Need For Speed preview: does story belong in a racing game?

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Welcome to the crazy world of 2015, where a Need For Speed game somehow has more story than a Metal Gear Solid sequel. I should be more against that idea than I actually am: the word ‘bae’ is used twice in the first minute of the first cutscene without a shadow of irony, for example, but it’s actually quite a fun way to structure this open-world racing RPG. This reboot feels like a best-of compilation of the Need For Speed series, and this story component is weirdly one of the parts I enjoyed the most in my hands-on with the game.

Need For Speed’s story is conveyed through live-action cutscenes that sometimes insert your own car into the background, with five supporting characters that each represent a discipline in car culture: there’s speed, style, build, crew and outlaw. I played through 13% of the whole game across three hours, and mainly focused on the first three, which involved cycling through races and a drifting score attack mode. The crew and outlaw elements are about multiplayer and law-breaking, respectively.

First among that cast is Spike, an enthusiastic little brother-style character with a hat trying to break into the racing scene, who would remind me of my own little brother were he interested in cars instead of Sword Art Online. Spike seems to have rich parents, which annoyingly enables him to follow his dreams of becoming a street racer instead of finding real work, and he fancies a lady called Robyn, who doesn’t seem terribly interested in him. Then there’s Amy, the no-nonsense mechanic, who I think might fancy me (the silent player character, rather than PC Gamer’s Samuel Roberts). There’s also Manu, who openly mocks Spike for being a rich kid, which I appreciate, and just got into some minor trouble with the police at the end of my preview with the game. And finally, there's Travis, who represents the Outlaw side of things, liking making getaways from cops, and he only briefly appeared in the parts of the story I reached.

That’s about as dramatic as it gets—it’s light soap opera, like a less dickish Entourage with cars, and there’s no danger of anyone giving birth or getting assassinated. We're talking mild peril at most, here. Each character calls you frequently and sets up new story challenges, which then appear on the map of Ventura Bay, the game’s wet, well-lit and expansive city setting. Complete these challenges and more customisations options open up. Amy’s, for example, were the key to getting faster car parts, so there’s an incentive to engage with the characters beyond the mild curiosity about their personal lives.

The customisation and progression options feel meaningful, and you can get a car to that point pretty fast—and there were clearly way more options deeper into the game to make it even faster. It’s an online-only game, so you’ll see other players racing around and occasionally, if they’re bored, ramming into you for fun.

There are some quirks that need ironing out—the characters call you so often to set up challenges in the build I’m playing, for example, that it actually puts you off driving in the middle of the race. That’s apparently being scaled back for the full release, though, which would help avoid unfavourable comparisons with GTA IV’s needy friends.

Nothing’s that complicated in Need For Speed, of course, and it's about as mass market as driving games get. But there’s enough depth and variety here that I think it'll be fun to build up a whole garage of personalised, absurdly upgraded cars. I’m slightly curious about what happens to these characters, too—I envy their lives of cheerfully sitting in diners while being young, beautiful and owning fancy cars like that’s a viable way to make a living in a major American city. It’s lightweight but fun, and successfully provides a framework for what might otherwise just be a grab bag of fun open world challenges.

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The PC build of Need For Speed is sadly coming much later than console versions, though, in Spring 2016. On one hand, it’s good that Ghost took criticism of Rivals’ locked framerate on-board to create a PC version with an unlocked framerate, but having to wait for four or five months longer to play it is something of an unfortunate trade-off. It’s not a small job for Ghost Games, which I appreciate—and perhaps Batman’s disastrous PC launch indicates that rushing ports out the door has its own cost.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.