It occurs to me that the vast majority of my time in the “new generation” of video game consoles has been spent replaying games I already owned one, two, sometimes three years ago. The terminology is starting to get confusing. Is this a reboot or a remaster? The Game of the Year Edition or the Definitive Edition? Is there a difference? They’re shinier, usually. Sometimes they have all the bells and whistles already attached; additional content you previously had to pay for now available right out of the box (which is where, some might argue, it should have been to begin with). That’s useful, occasionally, for games you missed or expansion packs you couldn’t justify buying. More often, though, it just feels exploitative, like a publisher wringing your neck until yet more coins plink out of your orifices.
2015’s Need for Speed is perhaps the most egregious recent example of the industry’s tendency to rehash old ideas and re-skin old games. It’s a reboot, technically, although one could reasonably argue that every game in this franchise has been a reboot of the one preceding it. There aren’t any recurring characters or sprawling narratives. Each game takes the fundamentals of the previous instalment and either builds on them or takes them in a slightly different direction. We’ve had direct sequels, in a sense, such as the two Underground titles, which is where the series began for most people; and the two Shift experiments, when Need for Speed veered away from the street racing microcosm and set off in a more simulation-based direction. But these are only really sequels in that they’re continuations of a specific style and theme; they’re hardly the next chapters of a riveting saga. This is, partially, what aggravated me about how EA marketed this latest edition – on false promises, and in answer to questions nobody was asking.
What’s more irritating (and, I suppose, confusing) is the idea that you can actually sell a reboot of something that has been reliably self-replicating since the mid-nineties. For the record, I have nothing at all against the Need For Speed series. There are very few legitimately bad instalments, and several excellent ones. This year’s, however, is not one of them. And the reason I bring up this bizarre trend of soft-resetting intellectual property is that many of Need For Speed’s problems can be attributed directly to it. Despite the title and EA’s PR department fervently insisting otherwise, this is not a reboot. It’s any old Need for Speed game, just one with an excuse to be stripped of features, innovation and style, spinning its wheels in the ghost of a culture this very series outgrew over a decade ago.
When I say “ghost”, by the way, I really mean it. Ventura Bay, the new fictional city masquerading as a street racer’s paradise, is suspiciously devoid of civilian life. Aside from the occasional delivery truck (emblazoned with the Hot Wheels logo, naturally) and the rarer VBPD blue-and-whites, the only vehicles dotting the rain-slick streets are those belonging to people like you and me; players suckered in by that false promise of a somehow refined Need for Speed experience. I don’t know what that experience would look like, and the game’s mandatory always-online framework seems to suggest nobody else does either – everybody seemed just as aimless as I did. But if Ventura Bay is anything to go by, the best adjective for the kind of experience Need for Speed wants to provide would probably be “barren”.
Another good one is “dark”. Also: “wet”. It’s always raining in Ventura Bay, which someone at Ghost Games, the development team, obviously thought was a good idea. And in purely aesthetic terms it certainly isn’t a bad one; the roads, reflecting dappled artificial light, look like gleaming tapestries of mirrored asphalt, and when you lock your wheels and drift a corner you dredge up slick, shiny curtains of rainwater. But the thing about water is you only need a few inches of the stuff to drown in, and Need for Speed pours it out in litres. Another theoretically-sound idea that evidently graced the design document was that Ventura Bay should be locked in almost perpetual night, only very rarely receding into a murky, pre-dawn gloom. Again, not necessarily a bad idea. I imagine most street racing isn’t done during the noontime lunch rush. But there’s only so long you can stare at an almost-black screen before you seriously start to consider the fact you might have cataracts, and that isn’t even taking into account that the transition from night to morning and back again doesn’t seem to operate on a time cycle, like in most games, but instead correspond to various different parts of the city. What this amounts to is the extraordinarily bizarre scenario of seeing the dead of night bleed into morning, and then morning surrender back into night, multiple times throughout a single race.
