlayStation 2 emulator and turn a few laps in the unforgettable Hot Pursuit 2, while taking notes about what each game nails to perfection. This isn’t some instrument that Celtic folk stopped playing in the 1200’s, it’s a fucking video game from a decade ago and it runs on Windows 10 operating systems; how Ghost were completely unwilling to hear out the fans in the first place and turn laps in these games to see what they did right, while simultaneously taking a year off and claiming the next effort is for the fans despite combining the worst elements of the four lowest-rated Need for Speed games in the series’ history, is mind-boggling.

Need for Speed fans have every right to be upset over the existence of Payback and what it stands for; the project is the absolute pinnacle of businessmen totally detached from what makes a genuinely fun video game trying to craft an experience that does nothing aside from tick boxes in an effort to maximize potential sales.

 

The One with Street Racing

If there’s one silver lining to the recent announcement of Need for Speed: Payback failing to resonate with both longtime fans of the series, as well as curious outsiders looking for a not-so-serious first step into our favorite genre, it’s that Ghost’s 2015 reboot of the historic arcade racer is now cheaper than ever – suddenly becoming a viable option for those unwilling to part with $80 for a bad Fast & the Furious rip-off later this year. With the Deluxe Edition retailing for just $19.99 CDN on the PlayStation Store, and promising a gameplay experience centered primarily around racing instead of heists, revenge, and a bunch of bullshit that’s much better suited to the silver screen, there will undoubtedly be a lot of curious people checking out what Ghost Games and Electronic Arts shat out just in time for the 2015 Christmas season – especially given the numerous title updates its received since then, designed to boost the game’s longevity.

Like many, I bought this game on sale, discarded it halfway through the prologue events because there was no way I could stomach the cringetastic narrative pieces Ghost were trying their hardest to force upon the player, and shelved the thing indefinitely, thinking Electronic Arts would push out a worthwhile title after the extra year in development that would make NFS ’15 redundant in the grande scheme of things. But of course, our supreme cartoon frog leader only blesses us with endless chaos, so here we are, trying to make do with what we have, because Ghost and EA somehow crafted something exponentially worse.

This is not a review (though it’ll probably be as long as one), but instead observations from an evening or two spent with Need for Speed ’15. To be completely honest, it’s every bit as bad as people have made it out to be, but there are a few redeeming qualities to the package that might make it worthwhile for you and your friends to dick around with for a week at a significantly reduced price. As if you’ve put Underground, Rivals, and a few seasons of Friends on DVD into a metaphorical blender, Need for Speed ’15 is a very strange mixture of concepts, ideas, and game design elements that only serve to reinforce the notion that Ghost Games should be kept far away from the Need for Speed series. Sometimes, it actually works, and it’s kind of fun. Most of the time, however, it doesn’t; it’s very bad, and you’re left hunting for a PlayStation emulator or an old copy of Most Wanted. When this game first dropped, the major point of discussion across basically every major video game message board was how atrocious the controls were. I recall pretty vividly, as PRC was operational and popular at the time, that we wrote a few different articles showcasing the literal thrashing NFS ’15 was receiving from the core userbase for hand-of-God drift controls that made all but the most lazy, wide, arcing drifts virtually impossible to hold with any consistency. A whole bunch of people were coming out and saying the drift events in the game – of which there are several – were an exercise in frustration, because this wasn’t Underground 2 or Pro Street where the physics could be learned, understood, and then mastered over the first few hours of play; it was these weird Ghost-era physics, where it’s like they tried to copy Ridge Racer’s train-track style showcase drifts, but failed miserably while deep in development, and released it anyways.

This is mostly accurate. To me, NFS ’15 feels very much like the Criterion-backed Need for Speed games, where these massive slides are easily executable & fairly satisfying, but the biggest difference comes in the transition – so what I’m saying is you have a pretty hard time in chaining drifts together from left to right and back again. Unlike Burnout or Hot Pursuit 2010, where you can transition from one massive slide to the next by lifting off the gas and letting the rear end swing around before jamming the trigger back down again, NFS ’15 does this weird understeer thing at the end of the drift, where it’s like the front end of the car hits an invisible patch of ice and temporarily loses all grip from the front tires. The actual drifting in the game feels acceptable – there’s even a bit of throttle management required to maintain your speed – but on corner exit you’re greeted with this understeer of death effect, and if you’re not prepared for it, you go nose first into the wall. So you always have to initiate a drift knowing that the front end will stall out for a second once you roll on the throttle and power out of a slide.

I’m obviously not happy with it – I’d like to chain drifts together instead of this weird one-shot bullshit where you have to physically settle the car before changing direction and prepare for this stall effect that only happens in this specific game  – but I did manage to figure it out in the end. The problem, however, is that 99% of people playing Need for Speed aren’t sitting in front of the television with racing simulator experience dating back to the late 1990’s, so I 100% sympathize with their absolutely livid feedback to the game’s counter-intuitive drifting model.

But on a more positive note, there’s a pretty extensive car setup screen (the above shot is only a portion of it) that lets you tear apart your ride to try and get it to your own personal liking within the confines of the game’s physics engine. With cars and setups not refined to any one style of event as they once were in Pro Street (where you had distinct drag/drift/circuit cars), you can actually go out and slap drift tires on your ride in an effort to free the car up during normal driving – therefore not relying on the canned drifting mechanic at all – further refining the car’s behavior as you would in a sim with the selection of sliders that in all honesty make pretty drastic changes to how the car feels. It’s certainly not perfect, but I was able to make both my Ferrari 458, as well as the Deluxe Edition BMW M3 behave in the manner I wanted to, getting them to a point where I no longer felt the physics engine was actively working against me as many have complained.

