NFS WTF? Part 1: a brief history

Posted: May 19, 2010 in Game Design: YMMV

Late last year EA released Need for Speed: Shift as a re-boot to the long running, but recently waning franchise and like I always do I rented it to see if it was any good (this time.)  As usual I was left disappointed and feeling a little cheated.  This couldn’t be what EA was banking on to save this franchise is it?  More rubber band AI and a bland and uninspiring UI, again?  Haven’t we learned anything by now EA?  12 games in (now 15 games proper for PC/consoles, ignoring portables and V-rally titles) and nobody is thinking in a way that could possibly save one of the oldest, most respected series in racing games…  *sigh*  Maybe we can fix that if we look at the problem.

The NFS series was, for a long time, the best racing series available to console owners (PC’s had quite a few racing simulators by then, but I never had a PC beefy enough to try.)  With Atari’s Test Drive series being rather unfocused in whether it wanted to be more sim-like or arcade like, NFS was always the most important thing: fun.  From the start, NFS was always trying different things to test out the market, keeping the best received parts of previous games to keep in the newer ones.

With the original “The Need For Speed” released in 1994 for the 3D0 system (and DoS PC’s) the handling was as realistic as possible given the technology at the time with no arcade handling pretense.  The sounds were unequaled, with actual gear lever sounds for each vehicle – unheard of detail.  The game was based around beating the AI in tournaments to unlock cars and tracks without getting arrested (by getting too many tickets).  The AI was an annoying opponent as he would taunt you if you lost.

The police chases proved so popular that they appeared in nearly all NFS games going forward.  After 1994’s the Need for Speed the game was changed to be more arcade style in it’s handling.  In NFS II it wasn’t as easy to spin out or put your car into a wall, thus ending your race.  The more lax handling expanded the game’s userbase causing a sensation.  The game was pretty, easy to play and tough to master, with colourful, flowing tracks.  There was also more emphasis on finding shortcuts in the scenery as there was less of a speed penalty for driving off road with the new arcade physics.  NFS II was the first appearance of the “Knockout” race mode where the last car over the finish line each lap is knocked out until only the winner remains.

Continuing the police chase trend EA released NFS III: Hot Pursuit in 1998, which brought about the “Hot Pursuit” mode where you play as either to cop to get the speeders or the speeder to get away from the cops.  I remember this being the #1 multiplayer mode everyone wanted to play.  It was like a fighting game, only with cars.  NFS III was also the first in the series with full video showcases of all the included cars, a great feature I wish would appear in more games.  I learned about the Italdesign Cala that way, what a sexy beast that is.  This was also the first NFS (on PC) to offer DLC cars on their website, which sparked the mod community to start making their own cars for the game.

In 1999 EA released my second favourite title in the series: Need for Speed: High Stakes.  High Stakes offered a few new game modes in the form of: High Stakes (winner gets the losers car), Getaway (outrun the cops for x amount of time), Time Trap (complete x laps in y time while evading the police) and Career (progress through racing series’ to earn cash to buy cars/parts) all new developments for the NFS series.  Also new with NFS IV was damage modeling and vehicle upgrades.  For the first time your car could get damaged, hurting in-game performance until repaired at the end of the race (if you can afford it).  You may also upgrade your vehicle between races if you had the funds, though it was a little shallow as there was only 3 levels of parts.  Still, it was a step in the right direction for the series.

So now it’s the year 2000, we haven’t all been through firey death, so y2k was a little over hyped, but this game wasn’t.  It’s my favourite NFS ever: NFS: Porsche Unleashed.  PU differs from the rest of the series in that it only features one manufacturer (one free guess who that is) and the return to realistic handling.  The player needed to play through the Evolution Career mode to progress through Porsche’s storied history from 1950-2000.  The game featured a wealth of information about the cars contained within and the cars were placed on an auto show like turntable and spun slowly while the player could open/close the doors, hood, trunk and roof (on convertibles) on command.  Progressing through Evo mode awarded the player money to be used on new cars, used cars and upgrade parts.  Yes, you read that right: used cars.  Prosches being rather expensive meant that sometimes you couldn’t afford a new one, but maybe a used one that needs some parts repaired might be more to your budget limits.  It would seem that the whole Porsche parts catalogue was added as the upgrade shop.  Everything from fibreglass body panels or bumper delete for less weight to full exhaust systems and carburetor upgrades for more power along with lighter/wider wheels with stickier tires for grip.  All parts were Porsche branded and actually real optional accessories on Porsches you may someday own (I’m still waiting personally, *harumph*).  The Factory Driver mode was new to this game and was basically a challenge mode tasking you to become a factory Porsche test driver.  The challenges mainly consisted of slaloms, speed challenges and deliveries and the rewards were some rare cosmetically enhanced versions of other in-game cars.  I could go back now and just have a blast playing around with that editor, even with Forza 3 in my 360.

Two years later the sixth version of the Need for Speed series is released: Hot Pursuit II.  Taking cues from NFS II with it’s police chase mode and arcade driving physics.  This was the first NFS with no cockpit mode and licensed music from the EA Trax label.  The game wasn’t so well received due to the Hot Pursuit mode being “dumbed down” from the previous efforts by using a number of taps from the police car to initiate an arrest instead of PIT maneuvers or other police tactics.  But it was still the best handling arcade racer to be had and did fairly well in reviews.  The game did include several desirable cars  such as the BMW M5 (E39) and Lamborghini Mucielago but had very repetitive missions.

