Need for Speed is back for 2015 with a reboot-friendly name and a premise that seems to want to roll five different racing styles into one. It's also back with an open, connected world and multiplayer system that are disappointingly similar to the previous game, Need for Speed Rivals. New options to tweak handling and easily turn your cars from grip to drift give the actual act of driving a car some cool versatility that the previous games have usually lacked, but that can't save this one from its bad AI, weak police presence, and totally disjointed structure.
That structure comes from the five different racing disciplines that Need for Speed tries to represent. Those are Speed, Style, Crew, Build, and Outlaw, in case you were wondering. At the beginning of the game, you, a nameless race dude, encounter a crew that just so happens to have one person who cares about each role. So the energy drink-sipping, twitchy douchebag, Spike, will hit you up for speed-focused races. The lady wearing overalls, Amy, is obviously the one that wants to build sick cars. Manu is the style racer because he... occasionally is seen meditating? Robyn is the "crew"-focused racer because she likes to hang out with a drift team? It's all very thin. They all have real-world idols, like Magnus Walker (an actual Porsche enthusiast), Ken Block (the Gymkhana guy), or real-life alleged Yakuza associate, Shinichi Morohoshi. These different tales weave in and out of full-motion video cutscenes that hearken back to the good old days of the original Need for Speed or, more recently, the first Need for Speed: Most Wanted. These scenes are poorly acted, full of product placement, and lame as hell. They're... also a guilty pleasure.
Each type of driving has its own progression with its own events. You'll get calls from each one of the characters that point you to the next event or two. Upon completing those, you'll be ready for the next event. Each story, though, is simply that you're trying to attract the attention of each discipline's real-world representative. And then, near the end of each story track, you might get to race against the person in question. Perhaps you'll even get to see them in a cutscene or two. Having completed both the speed and outlaw tracks, I can say that these ones specifically go nowhere. You race well, the people (both characters and non-characters) in charge of that chunk of the action recognize you as a good driver, and then you're dumped back into the world. The final races are harder, but not meaningfully so. It's all a bit of a letdown, especially since there's some potential for more to be done.
The outlaw side of things is a bit different. You get mysterious text messages from the Outlaw himself, and these events start as easy things to do with the game's police force. After some of those, the outlaw's identity is revealed and you'll get into some actual events, which are just like the standard events except the police are behind you. The other characters in the story occasionally talk about the outlaws and their identity. You getting mixed up in all that could have been a hugely interesting reveal, but completing the outlaw story goes nowhere. You see a few people in a diner, one of them says that it's time for you to "drink with the big boys," and then he hands you a tall can of the energy drink that's been dropped into just about every cutscene. Yep. That's totally what "the big boys" drink and that's absolutely how "the big boys" would refer to cracking up an energy drink. It all just feels disingenuous and, just as often, wildly inauthentic.
Take, for example, the style side of things. Here, you're trying to impress Ken Block, the guy who made all those insane Gymkhana videos. Gymkhana looks like an art form. It looks like something more akin to street-style skateboarding or ballet, instead of driving. It's about tight, precise drifts as the car carefully loops around a hot dog cart, often coming within inches of the obstacle as part of a beautiful, graceful drift. In Need for Speed, Gymkhana events are races that occasionally have some jumps and tight corners in them. You need to beat a time while also racking up a set number of drift points. That's not Gymkhana. That's... well, it's nearly the same as the game's drift trial events, which aren't that different from the touge events, which aren't that different from the drift train events. Tack on some time trials, circuit races, and point-to-point races and you've got Need for Speed. The event variety doesn't feel different enough, even when you go from one style's story to another. It's just a set of around 80 events, and the main difference is that later races make it somewhat harder to recover from mistakes because the AI doesn't hang around and rubberband itself to the player quite as noticeably.
The AI all but ruins the potential of the drift train events. Here, the designed effect is a group of cars in a line, drifting in perfect synchronization. In the game, you're not going to be able to tell AI how to drift with you, so it becomes a dumbed-down take on that, where you only get points at all if you're within a certain distance of one of the other cars. Also, this is designed as a co-op event, but the AI constantly jockeys for position and rams you out of a drift just to get in front of you... in an event that doesn't reward who finishes first. That's dumb!
You can opt to play alone, but the game dumps you into an online world every time you boot it up. Like the previous Need for Speed, there's little reason to be in the world with complete strangers. Their cars (and the AI engaged in an event with them) often skip and warp around the world, making them impossible to follow. Also, since they're in their events while you're taking on your events, you might run into cases where the two events collide, resulting in too many cars in too tight a space. It's kind of funny to train a bunch of cop cars or other races through the middle of some unsuspecting player's drift event... unless you're trying to win that drift event. Most of the time, though, the other racers are only there conceptually, off in some other part of the world that you're not currently in. Alone together. In the rare event that you find another player who isn't in the middle of something, you can get up behind them and challenge them to one of four spontaneous event types. I finally got another player to accept one of these, and immediately blew that racer away. Maybe he didn't realize what was happening? You can also challenge random AI racers in this fashion, so playing offline doesn't really rob you of anything.
Multiplayer has been a great part of Need for Speed games in the past, and the challenges the player must face to even put a multiplayer event together seem insurmountable when you're playing with strangers. The game really just needs some kind of standard hopper system that takes players from one event to the next. Instead, the game has a function that seems to let you invite members of your "crew" to a race, but beyond getting a group together in one multiplayer world and attempting to "invite crew" (which was fruitless), there's no easy way to just get a multiplayer race together. Who thought this was a good way to organize things? It's a mess.
It's also a technical mess. Playing on the Xbox One, the game seemed to run worse and worse as I got into faster and faster cars. The game seizes up frequently, mid-race, textures load in late, and the weather and time of day seem to pop in and out. Car purchases seem to ping an online server when you make them, leaving me in a situation where the game took my in-game currency away, but didn't actually give me the BMW I was trying to acquire, a problem that persisted until I dug into the settings menu and uncovered the "play alone" option.
One time I tried to leave the garage and the car just kind of never drove out of the garage, leaving me stuck, unsure if the game had saved recently, and afraid to just turn it off and back on. In the first race where I was supposed to face off against Magnus Walker, his car never appeared on the track, making it a surprisingly easy race to win! And, finally, I've had the screen simply go to black in the middle of the action. The HUD and minimap stay on screen, but the entire world just vanished. Fun. This would be a middling Need for Speed game if it worked perfectly, but these technical issues are frequent and egregious enough to knock it down even further. However, this is truly one of those "your mileage may vary" situations because Microsoft has two different sets of firmware out there in the wild. In our testing, consoles running the latest "official" firmware seemed to seize up a little less frequently than consoles enrolled in the Xbox One's Preview Program.
If the game gets patched up into a more functional state, there are things about this Need for Speed that make it a decent time, for a little while. The handling, specifically, is highly adjustable without bashing you over the head with a ton of fiddly little options. This means you can have big, arcade-style drifts and e-brake turns without having to think about it, if you want. The cars are fun to drive, and the open world, though it feels a little small, has the right amount of variety in its makeup to provide different types of races. Lastly, the FMV is occasionally hilarious due to its inept acting and tragic attempts to "use" "cool" "lingo." But the whole thing is far more bland and repetitive than a game about illegal street racing should be.