Of course, the disclaimer here is that a large part of my own success with the game is due to my personal set of skills, so your mileage may vary. I still believe it’s too much for the average Joe to become proficient at because there’s just too many little quirks to figure out with the handling model.

For those who stick with it, as I implied in the introduction, there are some genuinely fun elements that salvage NFS ’15 from being a complete write off, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if they’re enough to warrant a purchase.

The map, while not spectacular or boasting any key defining features – there’s no equivalent of Most Wanted’s Golf Course or Underground 2’s Burger King Play Place – is in my opinion the best part of the game. Ghost have done a tremendously good job designing a map that not only feels realistic from an artistic perspective, it fits the game’s physics engine; all of the streets, backroads, highways, and mountain passes exhibit a nice flow; never threatening to fuck you over with sudden turns or unnecessarily cramped quarters & concrete barriers that are a chore to drive through. Ghost were aware you’d be flying through every last kilometer of the map, so the road widths, elevation changes, and even trackside scenery have seemingly been constructed with that in mind. It also looks bloody impressive in motion, which I’m sure you’ve figured out from either promotional material or gameplay footage on YouTube; this is a solid ten in the visual department. Maybe even an eleven.

Car customization, an aspect that’s been the subject of intense debate since the fall of 2015, is a bit of a mixed bag. Truthfully, there’s been a drastic reduction in aesthetic changes you can make to your car compared to the Underground games of old; the vast array of bumpers, wings, side skirts, and body kits is only a fraction of a fraction of what it used to be, so I can easily understand what people in the forums were raging about when NFS ’15 first hit store shelves. Once you graduate from the entry level cars, your Ferrari’s and Porsche’s have next to no customization options, with the 458 you’ll be seeing a lot in my photos and gameplay footage only offering a single GT3-spec body kit as the car’s lone visual configuration. There are changes new to the series as well; camber, ride height, rake, and stagger can all be adjusted, though these minor elements never quite make up for the lack of physical bumpers, wings, and body kits that were in abundance back in the Underground days.

However, I’m under the belief Ghost were intending most players to go out and make use of the powerful livery editor tool, as while it’s not the first time we’ve had a Need for Speed game with some sort of layer-based free-form editing contraption, this is the first time it’s worked with any level of consistency and you can actually make decent designs with it. Like Forza, liveries can be shared and downloaded online from an in-game database, though Need for Speed actually gains the upper hand in this realm; browsing among the public liveries is faster than in Forza, you can edit the layers or underlying paint job of a downloaded livery to scrub a logo or two you don’t like the placement of, and Ghost don’t seem too keen on censoring offensive designs compared to the iron fist Turn 10 are known to rule with. So while there’s this one dude making all sorts of early 2000’s BMW GT liveries for the Deluxe Edition bonus car (I downloaded them all because I’m a loser), there’s also another guy slapping German flags and Swastika’s on the McLaren 570, and I think I saw a FUCK TRUMP fox body Mustang if that’s your thing. Regardless of where you stand on any of these beliefs, it’s cool that Ghost have allowed this sort of environment to thrive rather than swing in the opposite direction and issue permanent bans for stuff that only soccer moms would have a problem with.

But as you can probably guess from select critical reception and the overwhelmingly negative reaction of the NFS fanbase, there are also a lot of elements in Need for Speed that Ghost got very wrong, stretching far beyond the intense viral marketing and active shilling in the Need for Speed Subreddit. None of this shit is what the fans wanted in the slightest, and it’s why people want the Ghost team to just stop fucking with Need for Speed altogether.

Put. The tools. Back.

Storylines in a Need for Speed game are a bit of a touchy subject. Prior to the PlayStation 2 generation, NFS titles were all about tearing up wide-open highways with a selection of modern supercars, but of course, times change, and Black Box began introducing light narrative elements to tie the whole thing together as video games as a form of entertainment progressed into the new millennium. The stories weren’t blatantly in your face – in fact you could play through the game breezing past cinematic sequences and still always have context for what you were doing – they just served to provide some exposition for the boss characters, and eventually the police presence as they were re-introduced to the franchise after a multi-year hiatus with Most Wanted. By comparison, the 2015 reboot tries to insert Friends into Need for Speed.

Let me explain what I mean by this; Friends was by no means a bad television show, and Need for Speed is by no means a collectively bad video game franchise, but as a guy who bought Need for Speed to play with pretend race cars, I don’t want to consume both of these drastically different forms of entertainment at the same time. Unfortunately, Ghost have created a single player narrative that heavily relies on excessive levels of first person cinematic sequences, in which you are the nameless sixth member of some renegade street racing group, eternally trapping you in a nightmarish 90’s sitcom in which their is no laugh track, everybody drinks dangerously unhealthy levels of Monster Energy, and obsess over people they follow on Twitter.

What’s even more ridiculous than how that all sounds on paper, is the fact that the sequences genuinely aren’t terrible once you get into the meat of the game, the whole concept just overstays it’s welcome and that’s where the animosity towards it comes in. Each personality in the group has their street racing idol they’re trying to impress through social media posts of their escapades, and that acts as a tier of the story arc which fuels the main campaign. So, for example, point to point races are always done with Spike, and the overall goal of his career tier is to have a shot at Magnus Walker, which you eventually receive. Manu, on the other hand, has a goal of taking on Ken Block, so when you go to his icon on the map, you’re always partaking in drift events, and the ultimate goal is a showdown with the Gymkhana master himself. As a game design concept, it works pretty well; you can just sort of hit up whomever, whenever, and work on their strand of the campaign at your leisure. The structure of it all makes sense once you get going.