Speaking of races, there are 79 of them, divided rather unevenly between five themed styles of racing, and doled out periodically by your five breathtakingly annoying mates. There’s some vague semblance of story woven through each character’s missions, and each thread culminates in an encounter with a real-word automotive figure, which is quite a nice touch. But I, like I imagine most people will, started skipping the live-action cut-scenes about halfway through in order to preserve my sanity. I’ve played a lot of video games, and many of them have distinctly stupid characters and stories. It comes with the territory. But believe me when I say this: nothing compares to the sheer brain-cell-eating nonsense these people spout at you between missions. Like Sunset Overdrive, which had a similar problem, the writing is clearly attempting to tap into a stratum of youth culture that’s being envisioned by a game designer in his mid-forties. So the dialogue is brimming with slang you just know none of the writers understand, and everyone has a weird insistence on fist-bumping at any given opportunity – something which started out vaguely comical and swiftly became aggravating beyond all comparable measure. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the mission-giving conversations all occurred within these skip-able parameters, but they don’t. Instead, some bright spark came up with the idea of giving the player-character a mobile phone, giving everyone in the Continental United States that phone’s number, and having them call up constantly with your next race buried somewhere within their asinine bullshit. Fake phones in video games are rarely a good idea, but I’d rather endure Roman Bellic inviting me to play darts a thousand times than listen to one single second of Manu telling me he’s having another drift race.
Still, this is Need for Speed, and most people skim-reading the paragraph about story probably perked up when they read the words “drift race”. As much as I’d like to complain about the actual racing mechanics, to maintain a theme if nothing else, it’d be disingenuous of me to suggest there’s anything all that wrong with them. This is still very standard arcade-racing fare, but that’s exactly what you – or, at least, I – want in a series like this. There are moments – throwing a freshly-tuned supercar into a corner, say, or weaving through a particularly well-designed route – that Need for Speed manages to maintain that illusion of a rebooted experience; of the series’ excesses boiled away. This façade is bolstered by the reintroduction of performance tuning, which, in broad, unspecific terms, allows a player to nudge their car’s tendencies towards drifting or gripping, but, if you’re into this kind of thing, also allows you to massage individual settings. It’s a relatively minor level of customisation, but it feels more of a piece with what the series once was, back when teenagers would spend hours fine-tuning every aspect of whatever ridiculous car they imagined themselves driving, adorning the garish contraption with go-faster stripes, neon lights and, god forbid, spinners. You can do that here, in 2015, and the visual options are even more robust than the performance upgrades, complete with a custom livery editor which I’m sure some enterprising young designer will take full advantage of. It’s hard for me in my mid-twenties to care about this stuff the way I once did, but I’m happy for the people who’re able to.
There aren’t enough varieties of racing on offer, and arguably too few races overall, but what’s there feels similarly nostalgic, up to and including the infuriating rubber band AI which ensures one mistake in the final third will always result in failure. You could suggest, then, that in some ways Need for Speed is a success. But that’s just another facet of the illusion, this idea that removing newer features and labouring over old ones is somehow an improvement. The focus of the last few games (including the already-rebooted Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted) has been cops-and-robbers, a weird good vs. evil dynamic with the illegal street racers naturally cast as the heroes. This edition wants to refocus its attention on the races themselves, rather than the chases they result in, but there’s a generous helping (a whole string of story missions, in fact) of law-baiting that feels distressingly lifeless in this current guise. On several occasions I spent a good, long while roaming the sodden streets of Ventura Bay, searching for a police officer to agitate. High-speed pursuits, which once felt like a reward and a punishment, something to be enjoyed and eluded, now just feel like another mundane task, a dreary process of watching a time or fine counter slowly tick up to the desired assembly of numerals. Most of the game feels this way. Like work. You see other players, other drivers, meandering around the streets, almost never pursued by cops or weaving through traffic or accelerating away from competition. Just existing in this flat, wet, lifeless world, searching for a chase or a race or something; anything to exhilarate them. I’ve played so many of these games, and they’ve gone by so quickly, that most of them are a blur in my memory. But at least in those games you were driving away from something, or towards something. In this one you’re driving in circles.