Editor's note: This is an early impressions piece based upon a review event for Need for Speed, as well as a weekend playing at home. Given the online nature of this Need for Speed, we'll have our full review up later this week once we've had experience of the game running on live, fully stressed servers.
This is my MX5. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. It is my best friend. It is my life.
You can drive in excess of 50 cars in EA and Ghost Games' reboot of Need for Speed - a series that, it seems, has been rebooted more times than a dying desktop - but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise after a day spent playing this open world racer. Whereas more recent Need for Speed games whisked though their garages, Porsche GTs and Pagani Zondas being tossed at you like so much expensive confetti, this is a game that makes you really care about any given car. At its core, and at its very best, this Need for Speed is about taking a modest everyday sports car and moulding it into something so outrageous it would make a monster truck blush.
You always hurt the one you love, so they say, and it's certainly true I've done some ghastly things to my MX5. Matte black rims sit at awkward angles under flared wheel arches, while after-market side skirts scrape the tarmac. Some three hundred and fifty horses have been squeezed under the bonnet, all of it barking and breathing occasional licks of thin flame through a carbon fibre exhaust pipe. This MX5 is an abomination, but it's my abomination.
Ghost Games was right to fold the customisation back into Need for Speed, as it's what can make this reboot sing. There's a sense of ownership, and of progression that's now told in all that bulging bodywork, a story that's more convincing and more engaging than any of the live action cut-scenes that occasionally intersperse the action could ever muster. This is a return, superficially, to the Black Box style of Need for Speed that we saw with Underground and Most Wanted. All that edginess and attitude might not be so welcome, but the customisation most definitely is.
It goes deeper than the car's appearance. Need for Speed's other smart move is introducing moddable handling - a deft, smart way to provide car feel that can cater for many different tastes. By default, cars feel stiff, and before you start tinkering it all feels like a slightly dismal return to Black Box's less dynamic style. Start fiddling with some of the sliders - you can drill down into specific areas like tire pressure and steering angle, or use one master control that moves between grip and drift - and you can have handling that's more in line with Criterion's stint on the series, with weighty, satisfying slides becoming the order of the day. You can push it further, too, and have the tail-end snap out with the kind of ferocity you'd expect of Ridge Racer.
You'll want to get the rear dancing, too, as half of the disciplines within this Need for Speed are focussed around drifting, with numerous events scoring you for long, languorous slides. There are drift trials, drift contests and drift trains, all different excuses to drive sideways, and it's arguably here that Need for Speed is at its most fun. It's the drift train - where you're part of a small convoy, and the scores for your drift only count if they're pulled off in close proximity to your partners - that's the most entertaining, especially if played as part of an online crew.
This Need for Speed knows how to present its cars, and knows how to make them feel exciting. In that regard, Ghost Games' reboot is a triumph. Elsewhere, though, I'm not so sure. This is an open world racer that's let down by its open world; Ventura Bay, a fictional city that takes its inspiration from Los Angeles and its outskirts, is an anonymous creation, and even after a day's straight play none of its roads have etched themselves into my memory. There are more than enough events squeezed into its varied roads, and a sprinkling of collectables - vistas to admire, donuts to pull off in certain locations or car parts to be found - but it's not quite enough.
It doesn't help, perhaps, that this is an entirely nocturnal game, the streets always whisper quiet until you tear through them, and always bathed in darkness. I can understand the logic behind it - you're part of a night-time scene, a perfect excuse for minimal traffic and much less police activity which sees Need for Speed move away from the more crash-happy Rivals - but the cost to the Ventura Bay's character might be too high.
I'm not convinced, either, of a multiplayer aspect that, while cute, doesn't add nearly enough to justify the always online connection. The theory is sound, with players sharing the open world as they partake in the events littered around the map, and with the ability to partner up in crews and tackle those events together. Daily challenges that show a flicker of MMO sensibility are filtered in, but elsewhere the number of players pulled into the open world seems too meagre, and like Rivals before it there's a sense of emptiness in the world as a result. Worse still, it seems hard to actually partake in a straight-up player versus player race, which is frankly astonishing given that always online connection. It'll be interesting to see how that changes, if at all, once Need for Speed is properly released into the wild.
Ghost Games' reboot of Need for Speed is a game with big ideas and big ambitions, but right now it's hard to see them being met. The return of customisation is a welcome callback to the more tricked out excesses of this series' past, but by bolting on the requirement for an online connection without offering much in return EA may have specced this racer out in the wrong direction.