The acting is passable – I actually think the cast did a solid job with the material considering this certainly isn’t Game of Thrones – and the storylines are surprisingly down to earth; for example, upon finally getting a shot at Magnus Walker, your friend confronts you at a bar out of jealousy that you’ve made it to the big leagues before he did, with the rest of the group having to calm him down and prevent a fight from breaking out. There are many instances of these decent, credible scenes that coupled with the chemistry between each of the actors, give a bit of a human element to Need for Speed’s story. I originally hated the group because the opening segments are downright horrible, but over time began to take a liking to them as certain scenes toned down the ridiculousness in favor of more reasonable encounters. They’re a fun bunch.

But Ghost wasn’t sure when to shut them up, and I’m glad I was able to capture this on video in all it’s glory. Straight up, I was under the impression numerous characters were fucking throughout the campaign mode – hence the teen rating on the front of the box – and during the Skype group chats that occur right in the middle of races, the two women in the social circle will literally call each other and start nattering about relationship problems they’re having with the other, male characters on the roster while you’re flying through the streets of Ventura Bay at quadruple the posted speed limit. This is fucking insane, and what’s worse, this happens no less than six times throughout the course of about an hour in story mode. These calls about “muh feelings” were so frequent, I made a mental note to configure my PS4 share settings so I could capture this impromptu episode of Friends; it just wouldn’t stop. There’s crafting a story around a racing game to provide context to what the player is working towards, and then there’s using Need for Speed of all things as an alternative outlet for failing to land a writing job at NBC. This appears to have been the latter.

This nonsense extends into the actual gameplay itself, as many times you’ll be instructed to visit the Longhorn billiards club – the group’s trademark hang-out spot, because this is clearly a fucking sitcom – just to trigger a cutscene to advance the story, only to race back across town for the next event. Fucking normies.

I personally enjoyed the company of the group after the initial cringe had passed, but Ghost really fucked up by trying to turn this into a sitcom – YouTube says there’s 49 minutes of these scenes across the whole game, and that’s not counting the in-game phone calls that also serve to advance the story. So to hear Ghost is going to crank this already intrusive element of the game up to eleven with Need for Speed: Payback, is something people should be gravely concerned about.

There’s No AI

I’m not trying to be a cheeky cunt with this subtitle; there’s truly no artificial intelligence in Need for Speed ’15. Because the game places an extreme reliance on the use of online servers to fuel the overall game experience – remember, there’s no pause menus or offline element to this game, you’re always in a session with other people – occasionally the server hiccups affect semi-solo play. Once you trigger a race by yourself, the game is configured to have a fleet of AI cars spawn into the action at the last second within your immediate vicinity, and sometimes a server bug actually prevents this from happening, leading to situations where you can park the car and do absolutely nothing for an easy victory. I’ve documented this in a shot above for a drift event; on my mini-map and in the standings it said I had a field of opponents to battle against, but they sure as shit didn’t show up, and after a lap I basically parked the car next to where it said my opponents had spawned, waiting out the timer.

This happens so frequently, it even popped up in a boss race against Magnus Walker, which is supposed to be one of the game’s five or six final showdown races against a legendary driver. To spend a few hours progressing through one strand of the career mode, only to partake in a boss race in which the boss doesn’t actually show up and you run the nineteen kilometer sprint by yourself, is preposterous levels of anti-climactic, and speaks volumes about the kind of gaming experience Ghost are able to deliver with a budget set by Electronic Arts. It’s also legitimately insane that this game is over a year old, and Ghost haven’t fixed this.

When the artificial intelligence does appear on the racing surface, they are such a non-factor, I’m almost left wishing there was a domination function, in which the race ends early after you achieve a gap of at least X amount of kilometers. Once again, I’ve documented this in video above; when Amy gets her hands on a supposedly legendary car built by a high profile Japanese tuner, she is out of contention for the win within about two hundred feet of taking the green flag. I was able to progress through about half of the game without buying a single upgrade for my Deluxe Edition BMW, and when I did finally slap some upgrades on it out of curiosity – as well as buy a new car altogether – I found myself struggling to complete tandem drift events because the AI cars drove so slowly, I routinely outpaced them, preventing me from scoring points.

What’s even more frustrating, is that Ghost have never made any attempt to rectify this in a way that’s beneficial to the player; the team instead added a Prestige mode, which is only unlocked after you’ve completed the baseline Career mode, allowing you to replay a handful of career events against fully-upgraded cars that actually do issue a proper challenge equivalent to what we’ve come to expect from a series like Burnout. However, to get to these events, you’re tasked with grinding through career mode against non-competitive, occasionally non-existent AI, and that fucking blows. We’re talking several days of gameplay just to unlock competent AI; what were Ghost thinking?

Useless Social Features

This one’s slightly nit-picky, but I figured I’d throw it in here anyways. On top of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC platforms all having built-in capture buttons that let you take screenshots and videos at a moments notice – also giving you the ability to share them to your social media platform of choice – Ghost have incorporated their own screenshot generator and media platform into NFS ’15, meaning there are two separate screenshot buttons on your controller if you’re playing the PS4 version. Clicking the right stick automatically uploads an in-game shot sans heads up display to the NFS community portal, a page which is riddled with nothing but garbage as the entire thing is packed full of curious users clicking the right stick during the tutorial missions and then never touching it again, meaning there are about a billion screenshots from different users of the same three starter cars at the exact same part of the city, or like in the shot above, misclicks that show nothing at all.

