Need for Speed (PC) review: Excellent port, uneven game

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Need for Speed (2016)
At a Glance
  • Ghost Games Need for Speed (2016)

    PCWorld Rating

    This is certainly the best Need for Speed PC port in years, but the game itself isn't that great. Come for the racing, stay for the dumb live-action scenes.

In Need for Speed you play the part of a man who communicates solely through fist bumps, trapped in a pseudo-Los Angeles where the sun has burned out, there’s never any traffic, and the only people left alive are police or street racers—part of a never-ending post-apocalyptic struggle for control of the city’s most valuable resource: Monster Energy Drink.

Or, at least, that’s what I think this racing game is about. I’m trying to fill in the blanks.

Fist. Bump.

Jokes aside, Need for Speed is capital-D Dumb. “But Hayden, who cares about the story in a racing game?” I know. Nevertheless, Need for Speed’s between-race cartilage consists of lengthy live-action sequences that are just full of fist-bumping. I’m not kidding:

Need for Speed (2016)

No, like a lot of fist-bumping.

Need for Speed (2016)

Seriously.

Need for Speed (2016)

And when you’re not fist-bumping, you’re usually raising a can of Monster Energy Drink or a red Solo cup for some inane toast to...speed? I don’t know. You’re the best damned racer Faux Angeles has ever seen, which means your crew invites you to all sorts of silly live-action parties with awkward actors making over-enthusiastic faces in the background. Some of them even play air hockey.

It’s great. I promise. If it sounds like I’m ragging on these scenes, well, I am. Sort of. They’re by no means good. But they’re simultaneously the best part of Need for Speed. As with last year’s Guitar Hero, this sort of knowing, wink-nod live action schlock is a guilty pleasure. It’s boring zero-to-hero tripe, but peppered with so many stupid moments my hand got sore from all the screenshotting.

Need for Speed (2016)

I’ll take “lame-but-ridiculous” (See: Driver: San Francisco) over “just lame” (See: Need for Speed Rivals) any day.

It’s just a shame there’s not a better racing game to pad all the bro-fisting. I really hoped that a year off would do Need for Speed some good, and in some aspects it certainly has. Mainly, the PC-centric aspects.

1) The frame rate is unlocked. Fist bump. For whatever reason, it was pinned at 30 in Need for Speed Rivals, which is criminal. 2) You can use racing wheels (and there’s manual gear shifting). Again, fist bump. I don’t know how broad the peripherals selection is, but the feature’s in there for people who want to use a racing wheel for something a little more low-key than Project CARS/Assetto Corsa. 3) It’s easy on the eyes. Fist. Bump. It’s not quite as gorgeous as some other racers, but Need for Speed is at its best when it rains and you get reflections all over the place—which is always. It’s pretty much always raining. It’s also always inexplicably nighttime.

Need for Speed (2016)

Anyway, those are the features Ghost Games has been touting in the run-up to the PC version, and they’ve done a fantastic job. I’ve seen a bit of hitching at the high end of the speedometer and eventually turned most options down to “High” so I could maintain a constant 75-80 frames per second, but it’s the best Need for Speed PC port in a long time.

The game that’s been ported though...Ugh.

Need for Speed’s AI is busted. Just absolutely busted, to the point where I would’ve sacrificed racing wheel support for an intelligence bump. For starters, a number of events are actually co-op and require you to drift/race alongside members of your crew for maximum points. Without fail, this entails your friendly AI crew members slamming into your car repeatedly and knocking you off course, wrecking your drifts, and generally being a bunch of clowns. The only way to safeguard yourself is to get out in front and hope the rubberbanding doesn’t allow the others to catch up and run into you again.

Need for Speed (2016)

Speaking of rubberbanding: It’s egregious. I’m not even going to get into the fact my 1970 Mustang could outrun an Aventador. Clearly that’s the silly sort of arcade racer fantasy Need for Speed is aiming for, and since I prefer lower-end muscle cars I’m willing to look the other way.

But racing in Need for Speed is a frustrating exercise. I can’t count how many times the frontrunner managed to stay just out of reach until...oh, let’s say the two-thirds mark in the race. Suddenly they’d slow down by about fifty miles per hour, allowing me to zoom by and “earn” that last-second win. Or the AI clocked impossible times on the back of my excellent driving.

Don't get me wrong: Rubberbanding is a vital aspect of racing game AI. You don’t want the player to feel like a race is unbeatable because they made one error, or that the game’s laughably easy because the player pulled ahead in the first turn and never even saw the competition in the rearview again.

Need for Speed (2016)

It’s an art form, though. It really is. I guarantee you can point to racing games where you feel like the AI “cheated” and games where you felt like the AI was “fair.” And I can almost assuredly guarantee both those games used rubberbanding. One was just better at it.

Need for Speed is not very good at hiding its rubberbanding, and the result is alternating boredom/frustration on the part of the player.

Other problems

Its interesting for the developers to try and cater to fans of both old and new Need for Speed by allowing you to tune between “Grip” and “Drift” handling. However, given that ninety percent of the game’s events involve drifting, the choice is a bit facetious.

The police are so nonthreatening it’s almost laughable. After complaints about overly-aggressive and omniscient police in Rivals, the devs overcompensated. This Need for Speed might as well replace the police cars with a fat mall cop on a Segway. Certain challenges ask you to raise your wanted level and I had to literally slow down so the police wouldn’t lose sight of me and force me to start over.

Need for Speed (2016)

Note the speedometer.

The game touts customization but only gives you room in your garage for five cars, and the range of customization for each is uneven. For instance, my 1970 Mustang had no alternate headlights or taillights, no alternate skirts, no alternate canards, no alternate mirrors, and only one alternate hood. An Aventador or higher-end car typically has even fewer options. It doesn’t feel nearly as broad as something like Need for Speed Underground.

And some minor quibbles: There’s no way to pause the game—which is particularly annoying in the first few races when you’re still trying to fiddle with graphics settings—and the soundtrack is utterly forgettable, not least because it’s mixed so low it sounds almost like an afterthought. I eventually turned it off entirely and pumped the Need for Speed Underground soundtrack through Spotify.

Bottom line

Either you never thought Need for Speed was top of the arcade racing pack or (like me) you at least think they abdicated the crown a long while back. I don’t anticipate much dispute there, and this Need for Speed is unlikely to put them back on top. A lot of love’s been put into this PC port, but the game that’s been ported over is a mediocre arcade racer at best.

Need for Speed still seems like it’s searching for its place in the world, post-Burnout Paradise and post-Forza Horizon—which is crazy, because at this point the Burnout series is dead and Forza Horizon is Xbox-only. It should be a cinch for Need for Speed to take over the PC arcade racing contingent. And yet.

Fist bump.

This story, "Need for Speed (PC) review: Excellent port, uneven game" was originally published by PCWorld.

At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    This is certainly the best Need for Speed PC port in years, but the game itself isn't that great. Come for the racing, stay for the dumb live-action scenes.

    Pros

    • Port is decked out with numerous PC-only features
    • Unlocked frame rate, wheel support, manual gear shifting

    Cons

    • Nonsensical AI behavior
    • Customization doesn't have much depth
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