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.