The very next year EA rebooted the series with the first of the Need for Speed Underground titles.  Now done away with closed circuits and semi-pro racing the game went to an open city setting and for the first time presented a story to follow.  Supercars went to the side in favour of the popular import, sport compact car segment and vehicle upgrades made a return, though in a much deeper game mode than in High Stakes.  Drifting and drag racing make their first appearance in NFS:U as race modes to join the series stalwarts like knockout, circuit and sprint races.  The story involves gaining enough hype to be able to race the “gang leader” Eddie.  You must build your car and win races to impress him enough to race him.  An interesting concept, not without it’s faults.  The game went on to sell 15 million copies, but it’s rubberband AI, invisible walls at corner apexes and repetitive races made it a grind for some.

As part of EA’s requirement to make everything come out once a year (like Madden) they released NFS:U2 just a year later.  The story from the first Underground continues, though moving to a new city.  The vehicle upgrades are expanded to include non-performance parts like stereo systems and neon lights that had no performance benefit but did increase your hype.  The game also added SUVs to race and upgrade to race against other SUVs.  A few new game modes arrived along with the others from NFS:U, these include free races from the world map where the player is free to challenge racers on the streets and winners are determined by health bars like in Tokyo Extreme Racer or Wangan Midnight games.  Also there was the Underground Racing League with races held outside of city streets on airports or purpose built race tracks for a race series against 5 racers.  Aside from a few issues with some races being too far to drive to and the lack of police the game still managed to sell 9 million copies landing on the best-selling list for all consoles it sold for.  The in game advertising is what turned me off, along with the useless upgrade parts.

The very next year EA released NFS: Most Wanted.  In a similar vein as Underground 1 & 2 with it’s open world and storyline it was decently received by the public due mostly to the police chases being an integral part of the game.  Upgrades remained though in a less intensive mode than in the Underground games and more supercars are available.  MW introduced the NFS series to the Black List; a series of 15 drivers that the player must beat in order to get the right to race the big bad #1 dude.  The pursuit system is one of the most robust I’ve seen, with police tracking your “infractions” and raising your “heat” level accordingly.  Higher heat means more cop cars or SUVs, helicopters and spike strips and road blocks to take you down.  Certain locations on the world map have “pursuit breakers” or animations that can take out pursuing forces.  One of such pursuit breakers has you driving through a gas station and taking out a roof support beam thus dropping said roof onto any pursuing foes who might be behind you, dropping your heat level.  Two new racing modes join the typical NFS fare (circuit, sprint, knockout and drag) in the form of “Tollbooth” a checkpoint race where the player must pass through tollbooths for time bonuses and “Speed Trap” where the racers drive through a series of speed cameras and the highest combined speed wins.  More product placement branding could be found all over this game and pretty much all EA games going forward, though it’s fairly tolerable here.

In another yearly update, EA released Need for Speed: Carbon, a spiritual sequel to Most Wanted.  In Carbon we move to a new city with a new story and the same cutscene style of live action actors in pre-rendered CG backgrounds.  In this iteration the player may build a “crew” to aid them in challenges and races.  The open world city was cast in eternal night, so racing is always done under cover of darkness like the Underground games.  Drag racing has been removed from the equation, replaced with drift and canyon duel events.  Canyon duel events were done like Initial D, where the cars start in line, a leader and a follower.  A follower must remain as close as possible to the leader to gain points, passing the leader and maintaining the pass for 10 seconds or so will win the event, staying close enough behind will start the event again with the positions reversed.  Carbon was also the introduction of the “Auto-Sculpt” feature, where the appearance of purchased body kits could be shaped by the player using sliders.

In 2007 EA tried a new avenue with Need for Speed: Pro Street.  Pro Street eliminated the open world concept brought forth by Undercover and focused on closed circuit racing.  The player raced as Ryan Cooper a rookie driver just bursting onto the scene, tasked with dethroning the kings of the available events.  Events included: drift, drag, circuit and high speed modes in several different locations all over the world.  Racing was kept in the challenging end of the arcade spectrum, with braking and throttle control required for maximum performance.  Unfair rubber-banding AI, boring career progression and having to hear “Ryaaaannnn Coooooopppperrrr” several thousand times per session was a turn off for most, but the horrible in-game advertising (even achievements were branded in some way) would turn off the rest.

16 months later, after EA had gone back to the drawing board due to Pro Street’s abject failure, Need for Speed: Undercover was released.  Claiming that Pro Street wasn’t what the players wanted, EA stated that NFS would go back to it’s “roots” (ie: back to Underground 1 & 2) with an open world, story line and new highway battles.  The game’s lacklustre sales and reviews (slightly higher than Pro Street) sent EA back to the drawing board again, this time with a new developer.

With EA Canada/Black Box now relegated to other projects EA went to Slightly Mad Studios to help develop the next game in the series Need for Speed: Shift.  The new game would go in the sim direction for the first time since NfS: Porsche Unleashed, also bringing back the cockpit view to the series.  The game offered 70 cars to customize and upgrade with performance parts much like the previous games in the series and several real-world tracks like the Nürburgring, Spa Francourchamps and Oran Park.  G-forces play a large role in the game with hard crashes causing the screen to blur and lose colour with an audible “Ugh!” from the driver.  The AI was punishingly difficult even on medium levels and the high-speed handling was an exercise in frustration.  While the game garnered good reviews (70-90%) the game was almost universally panned by gamers who abhorred the AI and shallow gameplay.

So what does the future hold for Need for Speed?  Well, a new title released for the Wii called NFS: Nitro.  I don’t really see that one catching on anytime soon.  I haven’t played it, nor do I care to.  Sometime in 2010 NFS: World should release.  World takes the cities from Most Wanted and Carbon and puts them together for a massively multiplayer online romp for PC.  World is the NFS I see making it in the near future, but that will depend on subscription models, gameplay elements (cars, upgrades, customization, etc…) and available race types.  If the game is shallow, it will not sell no matter how massive the multiplayer is.

In part 2 we’ll begin looking at the successful elements of each game and see if we can’t come up with some conclusions from there.

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