Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Is EA Killing Need For Speed?

A Look Back

I've always like racing games. Cars in generally, actually. Need for Speed was one of the first PC racing games I ever played, and it was awesome. I remember trying to hit the astronomical 202mph in a Lamborghini Diablo back in NFS 3 (or was it 2?). Hell, I still have the NFS 3 disk beside my computer. Prior to that it was Top Gear on the SNES and N64.

When NFS: Underground came out on Gamecube, you better believe I bought it. And Underground 2, and Most Wanted. These were all good fun games, but I noticed a trend develop. They were removing more and more of the customization and part/upgrade unlocks. NFS: Carbon on the Wii was a decent game, and I did like the progression mechanic of having areas of the city controlled by a group (tuner, muscle, exotic) each with it's own flavour of races.

Never the less, none of these games could really capture the magic of Underground 2. They still had unlocks and customizing and progression, but it was just different. They removed a lot of options. You could choose a body kit, but in U2, you could choose individual front bumper, rear bumper, and side skirts. Different mirrors, hoods, roof scoops, spoilers. You could completely customize your paint job. It was often better to run a single car and fully upgrade it than to buy a new slightly faster one - after all a turbo is way cheaper than a new car and for most of the game money is tight.

The last 2 maybe 3 years I've played a lot of non-NFS games. Dirt, Racedriver: GRID, Dirt 2, Dirt 3, F1 2010, and Gran Turismo 5. I also gave NFS: Shift a try.

Where it goes wrong

I thought NFS Shift was a bit of a flop, and I didn't give Shift 2 a go yet. The game had promise. It looked and sounded great, but there was something off about it. I think they screwed up on race progression for one. It started off ok, but all of a sudden there was a hundred different things I could do and it didn't feel like it was going anywhere. It was like looking at a list of chores to do on Saturday. The second thing I didn't much like was the car handling. Something was just not right. Of course NFS games are of the arcade variety, but honestly I think driving in Gran Turismo 5 is easier. The handling just wasn't predictable. I'm not even going to talk about the retarded drifting.

So, since then we've had a whopping 4 releases and then out comes The Run. They are pumping out 2 games per year for the last 3 years. Think about it.

NFS: The Run is just... not that good. It's trying to be very dramatic, I suppose. Or maybe different. I don't know, I just know that it's dumb. Not that prior games can be heralded as the epitome of intellectual gaming, but let's set the stage and see what you think.

The game starts with some guy - you, apparently - owing a huge dept to the mafia. Somehow. Apparently you're an awesome driver, and that led you into a huge debt. The entire opening sequence is - get this - a quick time even. As in, press A now. Press B now. Press X now. Tap A now. What the hell? And this isn't the only one. I'm maybe 25% done right now and I'd say that probably every major city has a big quick time sequence. For... some reason. Whatever.

Alright, so you escape the mafia and this woman tells you that there's a race across USA, from Seattle to NY. $25 million prize money, and you get 10% (plus she'll pay off your debt). Why there is a 25 million dollar illegal race is anyone's guess. Oh, yeah, and there's 250 competitors in it.

The premise, while barely hanging onto a plausible thread, is at least interesting. A race across America. I can dig that.

So, where does it actually start? In a garage where you choose from a BMW M3, '71 Nissan 240Z Fairlady (actually a Datsun), a Mustang Shelby Cobra, and there's two locked cars. I took the Datsun, because my first car was a 1980 Datsun 280ZX.

The racing itself is pretty typical NFS stuff. Racing on highways, through cities, into curvy mountains. There's a few shorcuts here and there. Oddly, there's offroad segments (while driving super cars) as well as snow races (in super cars). Suspension of disbelief is waning. Anyway, there's basically 3 race modes. There's races where you have to pass X cars by the end (usually 8 or 10). There's "battle" races where you need to overtake a car in a certain time limit, and do that 3 times to finish the race. Then there's "catch up" races that are just a race against a clock. These all flow into eachother as you race across America, but it kind of doesn't make sense. I mean, I just edge out a win in one race, and suddenly I'm alone on the roads and need to "make up time"? And several times (usually the battle sequences) some random super car catches up to me, hits me, then flies past and I need to catch up - and then, get this, once I beat them they never pass me again. Because I won a race... that isn't technically a race at all, since the actual race is all the way across the country. Basically, a lot of it doesn't make much sense.

The Run has no customization. There's no garage where you upgrade your performance parts, no paint shops, and generally just nothing but race after race after quick time event. However, sometimes there is a gas station off to the side of a race. By driving into a gas station (even at 200+ KPH) you can stop and switch cars. The first time I did this, I was magically able to select new cars like a Nissan GTR and a Porshe 911GT3. How? Why? I have no clue, and I hate that. So you can magically switch to new cars in race without losing almost any time at all. Right.

Oh, and there's a return of the insanely fast cop cars. You know, the ones that will go from 0 to passing you in 5 seconds, even when you're in a Lamborghini, 6th gear, hitting the NOS. Uh-huh.

Alright, so I'm finding the game a little tedious, at least it looks good, right? I mean, it's running on Frostbite 2 - this is a brand new DirectX 11 capable graphics engine created by DICE. This is the engine that powers the stunning visuals of Battlefield 3.

All that, yet they screwed it up.

You can tell they had their artists focus on all of 2 things: faces and cars. The game opens with a close up of the protagonists face, and it looks really, really good. Well, he's butt ugly, but the textures are fantastic. Same goes for all the other characters I've seen. Too bad they didn't worry as much about their clothes, or anything else. As for the cars, similar story. The cars look really nice. That's about it.

In the graphics menu, there's a few options to tweak. I set them all to Ultra and then chose to run the game off a single 5850, and I'm still only running maybe 80% usage at 1080p. At 30fps. It is impossible to get over 30fps. You can "choose" to disable vsync, but it doesn't do anything. 30 fps, all the time. Thanks for that, Black Box studios. On top of that catastrophe (seriously, 30 fps in a racing game?) there's no option for anti aliasing - whether MSAA or FXAA. Who knows why. I'm trying to force 8x SSAA through Catalyst, but it doesn't seem to work.

The final verdict, I'd say, is just avoid this game. Unless EA can take the whip off Black Box's back and let them slow down and make a good game, instead of forcing them to pump them out one after another as fast as possible, I doubt we'll see NFS ever return to it's former glory.

I'd say check out Codemaster's games, but sadly they seem to be on the same track.

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