Why Ghost would go through all this trouble to create an in-game microTwitter when each respective console already has an upload to real Twitter functionality hard-coded into the controller, is pretty mind-boggling.

To their credit, the built-in photo mode is pretty phenomenal and lets you take some stellar pictures of your car, but the inability to pause the game, coupled with the racing always taking place at night, means you’re limited to still poses in horrendous lighting conditions, as group or solo action shots are simply not possible. Again, here you have a development team with a near unlimited budget and the ability to hire actors from Game of Thrones unable to have any foresight on how useful certain features will be in their game. They built an entire social media hub and photo mode for Need for Speed, completely forgetting that there’s already real social media hubs the console is connected to by default, and taking pictures isn’t a very enticing task in the first place if the entire game world is pitch fucking back.

The Police Don’t Care About You

Ever since we were blessed with the phenomenal Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit back in 1998, intense cop chases have (usually) been part of what makes a solid NFS game. Unfortunately, while there are cops in NFS ’15, most of the time they’re totally indifferent to your existence, meaning the days of tearing up a circuit race, only to smoothly transition into an equally captivating police pursuit that stretches out for several minutes past the conclusion of the prior race, simply doesn’t happen here. Crown Victoria’s and Dodge Charger’s casually patrol the map, but are otherwise unfazed by your shenanigans. Yes, the game will go into pursuit mode, the HUD will change a bit, and you’ll be prevented from teleporting anywhere on the map, but the cops are basically no match for your insane rate of speed. Pursuits last a grand total of ten seconds, and most of the time you don’t actually see the police car that’s spotted you. It’s all kind of pointless.

The alternative is to engage in the Outlaw event types, which task you with property destruction and messing with a fleet of police cars. After some time spent toying with the cops, the squad does send out more and more units to counteract your tomfoolery, but your car is always so tremendously over-powered compared to the Ford’s and Dodge’s that the police force has at their disposal, these segments do little more than register as a minor inconvenience of your time. This is a pretty big deal considering most people see Need for Speed as “that game with the supercars where you try to outrun cops,” and that’s what they’re expecting out of the experience. Ghost have instead gone and basically created a game where you’re Usain Bolt trying to outrun a bunch of kindergartners, showering you with cash and experience points for doing so.

To reach level 50 and unlock everything, you’re not actually required to complete any of these challenges due to how career mode is structured, meaning 99% of people who sit down to casually play Need for Speed over the course of a few evenings will never see more than one or two cop cars every ten minutes. I don’t understand how Ghost fucked this up.

AllDrive Wasn’t the Revolution it Promised

First appearing in 2013’s Need for Speed: Rivals was the concept of AllDrive – what’s essentially a fancy name for telling customers they would always be forced into an online lobby whether they liked it or not, with other gamers casually strolling about the world to mingle with at their own leisure. On paper, the concept honestly makes a lot of sense, but is prone to shortcomings that Ghost were simply poor at predicting; at any given time, others can seamlessly co-op a race you’re participating in without the additional step of a dedicated multiplayer lobby screen, whether it be a race that progresses the story forward, or a one-off event you’re partaking in to grind XP and cash. So in theory you always have a selection of live opponents to race against.

The problem comes in that some of the story missions only provide a passed status if you win the race, and if somebody else jumps in with a faster car and destroys you (which is common as matchmaking does not appear to pair you with users of a similar driver level), the mission is considered a failure. Ghost have allowed people to essentially jump into your solo campaign and directly impede your progress at any given time, so that’s a pretty big piss off. What’s also problematic, is how it’s not uncommon to be side-swiped by packs of AI cars competing in an entirely different race. Provided everyone is actively trying to progress through the campaign mode, or participate some kind of live races, swarms of cars flood the streets of Ventura Bay in all sorts of conflicting directions, and it can be immensely frustrating to be driving along, and all of a sudden bull-rushed by a fleet of AI opponents trailing a block or two behind another multiplayer user.

I don’t want to entirely write off AllDrive, because with a few friends in a private chat server it basically allows you to co-op the entirety of your time spent in NFS ’15 – also providing solid XP bonuses for racing and drifting with friends in close proximity – but in your average public server (which is how most will play this game), it ends up being a pain in the ass, with users anally devastating you by jumping into your race with a much quicker car, or leading trains of unavoidable AI bots in your general direction. Unless you physically go out and convince your bros to buy the game alongside you, and all play at the same time while intentionally making use of the features in AllDrive, it ends up being pretty useless, and causes more problems than it solves.

So that’s the 2015 Need for Speed reboot in a nutshell, a title many will be picking up at a discounted price given that Payback is looking to inject far too much Hollywood bullshit in a franchise that just needed light narrative elements to give some sort of context for the mass street racing scene you’re taking part in. Now obviously, NFS 2015 is still a deeply flawed experience, but the key difference here is that the physical racing portion is still front and center; Ghost just went way overboard with unnecessary features and a story that turns into it’s own double block sitcom episode when it’s simply not needed. At the end of the day, there are enough co-op elements and enough customization options to compliment the core racing experience, turning NFS 2015 into a very viable, wallet-friendly alternative to what we’ll be seeing this November.

