EA and Ghost Games are bringing Need for Speed back, boasting it as the definitive arcade racing experience, and in many ways they have succeeded. The newest installment is a spiritual successor to the Underground series, which many fans have been begging for. Expect illegal night racing, modified cars, and moving up from a nobody to a racing icon. While it hits many notes with the grace and finesse of a perfect drift, it also has a few crashes that hold it back from perfection.

One of the biggest features this time around is the five ways to play. In the game you have a crew and each member pushes you to drive in certain ways, unlocking more challenging races and items as you level up. I personally came to love the “5 ways to play” idea, and feel it has been implemented extremely well. Allowing me to focus on what I wanted to achieve felt rewarding, and helped progress in a way that I wanted too. During the early hours of my game I focused on Amy and Manu to get my car upgraded quicker and make a more drift-oriented car. As I earned money and experience I bought a second car and started building it for speed to focus on Spike’s races. It allowed me to play exactly how I wanted and allowed my progression in the game to feel personal. I never paid too much attention to the outlaw in the early game, but through breaking things and crashing into other drivers on my other races I was able to get plenty of outlaw notoriety without even trying. It just feels natural to be able to focus and progress on what you want, while still gaining smaller amounts of experience in other categories as you drive in certain ways that compliments the 5 ways to play.

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Spike represents speed, and he pushes you into racing as fast as you can at any cost. You can expect him to offer checkpoint, sprint, and circuit races. Manu is all about the style you drive, and focuses on grace and drifting to move up the style ladder. If you want to upgrade your car and tune it more, Amy is the fastest way, as she represents the build playstyle of the game. There is also Robyn, who pushes the crew side and has driving focused on scoring points with a team. And finally there is the outlaw, which is all about evading cops, destroying property, and overall becoming a nuisance. As you race you can earn points towards all five of the ways to play by simply drifting, speeding, using gear like nitrous, and destroying the world. You can also focus on races given by specific members of your crew to rank up specific playstyles faster.

When I first started playing I really tried to focus solely on style and drifting, only to be held back by what I thought was horrible handling. I couldn’t turn fast, my tires gripped the road too tight to drift, and the car just felt overly heavy. It was a massive set-back and had me raging. As I discovered the handling sliders, however, I was blown away by how easily I could tune my car to drive exactly how I wanted it too. After a few tries I went from frustrated to overly gleeful at how beautifully my car was drifting around corners and driving exactly how I wanted to. These simple sliders became my best friend, and I constantly found myself tweaking them as I got more power under my hood to keep my car handling like a dream. As I got my second car focused on speed I was able to tune it to have more grip and be able to handle turns completely different. What could only be described as a nightmare at the beginning, turned into one of the most robust and game-changing features in the game. I was able to tune my cars into what I wanted or needed at will, and after some testing was always able to get it right. You can also tune whatever car you want to the point it is viable in the late game. I found myself using my starter car for drifting courses all the way through. This allows you to become more intimate with your car and the work you put into it instead of just buying the most expensive car on the lot. One major gripe, you are only allowed five cars in your garage. With the ability to tune them so well, I wanted more cars specifically for different types of races.

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Being able to change my handling is just the tip of the iceberg for customization, however. Much like the Underground series before it, making your car unique is one of the major features. With color, brightness, saturation, and metallic sliders I was able to get my car into any color I could imagine with little work. The same cannot be said for the vinyls, however — you can make almost anything you want with them, but with only a number of shapes and patterns making costume creations takes work, creativity and planning. Much like the emblems of Call of Duty games, there are many premade graphics and characters available, but making your own requires using shapes and layers to slowly create what you want. The biggest downfall to this is the fact that there is no way to mirror what you’ve made. Spending an hour creating a beautiful custom graphic on the driver’s side door is rewarding, but not being able to copy and mirror it on the other side is downright depressing, forcing you to manually create it on both sides.

