Maybe I’m too old and nostalgic for my own good, but I’ve been spending the last few days reminiscing an era of Need for Speed I grew up with. I started the franchise with Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. However, one generation of Need for Speed games left a permanent mark. It was during one sleepover when I saw my cousin playing Need for Speed: Underground.
I was intrigued and captivated by it. It was unlike all the other racing games I’ve seen like Ridge Racer or Gran Turismo. This game focused on the underground street racing scene hence the title. You could customize your car’s body and performance to your own delight. There was also a storyline-driven career mode which I found lacking in other racing titles. It was a complete reboot from their past titles.
I should say that Midnight Club came out ahead of NFS: U, but I’ll admit that I didn’t know that series existed until NFS introduced me to the underground scene. Sorry Rockstar, Electronic Arts did racing better than you this time.
I don’t normally play racing or other sports video games because there’s usually no context as to why you’re playing the game. As a gamer who loves games driven by compelling narratives and characters, the aforementioned games hardly appealed to me. However, I did enjoy the sports games that had even the smallest hint of a story in them.
I loved games that gave players the power to create and/or build up your own character or ride. Sometimes you had a back story and you’re seeking either fame or revenge. It made me feel like I was playing a role-playing game because I cared about who I was in the game instead of simply chasing points.
Rising up through the Blacklist in Need for Speed: Most Wanted wasn’t just some random leader board. There’s a heightened sense of pride, prestige, and accomplishment each time you beat a rival. The story lines may be cheesy, but it gave you a reason to care. You’re not just playing to beat the game. That’s what the comic strip and live-action cut scenes were there for.
It’s usually the same story: A douche bag alpha dog either cheats or taunts you mercilessly. Let’s not forget the hot babe that runs to you after she realizes what a mean loser her current squeeze is! This isn’t so different from the other games we play. We’ll do anything to put the villain in his place and save the damsel-in-distress. It’s a nice to have a human face and personality behind your foes and allies as it adds meaning to what we do in-game.
Having a narrative isn’t the only strong thing that made this generation of Need for Speed games successful. The Run was story driven but it lacked key features most fans were looking for. You didn’t have the ability to freely roam a map and customize your ride’s appearance and performance to your own liking. If it’s any consolation, you could change the color but I think that’s really it.
I think it was appealing to a lot of gamers to design their ride based on the style of the import scene. It gave you the freedom to the design your car as you fit. You could have spinning rims, tinted windows, fancy doors, unique artwork on your vehicle’s body among many other things. People constantly criticize NFS for not being as precise and accurate as its counterparts but that’s not why I play these games. I play them because I want to play the role of an up and coming street racer and immerse myself in the underground racing culture.
It was also fun doing sponsorship missions by racking up style points. Pimp up your ride and you’ll be featured in some magazine. I’m one of those players who over pimps their vehicle with too many add-ons. It’s little things like this in addition to building your reputation that makes these types of games appealing to a role-playing gamer like myself.
The new Most Wanted (2012) brought back open-world exploration, cop pursuits, and the Blacklist. However, in-depth vehicle customization was still a missing component. When I first heard about this, I was definitely excited because I thought that they were going to bring back the elements I loved from old Need for Speed games. In the end, it was indeed a reboot of Most Wanted but it didn’t keep the spirit of it.
A lot of people say that the Need for Speed franchise is experiencing a decline and EA’s CEO even admitted it in 2010. However, EA reported that Hot Pursuit (2010) sold over 8.5 million units in 2011. Sales figures weren’t released for the reboot of Most Wanted but it was said to have outperformed The Run.
Maybe gamers are over the whole underground racing scene? Still, I bet bringing back some of its elements back would only serve to bring them more sales in the future. A part of me is still hoping for a proper Underground or Most Wanted reboot. My heart skipped a beat when there were rumors floating around that there was one in development. Sadly, it was quickly debunked by a Criterion developer.
That doesn’t mean that they will never ever do one in the future. There’s always a possibility but it may take a while. If they do decide to completely move on, I’m not opposed to it. It will break my heart but I’ll recover. I just hope that the Need for Speed franchise brings back the experience of being an up and coming racer as opposed to simply driving for points. If that’s the case, then what makes them so different from all the other racing games out there?