This game was absolutely not worth the $80 asking price at launch in the slightest, which is why there was such an uproar; it’s buggy as hell and clearly suffering from numerous poor design choices that actively work against one’s enjoyment of the game. However, at a fraction of it’s original cost, and with a bevy of post-release patches adding a bit more to see and do, now’s not a particularly bad time to check it out with a group of friends, especially knowing what’s on the horizon with this series.

 

Payback is a Bitch

Ghost Games took a year off in an attempt to try and revamp EA’s aging Need for Speed franchise – the second time they’ve done so – but after the reveal of Need for Speed: Payback earlier this morning, I’m certainly left wishing they would have remained in some sort of extended hibernation, and spared us from the second-hand embarrassment of pushing a piece of software out that nobody asked for. Appearing to be set in a fictional rendition of Las Vegas, Nevada and the surrounding treacherous landscape – which is objectively a good mix of technical canyons and wide-open desert highways, so kudos to Ghost on the environment choice – Need for Speed: Payback will be the third action driving game in the long-standing virtual car culture franchise, following in the footsteps of Undercover and The Run, while also drawing inspiration from UbiSoft’s The Crew and narrative elements from Hollywood blockbuster The Fast and the Furious. In classic Electronic Arts fashion, the first official trailer shows absolutely zero live gameplay, but the ninety seconds spent introducing Payback at least establishes the underlying theme of what we can expect from Ghost Games this fall.

And unfortunately, it’s not what anybody wanted to see.

We’re introduced to an array of characters hell-bent on destroying each other before the footage shifts to a collection of scenes that imply they’ve teamed up and look eerily similar to what UbiSoft had produced in their promotional footage for The Crew, right down to specific drag, drift, and off-road variants of cars you’ll be able to purchase and upgrade throughout the duration of the offline campaign mode. It’s the lack of creativity that bothers me here, as with The Crew already having been out on the market for quite some time, Need for Speed blatantly copying what UbiSoft tried and ultimately failed with – to the point where characters in the trailer speak directly of a crew at least three times – indicates their public hiatus was for absolute jack shit; it’s like they’ve asked their teacher for extra time to finish a school project, only to come back with something that was blatantly copied from a friend who took the course a previous semester – and I’ll throw up some shots to display what I’m talking about here.

I won’t go so far as to call it outright theft – there’s only so many aftermarket parts you can put on a car – but if you’re going to take an entire year off to build something unique and exciting, coming back with what on the surface looks like a blatant rip-off of another game’s entire concept and premise is just really shitty, and before fans have even seen gameplay footage, they’re already against you because The Crew wasn’t very good in the first place, and they certainly didn’t want more of it.

promo screenshots

Need for Speed: Payback is a title that actively goes against what fans of the series have been requesting for several years – most notably a set of solid driving physics and freedom to just sort of fuck off and do whatever you wanted within the game world – also defeating the point of why they took a year off, and I cannot see this project ending in anything other than total failure with what Payback appears to bring to the table. The absolute last thing Need for Speed fans wanted from the franchise was a kind of action driving saga with heavy narrative elements and a variety of set pieces, and yet that’s exactly what Ghost have been constructing over the previous year or so.

And the reason I’m so critical of the series returning to an action driving experience, is because Need for Speed 2015 (as well as Rivals) received excessive criticism primarily for a physics engine that actively took control of the car away from the player, and users on Reddit and other Need for Speed community websites made their voices loud and clear that improved driving physics needed to be priority number one. That kind of experience isn’t synonymous with action driving games.

The reality is that people have been asking for something akin to Underground 2 or DriveClub, where the vehicle physics are a gameplay element that can be learned, understood, and mastered over a period of time so the core racing portion is enjoyable and rewards raw driving skill, rather than manipulated by a hand of God at any given second to ensure scripted sequences – such as the trailer explosions and car chases seen in the reveal trailer – follow a very strict chain of events and don’t result in absolute chaos that only vaguely follows the narrative like we’re used to in Grand Theft Auto missions. So for Ghost to go the action driving route, therefore guaranteeing the driving model will be nothing but perplexing and downright frustrating in the name of smooth story-driven set pieces, means they’ve taken all this time off to outright ignored why people panned their last release – when the entire point of taking time off in the first place was to sit down and analyze what people wanted. Refusing to even take into account valid criticisms of your last title and make changes based on what your core fans want is of course a fantastic plan of action for any major video game developer and certainly won’t lead to a predicament later on down the line.

Payback also indicates Ghost Games couldn’t even be bothered to study the history of Need for Speed. Three times in the Xbox 360 era of the franchise Need for Speed experimented with heavy narrative elements and an abundance of scripted sequences akin to what we’re seeing in Payback, resulting in two of the worst games in the series from a critical standpoint, as well as a movie that was a gigantic flop and quickly dismissed as a B-grade Fast & Furious knock-off.

Ghost continuing to pursue this style of driving game despite fans and critics alike reacting in an overwhelmingly negative manner to previous titles featuring the same subject matter is the actual definition of insanity; and that’s just Need for Speed we’re talking about. Reception to The Crew, another open-world driving game that seems to have inspired Payback, received very similar feedback even on our own website, as users explicitly wanted the heavy narrative elements pushed front and center – just like Payback – to go away so they could focus on the few enjoyable parts of the game.

Continuing to push into this direction when customers clearly didn’t respond to it well in 2008, didn’t enjoy it when it popped up again in 2011, didn’t want it in 2014 on the big screen, and again didn’t have nice things to say about it in 2015 when it came from UbiSoft, after taking a year off and promising the next Need for Speed will be built with the fans in mind, will make it very hard to sympathize with Ghost when this too ends up being a disaster.