At the same time you can customize the aesthetic of the car by adding after market mods such as spoilers, bumpers, fenders, wheels and so much more. These are all intuitively done by clicking on what you want to change on the car, which brings up a menu of possible parts. I found the layout to changing the physical look of the car very easy and fun, but it also was lacking parts. Almost every car I drove had areas on the car that had no parts available for that model, which meant some cars could not be modified very much at all. It seemed that especially the muscle cars had barely any upgrades visually and that was a major letdown. I wanted to change the look of my car much more than I was ever able to, and always felt let down by only having one or two options on the cars I owned, if I was lucky. On a game claiming to give me my dream car, I felt held back by the lack of physical modifications that were available. Adding parts that actually upgrade the performance was also a bit of a letdown. There are only a few options for things such as the engine, air intake, and tires among other upgrades but it really came down to simply buying the highest version I had unlocked. There was not much more to it except downgrading here and there to get my drifting car the right power.Need for Speed™_20151119221804

The gameplay in Need for Speed is the true star of the show. With many different types of races to how well the driving can be fine tuned, I never got bored during my journey. With the 5 ways to play feature I always felt like there was a new challenge or mode to capture. Driving as dangerous as I could or hitting big drifts were fun. My favorite challenge was a sprint race that didn’t have many straight-a-ways, but required you at some point to hit 150 mph. It was hard at a lower level, but a ton of fun and forced me to change my car and driving to have more power and nitrous. Being an illegal street racing game, cops also play a role. The higher your outlaw rank and the more destructive you drive makes the cops come after you in full force. In the early game evading cops was as simple as getting on the highway and flooring it. I found out that as my outlaw rank went up, so did the number of cops, their aggression, and unbreakable roadblocks. The more challenging evading the cops became, the bigger the thrill and feeling of accomplishment grew. It is satisfying to elude a bunch of cops and kept me on my toes in the later game. As you play you also rank up your level which unlocks new upgrades. Early on it is easy to level up and I found myself moving up so fast I felt it was too easy. Level 1 to 25 were a breeze and allowed me to unlock visual modifications extremely quick, but after 25 it slows down and I felt more accomplished with each level. It somehow achieves a balance allowing you to unlock a lot in the early game, but slows down enough where you feel like it’s a reward to level up by the end.

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Need for Speed is always-online and has a few neat features because of that, but overall the online integration falls flat. You share your city with a few other players as you drive around and race. It is always fun seeing another person fly by or drive up next to you, but at the same time there isn’t much to do. Other than challenging another driver to a race or to drive around and explore, there is not much interaction to be had. Also, with quick travel I found it nearly impossible to catch up to another player to check out their ride before they had disappeared to another part of the map. It is fun if you can catch up and check out their car, but with a small amount of interaction and the chances of actually running into another player small, there ultimately there just isn’t much to the multiplayer aspect.

The graphics in Need for Speed are downright gorgeous and beautifully done. The city, which is fully explorable and open world, looked amazing at night with a huge emphasis on visually stunning lighting effects. The cars look photorealistic and the environments were detailed and felt alive as I sped by them at 150 mph. The city is full of areas to explore, and I found myself on more than one occasion cruising around looking at the sights. It feels like a living, breathing city, which has more than enough room to drive and play around in, and luckily there is a quick-travel system if you want to get to a race or your garage across town. There was never a time I felt let down visually, and I found myself taking screenshots of my custom ride throughout different locations that were not only beautiful but varied. From downtown to the mountains, Ghost Games really pushed themselves on creating a gorgeous city to explore.

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Ghost Games also nailed the audio portion of Need for Speed. The roar of your beefed-up engine and screaming of your tires spinning around a turn are perfectly on-point. This game is crisp, clean, and loud. One exception to this, however, is the soundtrack — it is not necessarily bad, but nothing from the soundtrack has gotten stuck in my head or pumped me up the way the Underground series has. Most of the music also gets drowned out by the sound effects, but being as it isn’t the strongest soundtrack out there, that is not a bad thing.

Another big focus on this installment is the live-action cutscenes. It is a nice change and brings some realism and immersion, but it also does suffer. The writing is decent and the acting ranges from great to mediocre. The characters all have very different and prominent personalities, but I was never drawn to the characters or story as much as I would have liked to. One amazing portion, however, is the way they bring in your in-game car into the live-action cutscenes. Most of the time it looks like your car was shot in the scene and not just added. It is a cool feature that helped up the realism within the game. The live-action scenes are a great idea and work well at times, but I also felt they were just put there to move me from race to race. I never fully found myself connecting to any characters or the story.