I do not understand why an open-ended street racing game featuring police chases, adequate driving physics, and a big map that let you buy cars and hire drivers to race alongside you whether it be online or offline was so impossibly difficult to produce, the team instead resorted to a racing game with physics people have panned on no less than four separate occasions and heavy narrative elements that the core audience have already voiced loud and clear that they don’t appreciate and would not like to see return.

Ghost took a year off in the name of the fans, and returned with something the fans have explicitly voiced they didn’t want, also managing to ignore all of the times similar efforts in the franchise have failed in the past. This is not a developer you should support with your money, and a developer you should not sympathize with when Need for Speed: Payback inevitably comes crashing down due to the complaints that will now stretch almost a decade in lifespan. After the disaster that was Need for Speed 2015, I was hoping Ghost would take a good, hard look at what made previous iterations of the franchise such astounding products that resonated with multiple generations of gamers, but instead I am only left genuinely angry by this reveal, and questioning what in the absolute fuck is going on at Electronic Arts to greenlight this sort of creative direction.

 

What Made Underground 2 So Special

There’s something about putting on that horrid remix of Riders on the Storm featuring west coast hip hop legend Snoop Dogg that can make an entire workplace stop in their tracks. Released in the fall of 2004 to capitalize on the sudden popularity of a brand new movie franchise (that has since become synonymous with tuner culture), Need for Speed Underground 2 was an arcade racer so close to perfection, even people who didn’t care for street racing or cars in general still sometimes cite it as one of their favorite video games of all time.

Selling an absurd amount of copies even by today’s standards, and receiving unanimously positive critical reception – in some cases better than the movies which inspired the software – Underground 2 is an unforgettable product from the glory days of Electronic Arts. While many gamers nowadays see Electronic Arts as an evil empire which swallows independent companies whole, spitting out horrid, bastardized remakes of once-classic franchises in the process, Underground 2 is the ultimate proof that Electronic Arts at least deserved every last sale which allowed it to turn into the cold, corporate entity it is today.

However, despite Need for Speed: Underground 2 laying out the perfect blueprint for rival developers to improve upon when creating a rival street racing title, in the years following the 2004 smash hit, companies were only able to push out cheap imitators that never quite captured the magic of the game that brought the cheesy import tuner culture into the spotlight. Officially licensed Fast & Furious titles were seen as little more than elaborate pieces of shovelware, while Acclaim’s Juiced was deemed too bland for the type of illegal racing it chose to depict. Rockstar’s own Midnight Club series made a valiant attempt at stealing some of Underground 2’s thunder, but a giant leap in difficulty and superhuman vehicle physics made it a tough sell for those unable to grasp the bizarre driving style needed. Oddly enough, even Electronic Arts themselves struggled with re-capturing the magic of Underground 2, as despite their subsequent success in 2005 with Need for Speed: Most Wanted, the quality of their yearly releases took a nosedive soon after. Need for Speed Carbon was seen as a generic rehash, Need for Speed Undercover was considered a bad joke, and the 2015 reboot, which was supposedly heavily inspired by the Underground games, was almost universally panned by critics and fans alike.

So what exactly was the blueprint that Electronic Arts had perfected with Need for Speed Underground 2, and better yet, how does a developer tasked with creating a street racing title in 2017 and beyond retain this winning formula?

Let’s go on a journey.

The Music

Including the PSP exclusive tracks that appeared in Underground Rivals, which was released roughly alongside Underground 2, the game featured thirty two distinct tracks from a variety of up and coming artists. While most will assume the list of songs is a completely random assortment of artists Electronic Arts had signed under the EA Trax banner (which is partially correct), there was actually a formula the Underground 2 team employed when selecting music for their game.

The track list had been split into three distinct themes; racing, cruising, and navigating through menus. By default, and this is something you can see in the menu upon booting up a new save file in Need for Speed: Underground 2, each of the thirty two songs had been assigned a distinct area of the game, only to be thrown into the rotation during that specific portion of gameplay. Hard hitting, fast pace punk rock and heavy metal pieces such as Helmet’s Crashing Foreign Cars would only appear while the player was partaking in straight up race events, while atmospheric electronic instrumentals like the remix of Paul Van Dyk’s Nothing But You and Chingy’s I Do would pop up during periods of lighthearted free roaming or scrolling through customization menus.

What this did was establish a very distinct subliminal atmosphere in Underground 2; rather than the game outright telling you that races against the AI were heated affairs and downtime in career mode was to be relaxing and easygoing, Electronic Arts scripted the track list to kind of manipulate your senses and get you into that state of mind. Of course, you can always go through the options menu and change it for yourself to hear everything at once, but most people didn’t do that, and it worked.

What also worked, is how the track list had been crammed full of artists that the general public wasn’t all that aware of, and this allowed the songs to become synonymous with the game. Save for Queens of the Stone Age and Rise Against, who at the time were brand new bands that had each put out a very good album a year or two earlier, people went into Underground 2 willing to give the entire soundtrack a listen, instead of mashing the skip button until their favorite band appeared. As a result, there are people who will hear Killradio’s Scavenger and instantly associate it with Need for Speed: Underground 2, the same way people see Topher Grace and immediately associate him with That 70’s Show.

When it comes to picking out a soundtrack for their next arcade racer, developers need to focus on more than just signing popular bands or getting one or two hit songs on the track list; they need to understand how music messes with people’s emotions, and in some cases can become forever linked to the software.

The Customization

As much as the import tuner scene gets ragged on in real life for being a bunch of dweebs in their early twenties bolting cheap pieces of plastic onto their Honda’s and Subaru’s, Need for Speed Underground 2 essentially gave you an entire fantasy parts catalog to run wild with; options so diverse, websites such as NFSCars.net were able to hold a string of customization contests just with the vanilla in-game content alone. A dizzying array of body kits, spoilers, roof scoops, rims, and hoods were just the tip of the iceberg, as the customization element extended deep into nitro purges, tinted windows, mirrors, doors, pulsating neon effects, and even completely useless shit that served no purpose during gameplay, such as hydraulics, custom HUD gauges, and in-car audio systems. While rival street racing games such as ValuSoft’s Street Legal Racing Redline require you to download an abundance of mods to push the customization element to the fullest extent, Underground 2 had almost too much shit to mess around with by default.

And that’s before we get into the simplistic yet somewhat powerful livery and decal tool. While you can’t manually place individual stickers as is now commonplace in games with built-in comprehensive livery editors like Forza Motorsport 6, Underground 2 offered an enormous amount of base layers, graphics, sponsor stickers, and custom artwork to make up for the inability to draw dicks and swastikas on your Mustang. Bases, layers, and accents could be combined to generate a unique livery that looked somewhat reasonable for the subject matter at hand, and though pretty much every creation looked tacky as hell in hindsight, the key thing was that your own vehicle never resembled anything else you saw on the internet, because the possibilities were as close to limitless as the options allowed.

Now in subsequent games, every developer, including Electronic Arts themselves, bundled some sort of car customization element into their product to try and improve upon what was offered in Underground 2, but where they failed is in the sheer number of parts. Underground 2 didn’t have ten spoilers to select from (where only three of them would look reasonable), it had close to forty. The front bumpers all ranged from modest splitter extensions to radical re-designs, so those who wanted to keep the rice factor light were able to do so, while teenagers looking to create an embarrassing monstrosity were free to run wild. Individual bumpers, headlights, and roof scoops could be mixed, matched, and omitted entirely, again ensuring that your creation was something you weren’t going to see anywhere else aside from your own television. Both Need for Speed Most Wanted and Rockstar’s Midnight Club series attempted to retain this level of personality, but fell flat when it was discovered you just couldn’t do a lot in comparison to Underground 2.

The massive selection of aftermarket visual upgrades also played an integral role in the progression of the game; as you made your way through the lengthy campaign mode, you were always finding new shit to bolt to your car, and that made playing through story mode genuinely entertaining, even when the grid of plowing through event after event started to drag on. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, a new tier of body kits, spoilers, hydraulics, or mufflers would be unlocked, allowing you to drastically re-design your car several times over and watch it evolve from a simple Honda with entry-level aftermarket body panels, to something that resembled a Super GT competitor, and everything in-between. Part of the enjoyment of playing through Underground 2 was being rewarded with all kinds of crazy shit every step of the way, whereas other street racing titles handed you a tricky livery editor and some shitty looking rims as seen above.

Developers looking at creating a current generation street racing title need to realize that five wings and a few preset bodykits aren’t going to woo the masses; Underground 2 succeeded in this area because there was so much crap jammed into the customization menu, and it was such a simplistic process to apply, you could regularly hold online car shows that didn’t rely on elaborate third party custom liveries designed in photoshop.

The Variety

Like all racing games that made use of an open world environment, Need for Speed Underground 2 took the classic approach of closing off corridors for circuit races and point to point marathons, but then proceeded to blow the doors wide open with a selection of more unconventional race types. Drift events in the mountains, drag events across bridges and abandoned airport runways, autocross-like events held inside drift facilities, and even select invitational tournaments on purpose built race tracks that whisked you away from the city altogether all contributed to a very diverse racing game with a lot of genuinely unique disciplines held under the same night sky. In keeping so much content under one roof, it meant that people had a reason to keep coming back to the game to try something new. Underground 2 wasn’t just a goofy free roam, ricer culture simulator that challenged you to build something wacky with the extensive car customization options; suddenly it was a drifter’s paradise, a circuit racer, a canyon battle platform, and a lighthearted drag racing game, all in one.

Oh, and you could take all of this stuff online against your friends, as well.

In custom lobbies, no less.

There were no black sheep modes inserted into the experience that were clearly an afterthought or not as fleshed out as another portion of the racing; every style of race in Underground 2 served a purpose, and offered something totally different than the last. This ended up making for a game where repetition isn’t something that drags the title down – you’re always being introduced to new race types, and more challenging variants on disciplines you’d thought you’ve already mastered. First, you’re drifting on a closed course. Then, you’re racing SUV’s on the same drift track. Then, you’re taken away to drift in the mountains. As a feature-complete package, it just kept throwing new shit at you and saying “here, try this.”

This diversity is aided by the excellent Bayview map, which serves as the home of Underground 2. Split into five distinct areas, each portion of the map has a substantially different flair to its layout, and thus requires multiple driving styles to remain competitive. While the downtown area is the traditional generic ninety degree corner paradise, the industrial sector is loaded with blind corners & back alleys that can be used as risky shortcuts, whereas Beacon Hill boasts crazy elevation changes, and the most northern region is basically a drifting paradise that overlooks the city. It’s one of the few open world cities that really nails individuality and makes every virtual city block matter, compared to other open world racers where you blast through bland, meaningless areas of the game world which serve no purpose whatsoever. Codemasters’ Fuel comes to mind as being an example of this problem.

What the act of throwing so many different things into in Underground 2 does, is it essentially justifies the lengthy career mode and time spent unlocking everything, or merely upgrading the cars in your garage. Developers need to take note of this; Underground 2 was not a disposable game that was forgotten in a month, and is instead still actively enjoyed by many, because once you finally got to the end-of-game credits, players felt like they hadn’t yet exhausted every mode or race type available – that’s how much there was to do, and that’s what developers need to aim for in the future.

In fact, if there were to be a high definition re-release of Underground 2 for current generation consoles, it would not be surprising to see active communities or even private leagues start up for the game centering around specific race types in the game. People would be racing through the game’s Career mode just to create a purpose-built drift car, for the sole purpose of having a competitive ride in online lobbies. As a developer, that’s the kind of following you want, because these people will be most likely to purchase additional DLC packages and extra goodies on the day of release, thus extending the lifespan (and, of course, profits) of your title well after launch.

The Physics

Developers have a real problem with arcade racers as of late, inserting bogus handling models that basically drive the car for the player, thus taking any sort of talent, skill, or real-world knowledge out of the experience. Now, I’m not saying every single racing game on the market has to have a thermonuclear tire model understood only by a handful of NASA physicists who have passed the knowledge down from employee to employee over several generations of game consoles, but driving cars at speed is a lot more fun when the cars behave in ways that can be understood by the average person wanting to go a bit faster on the following lap, and tactics people use out on the track in a competitive setting can be defended and even countered.

Need for Speed Underground 2 was not realistic in the slightest, but the handling model made sense. Yes, you could lay on the nitro button and hit absolutely ridiculous speeds, launching off hills and undulations in the terrain with reckless abandon, but you also had to brake for corners, take proper racing lines, and generally put some thought into what you were doing behind the wheel. This is what made Underground 2 extremely enjoyable, especially for people with a dedicated racing wheel setup such as myself. For all of the Nissan’s and Hyundai’s flying around Bayview at astronomically high speeds that they couldn’t dream of achieving in real life, you still had to wheel the damn things. Underground 2 still drove somewhat like a car, a far cry from current arcade racers.

Unlike Need for Speed 2015, where the car snaps into a drift mode (and then tries to take control away from you by automatically counter-steering), Underground 2 had elements of a very simplistic vehicle simulator under the hood. Too hot of an entry, and the car lost front grip; too drastic of an angle, and the rear end broke loose. Weight transfer didn’t throw the car into the wall as it would in something like Assetto Corsa, but it was there, and posed a threat if you really weren’t paying attention over a crest. Yeah, the cars had a shitload of grip and were basically Super GT cars with every single modern electronic aid turned on if you equipped the full offering of Stage 3 parts, but that’s not the point – what is the point, is that they still drove like cars. There was no Press X to Slide functionality, no hand-of-god mechanic that kept the vehicle glued to the racing surface as we would see the following year in Most Wanted – it was simplistic as hell, but it was a car, and it made sense to drive.

And though it was a portion of the game a lot of the mainstream audience avoided, Underground 2 had a full garage menu and complimentary test track to develop custom setups for your car in any of the available race types. While the millions of teenagers around the world who undoubtedly received the game as a Christmas gift could easily complete the game with the default setup applied to their car, Electronic Arts gladly gave the hardcore crowd who would invest several weeks into the online aspect of the game a way to gain an edge against their opponents, by implementing rudimentary setup adjustments for the sim-oriented customers. This was an arcade game, in which Honda Civics could eclipse 240 miles per hour with off-the-shelf performance upgrades, and yet Electronic Arts went out of their way to cater to the hardcore crowd with a dedicated test track mode.

What this all resulted in, was a raw racing experience that was something to master over a period of days, weeks, or even months, as opposed to a game where you learned how to exploit a broken drift mechanic, or endlessly fought with a driving model that actively tried to take control away from you in favor of a cinematic experience that frequently sent you into a barrier. Underground 2 was fun to play because you could actually figure out how to drive the cars and become more proficient at the game based on the number of hours you put into it, as opposed to merely putting up with wonky handling until you inevitably lost interest.

Developers need to stop with the nonsensical “action” driving models and re-implement a set of physics that resemble rudimentary rubber-meets-road behavior, as the easier a player can comprehend what they’re doing wrong behind the wheel, the more likely they are to sit down and practice in an effort to improve, thus spending more time with the game and being in it for the long haul. Recent arcade racers haven’t allowed this learning process to take place at all because the driving portion is so nonsensical, which is why releases such as Need for Speed 2015 were shelved by some racers within an afternoon of play.

One of the greatest arcade racers of all time, Need for Speed: Underground 2 was not just a title that happened to capitalize on a cheesy movie franchise that rose to sudden popularity in the early 2000’s, but a meticulously crafted experience which was ingeniously designed to ensure people would have an especially difficult time putting down the game and moving on to something else. Since its release, several developers have attempted to capture what made Underground 2 so special with their own spin-offs on the subject matter – including Electronic Arts themselves – but failed to realize that the game relied on so many well thought out elements coming together to create one cohesive experience, their attempts failed miserably, time and time again.

The genre of street racing games can be done well, as evidenced by Underground 2, but developers haven’t figured out that part of creating a captivating street racing title comes in understanding what Underground 2 perfected in its design. It’s much more than bolting bizarre wings to shitty Nissan’s; there’s a very specific method to the madness.